Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide

“So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” —Epicurus


Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is worth reading. Frederic Lenoir explores what the greatest thinkers — Aristotle, Plato, Chuang Tzu, Voltaire, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Freud — have to add to the ongoing conversation on happiness.

The question of happiness is forever being discussed: eventually it gets worn down and loses its edge. But although it’s become so common- place, and seems so simple, it’s still an enthralling question, one that involves a whole skein of factors not easy to untangle. … [T]he pursuit of happiness isn’t a pointless quest. We really can be happier if we think about our lives, if we work on ourselves, if we learn to make more sensible decisions, or indeed if we alter our thoughts, our beliefs, or the way we imagine ourselves and the world.

On why there is no recipe for happiness:

Another difficulty arises from the notably relative character of happiness: it varies with each culture and each individual, and, in every person, from one phase of life to the next. It often takes on the guise of things we don’t have: for someone who is ill, happiness lies in health; for someone who is unemployed, it’s in work; for some single people, it lies in being a couple—and, for some married people, in being single again! These disparities are heightened by a subjective dimension: artists are happy when practicing their art, intellectuals when handling concepts, romantics when they are in love.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, shed considerable light on this point when he noted in Civilization and Its Discontents:

In this, [the individual’s] psychical constitution will play a decisive part, irrespectively of the external circumstances. The man who is pre-dominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships with other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be more self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up on the external world on which he can try out his strength.

The origins of the word

In Greek, the word for happiness, eudaimonia, can be taken to mean “having a good daimon.” These days, we would say “having a guardian angel,” or “being born under a lucky star.” In French, bonheur comes from the Latin bonum augurium: “good omen” or “good fortune.” In English, happiness comes from the Icelandic root happ, “luck” or “chance,” and there is indeed a large element of “luck” in being happy, if only because happiness is, as we shall see, to a large degree based on our sensibility, on our biological inheritance, on the family and social environment in which we were born and grew up, on the surroundings in which we develop and on the encounters that mark our lives.

The philosophical journey and the path to wisdom

We are conditioned but not determined by various factors to be more or less happy. So, by using our reason and will, for example, we have the ability to increase our capacity for happiness (though the success of our quest is not thereby guaranteed). Because they shared this conviction, many philosophers have written books purportedly on “ethics,” devoted to what will encourage us to lead the best and happiest lives imaginable. And isn’t this philosophy’s main rationale? Epicurus, a sage from Athens who lived shortly after Aristotle, points out that “in the study of philosophy, pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.” This quest for a “good” or “happy” life is called wisdom.


So it is a philosophical journey, in this broader sense, that I would like to propose to the reader. There is nothing linear about the route, which won’t be following the chronological order of the authors’ lives or the emergence of concepts: this would be conventional and boring. It is, instead, a ramble, the most exciting imaginable, with many questions and concrete examples on the way.

The intellectual distrust of happiness

The essayist Pascal Bruckner offers another view: “I love life too much to wish to be permanently happy.” Indeed, there is a movement against the pursuit of happiness, which I’ve discussed before. Lenoir, however, adds to this conversation and speaks to a reason for the intellectual mistrust in happiness: vulnerability.

I think that there is another reason why certain academics and intellectuals mistrust this theme and are reluctant to tackle it—a reason that they find difficult to admit to: to discuss it properly, we have to expose ourselves on a personal level. We can discourse ad nauseam about language, hermeneutics, the theory of knowledge, epistemology or the organization of political systems without this necessarily involving us intimately. Things are completely different when it comes to the question of happiness, a question that, as we shall see, affects our emotions, our feelings, our desires, our beliefs and the meaning we give to our lives. It’s impossible to give a lecture or a talk on this subject without a member of the audience asking, “What about you? What’s the meaning of your life? What system of ethics do you follow? Are you happy? Why?” A lot of people find these questions embarrassing.

In the end, happiness is a philosophical pursuit. Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is a great place to start your inquiry.

Love as Moral Knowing

“Love allows us gently, respectfully and intimately to slip into the life of another person or animal or even the earth itself and to know it from the inside. In this way, love can become a way of moral knowing that is as reliable as scientific insight.” — Arthur Zajonc

In an interview with Krista Tippett, commenting on this phrase, Zajonc, author of Meditation As Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love, says:

Now this is again something which as a scientist you can’t prove, so I’m not trying to convince anybody. I’m trying to though speak up on behalf of or for those people for whom when they hear that they go, “I know that place. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I know that place.”

At a certain point William James talks about this when he’s writing about mystical experience. It’s noetic. It’s completely compelling for the person who has it, and it doesn’t change anything for the two of you.

To me it’s like teaching. When I’m teaching a class and I’m up at the blackboard, and I’m having my epiphanic moment in front of some differential equation and the students are all looking at me cross-eyed.

…but then you can see the one in the back all of a sudden just got it. Then the one in the front goes, “Oh, I see that, too.” In other words, it can be contagious, but each one has to do it on their own. It’s a moment of insight. Knowledge is not something you can just move across the table, and the other person has it. It’s an invitation to exploration to think, to ideate.

Then there’s that “Aha.” I think you could say that the moment I’m describing there is a moral analog of that moment. Sometimes it happens at the hand of a teacher. You might say a moral teacher or something of that or a moral dilemma that you’re in the middle of and you just can’t see your way through.

Then you make your steps and find that place where all of a sudden it gets clear. That doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes. Somehow people think because you can make mistakes. To me if you can make a mistake then you can also not make a mistake. They come with each other.

(image source)

The Lucretius Problem


It’s always good to re-read books and to dip back into them periodically. When reading a new book, I often miss out on crucial information (especially books that are hard to categorize with one descriptive sentence). When you come back to a book after reading hundreds of others you can’t help but make new connections with the old book and see it anew.

It has been a while since I read Anti-fragile. In the past I’ve talked about an Antifragile Way of Life, Learning to Love Volatility, the Definition of Antifragility , Antifragile life of economy, and the Noise and the Signal.

But upon re-reading Antifragile I came across the Lucretius Problem and I thought I’d share an excerpt. (Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher, best-known for his poem On the Nature of Things). Taleb writes:

Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do. To take one example, risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called ​worst-case scenario ​and use it to estimate future risks – this method is called “stress testing.” They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome​. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst [known] case at the time.

I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed. We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist. And we have been doing this for millennia.

Taleb brings up an interesting point, which is that our documented history can blind us. All we know is what we have been able to record.

We think because we have sophisticated data collecting techniques that we can capture all the data necessary to make decisions. We think we can use our current statistical techniques to draw historical trends using historical data without acknowledging the fact that past data recorders had fewer tools to capture the dark figure of unreported data. We also overestimate the validity of what has been recorded before and thus the trends we draw might tell a different story if we had the dark figure of unreported data.

Taleb continues:

The same can be seen in the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse— and not thinking that the worst past event had to be a surprise, as it had no precedent. Likewise, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Fragilista Doctor Alan Greenspan, in his apology to Congress offered the classic “It never happened before.” Well, nature, unlike Fragilista Greenspan, prepares for what has not happened before, assuming worse harm is possible.

So what do we do and how do we deal with the blindness?

Taleb provides an answer which is to develop layers of redundancy to act as a buffer against oneself. We overvalue what we have recorded and assume it tells us the worst and best possible outcomes. Redundant layers are a buffer against our tendency to think what has been recorded is a map of the whole terrain. An example of a redundant feature could be a rainy day fund which acts as an insurance policy against something catastrophic such as a job loss that allows you to survive and fight another day.

Antifragile is a great book to read and you might learn something about yourself and the world you live in by reading it or in my case re-reading it.

The Mortality Paradox

conversations with DFW

David Foster Wallace, in an interview with Larry McCaffery, found in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, comments on our dread of both relationships and loneliness.

It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive-sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it’d be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I’ve published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when they’re just covert manifestations of this “look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate-you” syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by “antagonize” or “aggravate” has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of form. The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.


This reminds me of a passage by Stephen Cave, in his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, where he describes the Mortality Paradox:

Our awareness of ourselves, of the future and of alternative possibilities enables us to adapt and make sophisticated plans. But it also gives us a perspective on ourselves that is at the same time terrifying and baffling. On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.


Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

The survival benefits of these faculties are obvious: from mammoth traps to supermarket supply chains, we can plan, coordinate and cooperate to ensure our needs are met. But these powers come at a cost. If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety— it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.

And so we realize, as we see the other living things around us fall one by one, that no one is spared. We recognize that death is the real enemy; with our powerful minds we can stave him off for a while with sharp spears or strong gates, full larders and hospitals, but at the same time, we see that it is all ultimately fruitless, that one day we not only can but surely will die. This is what the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously described as “being-toward-death,” which he considered to define the human condition.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace and Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization offer glimpses into how we use stories to both hide and unearth reality.

The Books That Influenced Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel

American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University, Michael J. Sandel is no stranger to Farnam Streeters. He’s argued why we shouldn’t buy presents and the limits of what money can buy.

And now, thanks to The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking, we know which books have influenced him the most and why.

These seem to be among the books that can help us reflect on the moral and political conditions of liberal democracy in contemporary America.

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

Arendt offers the most compelling modern case for the ancient claim that politics is essential to the good life, not merely instrumental to the pursuit of private interests and ends.

Four Essays on Liberty by Sir Isaiah Berlin

Berlin grounds liberalism in the idea that the human good is ultimately plural, that there is no single, overarching value that orders all the rest. To acknowledge the tragic possibility that inheres in moral and political life is to respect above all people’s freedom to pursue their own ends, to negotiate their own moral circumstance.

Outlines of the Philosophy of the Right by G. W. F. Hegel

Hegel contrasts the idea of a civil society, where people cooperate to further their interests, with the idea of a political community as an ethical life that enlarges the self-knowledge of the participants.

Social Limits to Growth by Fred Hirsch

Hirsch recasts economics as political economy, and political economy as moral economy. Cost-benefit analysis to the contrary, he shows that the market is not a neutral way of evaluating goods. Not all values can be translated without loss into commodity values, nor does all economic growth produce greater welfare.

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays by Michael J. Oakeshott

Oakeshott’s romantic conservatism contrasts powerfully (and eloquently) with more familiar libertarian versions. Against a philosophy of abstract principles and natural rights, he conceives politics “as the pursuit of intimations.”

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Rawls provides the most important philosophical defense of liberalism in our time. Individual rights cannot be overridden by utilitarian considerations, he argues, and the principles of justice that specify our rights do not presuppose any particular conception of the good life.

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, and Thomas C. Shelling.

Andy Warhol: Don’t Make a Problem of your Problems, How a Person Gets Disciplined, and The Value of Time on Values

warhol e

In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Warhol advises us not to make a problem of our problems.

Everybody has problems, but the thing is to not make a problem about your Problem. For example, if you have no money and you worry about it all the time, you’ll get an ulcer and have a real problem and you still won’t have any money because people sense when you’re desperate and nobody wants anything to do with a desperate person. But if you don’t care about having no money, then people will give you money because you don’t care and they’ll think it’s nothing and give it away—make you take it. But if you have a problem about having no money and taking money and think you can’t take it and get guilty and want to be “independent,” then it’s a problem. Whereas if you just take the money and act spoiled and spend it like it’s nothing, then it’s not a problem and people keep wanting to give you more.

How does a person get disciplined? More importantly Warhol comments on why it takes a while sometimes to see that we have the wrong values.

The telephone rang.

B answered it. “Pronto.”

It was my art dealer in Torino, calling to invite us to lunch. I tried to motion to B that I wanted to go someplace where they’d have cherries.

When B got off the phone he said that we were meeting our dealer for lunch, and then he asked me, “How do you get disciplined?”

“How does a person get disciplined?”

Right. I want to know how you’re supposed to pick up good habits. It’s very easy to pick up bad ones. You always want to go after the bad habits. Say you eat ravioli one day and you like it so you eat it the next day and the next day and before you know it you have a ravioli habit or a pasta habit or a drug habit or a sex habit or a smoking habit or a cocaine habit . . .”

Was he trying to make me feel guilty about the cherries? “You’re asking me how you get out of the bad habits?” I asked him. No, he said he didn’t want to know how you get out of the bad ones—just how you get into the good ones.

Everybody has their good habits,” he said, “that they do automatically that maybe they learned when they were little—brushing your teeth, not talking with your mouth full, saying excuse me—but other good habits—like writing a chapter a day or jogging every morning—are harder to get into. That’s what I mean by ‘discipline’—how do you get new, good habits? I’m asking you because you’re so disciplined.”

“No, I’m not disciplined, really,” I said. “It just looks that way because I do what people tell me to do and I don’t complain about it while it’s happening.” That’s a three-part rule of mine: (1) never complain about a situation while the situation is still going on; (2) if you can’t believe it’s happening, pretend it’s a movie; and (3) after it’s over, find somebody to pin the blame on and never let them forget it. If the person you pin the blame on is smart they’ll turn it into a running joke so whenever you bring it up you can both laugh about it, and that way the horrible situation can turn out to be fun in retrospect. (But it all depends on how mercilessly you hound the person you’re blaming, because they’ll only make a joke out of it when they’re desperate, and the more desperate you make them by hounding them, the better the joke they’ll make out of it.)

“It’s not discipline, B,” I repeated. “It’s knowing what you really want.” Anything a person really wants is okay with me.

“All right. But let’s take champagne. All my life I wanted as much champagne as I could drink, but now that I’m getting all the champagne I ever wanted and more, look what I’m getting—a double chin!”

“You’re also finding out that champagne isn’t what you really want, since you don’t want a double chin. You’re finding out that champagne isn’t what you want, it’s beer you want.”

“Then I’d get a beer belly.” B laughed at the idea of a champagne chin and a beer belly.

“Then beer isn’t what you want, either.”

“But that’s not hard to figure out—nobody wants beer.”

“Yes they do,” I told him. “You’re the one who told the joke about an Irish seven-course dinner being a boiled potato and a six-pack.”

“Yes, I suppose … But it’s not the thing I want so much as the idea of the thing.”

“Then that’s just advertising,” I reminded him.

“Right, but it works because the reason I want champagne, the reason most people want champagne, is they’re impressed with the idea—Champagne!—like they’re impressed with the idea of caviar. Champagne and caviar is status.”

That was not completely true. In some society shit is status. “Look,” I told him, “you realized when you ended up with a double chin that your values were misplaced. Right? It takes time to find out, but you’re finding out. Even today you put your nose up in the air if you don’t have dinner with the Afghanellis, the Cuchinellis, the Pickinellis, the Mount- bottoms, the Van Tissens—”