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Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science Hardcover – August 24, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For as long as human beings have been capable of articulating needs beyond basic survival, one subject has occupied their thoughts perhaps more than any other: happiness. How do we achieve it? How do we maintain it? If it springs from deception (of self or others), as has been suggested, is it any less valid? Thinkers great and small have wrestled with questions such as these for millennia. Bok seeks to synthesize differing opinion and explore the many views on happiness-from philosophers to neuroscientists-and organizes her findings around themes such as luck, illusion, and transience. Happiness is such a subjective concept that it's difficult to imagine an author managing to even touch on it, let alone offer a comprehensive survey. Still, Bok culls a careful collection of thoughts into a surprisingly dense philosophical examination, chronicling what great thinkers have had to say about the subject. Though the title may suggest something from the self-help shelf, this is indeed an exploration, not a guide; readers who want help getting happy should look elsewhere. END

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Confronted by a welter of conflicting definitions, eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope despaired of establishing a meaning for happiness. Less easily discouraged, Bok acknowledges the contradictions in the diversity of perspectives, yet she converts these contradictions into openings for deeper inquiry. Readers will contemplate the tension between, for instance, Seneca’s insistence on virtue as the basis for happiness and La Mettrie’s affirmation of self-indulgence as its true fount. In a wide-ranging survey of philosophical thought, readers weigh contrasting claims about happiness proffered by the joyfully devout and the bemusedly skeptical; by the gregarious socialite and the introspective recluse; by the champions of genetic determinism and the defenders of individual agency. Merely examining such a diverse range of theories will enrich readers’ thinking. Bok, however, looks to modern research to winnow wheat from chaff. Investigations in neurophysiology, for example, have exploded long-held assumptions about how optimism generates happiness. Survey sociology has now discredited Aristotle’s claim that advancing age means diminished happiness. Still, some knotty questions resist empirical assessment: Is true happiness the piercing exultation of a singular moment, or the gratifying culmination of an entire lifetime? What, in any case, guarantees happiness hereafter? Bok lifts her topic above merely subjective opinion into a probing intellectual analysis. --Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (August 24, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300139292
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300139297
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #952,690 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Jay C. Smith on September 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In this splendid little book Sissela Bok productively explores three perspectives on happiness: accounts of individuals' experiences of it; relevant writings of philosophers, theologians, and historians; and pertinent emerging findings from psychology, economics, genetics, and the brain sciences. She attends both to the empirical evidence about actual happiness (often over-looked by humanists) and to the links between happiness and virtue or moral excellence (often missed by scientists). She argues for "the greatest possible freedom and leeway in the pursuit of happiness, subject to... moral limits."

Some definitions of "happiness" place more emphasis on objective conditions and others on subjective feelings. Bok concludes that there is no single definition that should exclude all others, that there is something to be gained from looking at several together.

Her open interdisciplinary approach leads her to illuminating insights regarding several stimulating happiness questions and issues. A sample follows, with selected responses she discusses indicated in parentheses: What would be wrong with total happiness induced by an "Experience Machine," one which stimulates your brain so that you would always believe you were happy (a lot, according to Nozick)? Is happiness even possible (Russell yes, Freud no)? Is striving to be virtuous the only way to be happy (Plato), or if you strive to be happy will you necessarily exercise virtues (Epicurus)? Is happiness primarily a matter of satisfying desires (Seneca), or more a matter of controlling and shaping desires (the Stoics)? Are there biological set-points that influence our happiness levels (yes, but not definitively and the range of possibilities is broad, according to contemporary research)?
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Hazel Henderson on September 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This deeply researched and profoundly enjoyable book gets to the heart of the new intellectual fashions in studying human happiness. Sissela Bok's breathtaking tour of history and cultures from antiquity to today's brain science is quite the best grounding needed by any serious researcher into this tricky domain. Most efforts to define "happiness," let alone measure its many expressions whether subjective or objective, still fall short.

I relished Exploring Happiness for another personal reason: I knew and admired Sissela Bok's parents, the well-known and respected Swedish scholars Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal, who clearly nurtured their daughter's wide-ranging, free-thinking mind. I also read Sissela Bok's husband, Derek Bok's study of the field of happiness research and measurement. These two books are complementary. Sissela's approach is more philosophical while Derek's is more instrumental and conventionally focused within mainstream policy paradigms.

I learned far more from Sissela Bok's Exploring Happiness as a student, writer, researcher and practitioner for over 30 years of social measurements of "success," "progress," "satisfaction," and quality of life. I became skeptical of the currently fashionable focus on happiness for many of the same reasons discussed in this book. Defining happiness is almost impossible, while measuring it both subjectively and objectively is fraught with intellectual traps and dire policy implications.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Digital Rights on April 18, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
You can't help but be pulled along by Sissela Bok's curiosity and intellect. "Exploring Happiness" is a treat for those looking to reacquaint themselves with a broad range of thinkers, philosophers and theologians contemplating what is happiness or what makes us happy. The book is presented in series of opposing views almost as a debate with some guidance to resolution which is then left up to the reader.

For example, does one take the view of Aristotle that we should pursue Happiness broadly or through limitations? The Stoics say happiness comes from eliminating distractions and aiming for a simple life.

Similarly is someone who appears too happy actually delusional? Freud might say he is whether by taking up religion or simply choosing to see the world from rose colored glasses. Or is there a line in the sand before which imagination and illusion are healthy and positively reinforcing? Bertrand Russell would likely encourage such consideration. Robert Nozick would argue that extreme delusion steals one's free will to determine whether or not you are happy. In his analogy why not just put every in an Experience Machine and impose thoughts or imprint memories. But he concludes that that would not lead to happiness.

And what about the material world? Bok shows that overtime the world is generally "getting happier". She makes a persuasive argument that despite the horrible wars of the 20th century people are measurably happier than previous generations.

Then there is the question of virtue. Aristotle or Kant might argue that you cannot be happy with out first pursuing virtue; that they go hand and hand. Epicurus would argue that happiness leads to virtue. But does it? Bok digs up an ancient tyrant Phalaris of 570 bc Sicily.
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