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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
“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.