As reported by Sarah Thompson on The Globe and Mail about Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science: “Not since antiquity have there been such passionate debates as those taking place today about contending visions of what makes for human happiness.” So writes Sissela Bok, an internationally esteemed moral philosopher, at the start of her elegant new book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science. […]

Dr. Bok, a senior fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies who has previously written books on morality in public life and the ethics of secrets, makes her contemplation of happiness as broad as possible by incorporating the observations of poets, authors, social scientists, philosophers and neuroscientists.

Asked why we find ourselves so concerned with happiness now, she explains that it isn’t just because of the deluge of new scientific research on the topic, or the lifestyle shifts of modern life. There are always new challenges to happiness, no matter what era we are in, Dr. Bok says.

Rather, she sees a great similarity between now and antiquity (in particular the first century after Christ) in our widening understanding of the world.

“There was a great movement of people in the first century A.D.,” she explains. “Many people came up against notions of happiness that never occurred to them. It wasn’t like growing up in a small Greek village where, on the whole, people knew what the going idea of happiness was – mostly religious.

“Now, we’re at a time when people are having to confront the fact that there are extremely different views on happiness,” she continues. […]
Classical thinkers defined happiness as eudaimonia – not an emotional state so much as a human flourishing or excellence that involved virtue. But opinions clashed on the relationship between the two: Could you be happy if you were virtuous and poor, or did you also need some external things, such as wealth, to fully realize your eudaimonic potential?

Aristotle thought you needed morality, intellect and education as well as strength, good health and beauty. Wealth, friends and good children helped, too. Plato and the Stoics, meanwhile, believed that virtue was sufficient.

And does virtue result in happiness, or does happiness lead to virtue? That, too, is worthy of hand-on-forehead intellectual deconstruction. One only has to think of virtuous people who suffer or bad people who are as happy as pigs in mud to realize there are no absolutes.

Dotted throughout the book are observations on happiness from famous people. Sigmund Freud was a pessimist who saw the hope for happiness as illusory. It could come only in brief experiences of satisfied needs, he believed. Mystery author P. D. James feels it in the spring, standing in a complete silence “broken only by the note of a single bird and the susurration of the breeze in the wayside grasses.”

Such individual explanations of happiness help reveal the shortcomings of quantitative survey results. Some studies may show that, for many people, happiness comes from going out and being social. But that doesn’t correspond to those who cherish solitude. And it doesn’t take into account people such as Petrarch, a loner who had a great sense of companionship with Plato, Aristotle and St. Augustine – philosophers who were all dead.

To further complicate matters, aside from the idiosyncratic nature of happiness, our own reporting of it is often unreliable. Dr. Bok recalls that upon the birth of her third child 41 years ago, she noted in her journal how delighted she was to have her children and her husband (Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, whose latest book, The Politics of Happiness, was published last year). But she neglected to note how pleased she was that she had also just finished her doctorate, something that she knows in retrospect to have been a source of great joy.

Such is the fluid complexity of happiness that the omission makes perfect sense.

These are key from excerpt the book, as published on

The sixth and fifth centuries BC saw an unparalleled display of such visions by poets, prophets, and thinkers such as Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Lao-Tse, and Socrates, often challenging ordinary perceptions as illusory and describing other, distinctive, paths to true happiness. By the first centuries AD, claims about how to achieve salvation, happiness, and bliss resonated in Eastern cults and mystery religions. They competed not only with Christianity, Judaism, and the worship of Greek and Roman deities but also with secular teachings such as those of Aristotle or Epicurus about earthly happiness as the highest human good.

Now as then, vast populations are on the move, with travelers bringing unfamiliar creeds from distant regions and with migrants, driven by wars and privations, encountering novel visions of the good life. Now as then, the various ideals of happiness carry fundamental moral teachings about how to live. And just as the seekers in myths and folk tales need more than a little luck in order not to return empty-handed, so does anyone examining the role of happiness today. Just as those seekers benefit from combining sympathetic understanding with a dose of healthy skepticism, so too does anyone who ventures into the jungle of claims and counterclaims about happiness – especially when they meet up with conflicting appeals by religious, political, and other authorities to set aside all misgivings and place faith in their dictates.

In setting out to explore the subject of happiness, my aim was twofold. First, I wanted to ask what we can learn about it from bringing together the striking new findings of natural and social scientists with long-standing traditions of reflection by philosophers, religious thinkers, historians, poets, and so many others. Recent decades have witnessed a remarkable growth of scientific studies shedding light on what people say about their experiences of happiness and well-being, on fluctuations in the brain during such experiences, and on the interaction between heredity and the environment. How might we best draw on the new research – linking the past and the present, spanning the various disciplines? Taken together, these different approaches can contribute to a fuller, deeper understanding of the scope of happiness, even as some among them can point to shallowness, tunnel vision, or errors in others. Examining the divergent conceptions of happiness side by side will allow us to fathom their richness and to weigh the clashing arguments about how to capture the full experience of happiness, what contributes to it or detracts from it, how it might be defined and measured, and how it relates to income, say, or to temperament, sociability, marriage, or religious faith.

My second aim was to consider, against this background, perennial moral issues about how we should lead our lives and how we should treat one another. What are the wisest steps to take in the pursuit of happiness? What moral considerations should set limits to such pursuits? What else should matter in human lives aside from happiness? How should we weigh our own happiness against that of others in a world where we are aware, as never before, of extremes of misery and opulence? How might we best take into account what we are learning about the effects of our individual and collective choices on the prospects for the well-being of future generations? And how should we respond to individuals and groups advocating intolerant or outright inhumane conceptions of happiness or well-being?

Bypassing such moral issues makes it all the easier to give short shrift to assumptions that form the subtext to even the most innocuous-seeming views of happiness. These assumptions concern power – power exerted or defended against, whether in families, communities, or political and religious institutions. Often unspoken, these assumptions are about who has the right to pursue happiness, who does and does not deserve happiness, and whether the happiness of some requires the exclusion or exploitation of others. Today, conflicts over them are playing out on a far larger stage than ever before, reaching billions of individuals across the globe, their fortunes affected by global economic shifts beyond their control, their hopes fanned by mass media promotion of methods for achieving happiness in daily life or for finding the path to eternal bliss.

To refocus attention on the moral dimensions of the pursuit of happiness, I ask, throughout this book, what I call “Yes but” questions in the face of claims that a particular action or personality trait or belief or way of life will bring greater happiness. Some of these questions are of an empirical nature, asking for evidence to support such claims or voicing caution in the face of their frequently cheery, upbeat appeal. Others are of a moral nature, asking whether it would be right to seek the happiness held out as desirable or to enjoy it, once it was achieved. Will pursuing such happiness involve us in deceit? Will it require that we break a promise? Is it cruel, unjust, exploitative? Does it call for us to blind ourselves to needs we would otherwise feel duty-bound to address? Stepping back to ask such questions creates space for reflection, for seeking to perceive more fully and to deliberate more attentively in the face of the many conflicting claims about what happiness is and how it should be pursued.


Yet it is precisely in times of high danger and turmoil that concerns about happiness are voiced most strikingly and seen as most indispensable. From earliest times, views of human happiness have been set forth against the background of suffering, poverty, disease, and the inevitability of death. The Roman Stoic thinker Seneca wrote his most moving letters on the subject to his friend Lucilius while being hunted by the henchmen of the Emperor Nero who finally forced him to commit suicide. In sixteenth-century France, Michel de Montaigne conveyed his enduring delight in many aspects of daily life, despite having spent most of his years in the shadow of war and pestilence. And when Thomas Jefferson included in the American Declaration of Independence the inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he surely did so at a time of exceptional insecurity and of massive threats to life and liberty. In our own time, consider the juxtaposition of happiness and grim reality conveyed in the statement by Archbishop Desmund Tutu, describing his feelings in April 1994 when he and millions of black South Africans could finally vote:

The moment for which I had waited so long came and I folded my ballot paper and cast my vote. Wow! I shouted, “Yippee!” It was giddy stuff. It was like falling in love. The sky looked blue and more beautiful. I saw the people in a new light. They were beautiful, they were transfigured. I too was transfigured. It was dreamlike. You were scared someone would rouse you and you would awake to the nightmare that was apartheid’s harsh reality.

More recently still, Ingrid Betancourt, when rescued in July 2008 after six years of being kept as a hostage in the jungles of Colombia by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), described her emotions on embracing her children: “Nirvana, paradise – that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment. It was because of them that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle. It’s like being born again. If I live 100 years to be an old lady with gray hair, I’ll keep marveling at what I saw, what I lived through yesterday. It’s a miracle.”

The study of happiness never was a luxury to be postponed until more serene, peaceful times. But exploring it may be needed even more in our time, given the unprecedented shift in how most people perceive the possibility of happiness in their own lives. During the course of the twentieth century, societies the world oversaw dramatic reductions in illiteracy, infant mortality, and premature death. By the end of the twentieth century, average life expectancy even in some of the world’s poorest societies, such as Bangladesh, was higher than Britain’s at the beginning of that century. Most of the world’s peoples now enjoy standards of living and social and political freedoms unimaginable to their greatgrandparents. Women have far more opportunities than they had in the past; and even in societies where they are most severely held back, mistreated, and exploited, increasing numbers are learning that this need not be their condition.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, therefore, ancient notions about the need for submissive acceptance of misery and discrimination are losing their power. In many societies, people would scarcely comprehend claims such as that by Samuel Johnson, echoing Ecclesiastes, that no one could wish to be born who knew beforehand all the miseries that would await him in life. They might disagree as fiercely as ever about what happiness is and about what factors make it more or less likely, but far fewer deny that it is at least possible. The levels of suffering and deprivation that beset so many the world over are rightly seen as the more unjust because they are unnecessary, given the vast resources available to overcome them.

I have approached the subject of happiness from several perspectives: by seeking out accounts of the experience of happiness in its own right; by asking how it has been analyzed by philosophers, theologians, and historians; and by considering the rich scientific resources now becoming available in fields such as psychology, economics, health care, genetics, and the brain sciences. Using the first approach, I have looked for accounts of different experiences of happiness and asked what we can learn about such experiences from introspection, personal narratives, thought-experiments, literature, and art. To neglect these deeper, sometimes more intimate forms of testimony is to waste a precious resource for the study of happiness. After all, we respond so much more directly to what Archbishop Tutu and Ingrid Betancourt say about their experiences of happiness than to dictionary definitions or to statistics comparing age groups or nationalities.

By itself, however, this first approach deprives us of the analysis and the empirical findings shown in contemporary studies and of debates about how to define, measure, and investigate the moral issues happiness raises. These approaches allow us to consider how the new findings challenge or confirm the results of introspection and reflection. Without the analysis and information now available, a perennial temptation has been to issue sweeping generalizations about the state of human happiness. Theologians contrasting the miseries of earthly existence to heavenly felicity have been as likely to utter grim estimates on this score as secular thinkers who declare that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. Conversely, both secular and religious visionaries through the ages have proclaimed that happiness is within the reach of everyone willing to accept their particular doctrine and to undertake the changes they prescribe. So have a number of self-help guides to a happier life, again both secular and religious, such as Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 best-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking.4 Long before Peale declared that if you say to yourself that life is good and that you choose happiness, you can be quite certain of having your choice, books such as Horace Fletcher’s Happiness as Found in Forethought Minus Fearthought were among many that promised happiness to those willing to undertake the particular personal changes the authors recommended.5 By now, countless books and websites invite readers to learn how to find happiness, become rich, find love, and live longer, healthier lives. Many stress the element of individual choice and control in such a process, as in the scores of books with titles inviting readers to “choose happiness,” or “choose to be happy.”

Surveys of what people the world over actually say about their own experience contradict both dismal and exultant generalizations. Fortunately for humankind, most people do not see themselves as leading lives of quiet desperation; instead, the majority among them, even in poor societies, regard their lives as moderately or very happy. However, it is equally wrong – and indeed sentimental – to imagine that happiness has nothing to do with standards of living, that it can be achieved equally well by all persons in spite of poverty, ill health, or denials of basic human rights; or to assume that levels of happiness alone should count regardless of concern for such rights. Although some people can be happy even in direst penury, individuals in democratic nations with higher average incomes and standards of living are much more likely to report feeling satisfied with their lives than those who live in the poorest and most oppressive societies. On this point, all empirical studies agree. In fact, researchers have found that economic growth, freedom of choice, respect for human rights, and social tolerance all contribute to greater happiness.

It has given me special pleasure, in preparing this book, to follow different lines of study as if I were in the company of individuals engaged in the same pursuits. Some of their inquiries reach across millennia, as when Teresa of Avila reflected, in her Life, on St Augustine’s Confessions or when Montaigne engaged in imagined exchanges with Socrates, Seneca, Horace, and many others, just as thinkers ever since have done with him. Similar dialogues are taking place today, when neuroscientists, psychologists, and Tibetan Buddhist monks collaborate on studies of consciousness, meditation, and the role of positive and negative emotions; or when economists, sociologists, and psychologists debate the relevance of surveys of life satisfaction in different societies.

Early on, I felt fortunate to encounter books by three authors more attuned to such dialogues than most: the French historian Robert Mauzi’s study of the idea of happiness in the eighteenth century, a time when so many thinkers saw the quest for happiness as the great innovation, the glorious discovery of their time; the American philosopher V. J. McGill’s The Idea of Happiness, the most thorough historical study of philosophical theories of happiness; and the British biographer, memoirist, and historian of art and literature Peter Quennell’s The Pursuit of Happiness, recounting aesthetic and creative experiences that show how what he calls the gift of exhilarated seeing contributes to our understanding of happiness.7 Taken together, these books, written before the empirical studies of happiness in recent decades, illuminate much that has been felt and thought and written about happiness in the past. In turn, they help us think about the abundant research findings now coming to the fore – findings that, I believe, the three authors would have found of absorbing interest. Each of the three books, moreover, conveys the author’s personal stake in taking on a topic of such scope, along with a measure of hesitation. Should they proceed historically? Or consider particular questions such as that of the relationship between virtue and happiness? Or perhaps focus on individual authors or artists? It would not be possible to restrict their inquiry in such ways. Instead, unusually alert to the perennial controversies over happiness, they cast their nets widely, shedding new light, in the process, on well-known thinkers and bringing out of obscurity works rarely or never discussed in the context of happiness.

This book is the result of my having set out, years ago, to explore what we can learn about happiness. The more I have had a chance to study the clashing views on the subject and the passionate advocacy it can inspire, the more intrigued I have become by the voices and the personal experiences of those who have embarked on its study – the sages and poets and social theorists and increasingly, in recent decades, the social scientists, health professionals, and neuroscientists. As I have come across one person after another examining the subject, I have recognized similarities in their attempts to define happiness and to consider its relevance to the fundamental philosophical question of how one should live, no matter how profound their disagreement about the answer. I have listened for signs of awareness of such disagreements, with some individuals blithely ignoring challenges from outside their own field of expertise, at times moving to silence all critics, while others relish dialogues with friends and adversaries, present and past, whether in history, philosophy, religion, the arts, or the sciences – and, in so doing, invite us to strive to reach beyond our own perspectives.

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