Mark Kingwell gives new meaning to "the pursuit of happiness." He enrolled in a course on how to be happy, reminiscent of the Ab Fab
episode in which Eddie drags Patsy on a retreat, or of David Foster Wallace's brilliant account of going on a cruise in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
. Ever a game little guinea pig, Kingwell put himself on Prozac and St. John's wort. He hired himself out as an expert to "help" marketers suss out material sources of happiness for the 18 to 29 cohort. He notices little things such as the fact that Pepperidge Farm has added smiley faces to their Goldfish crackers. (And for what? The fish are happy that you are happy when you eat them?) He ranges widely, writing about Roman Stoic Epictetus, Nick Hornby, The Honeymooners
, Freud, Sir Thomas More, PMS, Plato, and much more.
Kingwell, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, exceeds at making the personal philosophical--a skill that has earned him mild derision from academic contemporaries, but that lay readers will appreciate. His writing is clear, engaging, and thought-provoking, and, like fellow pop philosopher Alain de Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy), Kingwell doffs his mortarboard at Montaigne, surely the most loose-limbed and least po-faced of philosophers--human, confused, and curious--who seems to be enjoying something of a revival.
Your happiness does not depend on reading this book. But it's nice to know that for those of us who abjure books with titles like Become Happy in Eight Minutes, there are wry, funny, smart, and even uplifting reads such as In Pursuit of Happiness. --J.R.
From Publishers Weekly
Smoothly splicing together personal narrative, philosophical inquiry and historical analysis, young Canadian academic and frequent Harper's contributor Kingwell (Dreams of Millennium) deconstructs popular conceptions of happiness and presents an invigorating alternative vision of the good life in this witty and incisive cultural critique. Kicking off his personal pursuit of felicity with a week-long stint at a happiness seminar in western Massachusetts, Kingwell plays guinea pig in a caustic examination of the self-realization industry. In another amateur experiment, he locates a month's supply of ProzacAhe is not depressed, and the drug has not been prescribedAand doses himself, investigating the pharmaceutical approach to happiness. Though these two episodes make for amusing storytelling, the insight they yield is slight. It is Kingwell's more abstract reasoning on consumer cultureAin selling happiness, advertising actually manufactures unhappiness; in urging self-affirmation, therapeutic programs push empty solutionsAthat succeeds best. Looking to Plato's The Republic, Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy and Epictetus's Enchiridion for inspiration from the longest-lived happiness manuals, Kingwell, like the ancients, finally concludes that happiness is not a life of hedonistic abandon but rather one of eudaemonistic fulfillment: "the possession of virtuous character and the performance of virtuous action." Grandiose as this may sound, Kingwell wears his learning lightly, and his spirited defense of the life worth living is marred only by an occasional smugness of tone. Riding a wave of Jerome Kern lyrics, rehashed personal gossip and analysis of the movie Shall We Dance, he coasts home on the story of his own struggle for happiness as a junior scholar angling for tenure.
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