Exploring Happiness

What a philosopher has to tell us about contentment. By Marek Kohn

Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science, by Sissela Bok, Yale University Press RRP£18.99, 208 pages

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” At first glance, the nursery song appears to stipulate a redundant condition. Happiness is a feeling: isn’t being happy the same as knowing you’re happy?

But since classical times at least, a deep undercurrent in thinking about happiness has insisted that it is more than a feeling. Sissela Bok’s shrewd essay on the understanding of happiness prompts the thought that a song for little children may contain a fundamental philosophical proposition, namely that happiness involves knowledge as well as sensation.

One sense in which this can be understood is that happiness arises from the ability to put together our perceptions about different dimensions of our lives. It would be reasonable to infer that a cat purring on a cushion is experiencing pleasure, and could be described as contented. The child sitting next to it is capable not only of enjoying the sensation of comfort, but also of experiencing it in the context of what she knows about the deeper structure of her life: that feeling comfortable is normal rather than exceptional; that she feels her parents’ love; that she expects these conditions to persist, and so on. The cat is contented; the child is happy. Animals can experience pleasure, but happiness is characteristically human.

As the child gets older, the range of the knowledge she brings to bear on her happiness will grow. She will be able to see her life in the light of what she knows about other people’s lives, of what she is taught at school or sees in advertisements, of models she makes of her future in her imagination. Her cognitive capacity for happiness – or unhappiness – will grow.

This enlarged capacity brings responsibilities with it. A happy life is one lived well, and that implies being good. It implies that people cannot know they are happy without knowing the difference between right and wrong. Bok, a moral philosopher, highlights the intimate connection that thinkers have generally felt between happiness and virtue. Plato maintained that a person must be virtuous to be happy. Others have inclined to the view that bad people can be happy but shouldn’t. Many now argue that doing good actually makes people happy, as distinct from merely sparing them troubled consciences. Acts of kindness, volunteering or joining in community activities promise to enhance your own happiness as well as the general good.

This is where Bok’s essay is timely. Happiness has been in the political air for a while now. As an adviser to the previous UK government, Richard Layard became known as the “happiness tsar”. And even before David Cameron came to head the current government, he had spoken of the need to focus not just on GDP but also on GWB – general well-being.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett note that beyond a certain level, increasing wealth does not lead to corresponding increases in happiness, and adduce this to their argument that equality is good for society. This September, Lord Layard, together with Anthony Seldon and Geoff Mulgan, will launch a Movement for Happiness, calling for “a more cooperative society where people expect more satisfaction from what they give than from what they get”. In contemporary political debate, virtue and happiness are as tightly entwined as ever.

The quality and the tone of the discussions have changed, though. Nowadays philosophers, poets and introspection are overshadowed by psychologists, social scientists and statistics. Against Thoreau’s poetically vivid assertion that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, statistics indicate that actually people tend to be surprisingly happy with their lives. But such findings lack nuance as well as vibrancy. They cannot capture the complexities and ambiguities of happiness. Bok affirms the value of the personal approach, listening to what individuals have said about happiness, and following them as they try to resolve its contradictions.

This is certainly the theme she most warms to, weaving gracefully through a canon of thinkers from Aristotle and Seneca to Freud and Bertrand Russell. But she also affirms the newer school, which regards itself as a science and whose reach extends to techniques such as brain imaging. The most challenging question it poses is that of heredity. How much can positive thinking or wise living take people beyond the levels their temperaments find for them? Bok is upbeat, reading the science as saying that although inherited temperament sets the tone, there’s still plenty to play for in the pursuit of happiness.

By now it should no longer need remarking upon, but since the divide between the humanities and the sciences still runs so deep, Exploring Happiness is notable for the way it treats the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences as genuinely equal and complementary. Amid the plethora of books about happiness, from self-improvement manuals to commentaries about improving society, it plays a distinctive and valuable role as a model of how to engage with different kinds of knowledge on the subject, and to get them to engage with each other. It demonstrates the principle that when it comes to happiness, the humanities and the sciences should be intertwined.

That, however, is largely because happiness is hardly an outstanding candidate for scientific investigation. Thinkers have defined it in a variety of ways, which Bok welcomes as a source of material to reflect upon – but this poses a major problem for scientific methods.

People who answer survey questions will also understand happiness in different ways. In the past, under more exacting moral codes, they might have said they were happy if they were married and employed, even if they didn’t actually enjoy the experience of either. Nowadays they may measure their happiness against the glamour they see in advertising, even though acquiring the products being advertised wouldn’t really make them much happier. Looking back, they might say they had been happy after all, if only they’d known it. Perhaps exploring happiness requires paying as much attention to what ordinary people have meant by happiness in different places and times as to the eloquence of great minds.

Marek Kohn is the author of ‘Turned Out Nice’ (Faber)

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