In Search of the Good Life: Books about Happiness Are Pouring off the Presses, but We Still Haven't Cracked the Secret of Well-Being. Is Our Culture of Instant Gratification the Problem? Is It the Job of the State to Make Us Feel Better? Richard Reeves Ponders Some Suggestions

By Reeves, Richard | New Statesman (1996), May 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

In Search of the Good Life: Books about Happiness Are Pouring off the Presses, but We Still Haven't Cracked the Secret of Well-Being. Is Our Culture of Instant Gratification the Problem? Is It the Job of the State to Make Us Feel Better? Richard Reeves Ponders Some Suggestions


Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


The Secrets of Happiness

Richard Schoch

Profile, 288pp, [pounds sterling]15.99

A Brief History of Happiness

Nicholas White

Blackwell Publishing, 208pp, [pounds sterling]9.99

The Challenge of Affluence: self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950

Avner Offer

Oxford University Press, 454pp, [pounds sterling]30

"Ask yourself if you are happy," John Stuart Mill wrote, "and you cease to be so." If Mill was right--and he was--bibliophiles are in trouble. Books about happiness are pouring off the presses. Happiness is being poked and prodded from every disciplinary direction: political scientists, economists, psychologists, philosophers and historians are all having a go. Soon bookshops will have to open separate "Happiness" sections.

There are three factors driving this perfect publishing storm. First, decades of careful scholarly work, principally in economics and psychology, have been brought to much wider attention. This has, in turn, given philosophers an opportunity to revisit the long-standing debates about Aristotelian eudaemonia, Benthamite utilitarianism and free will. Last but not least, books about happiness tap into a growing sense of unease and discontentment with life. We are living in one of the richest countries in the history of the world, in which early death is an infrequent tragedy and disease has been largely defeated; our lives are extending to ages beyond the wildest hopes of most of our grand-parents. Still, grumpiness, road rage, depression and ennui are all around. It is our unhappiness, real or imagined, that creates a market for any book with "happiness" in its title.

The market divides neatly. On the one hand are books that are essentially cut-and-paste popularisations of other people's work and thinking. These tend to be short, illustrated in an eye-catching way and written in a style designed to attract the fickle attention of op-ed writers. Richard Schoch's The Secrets of Happiness falls squarely into this first category.

Cleverness, wit and clarity are at a premium here. Schoch is breezy, confident and sweeping. "To be authentically happy," he suggests, "means to take possession of ourselves, to bring about the person we are in potential, to become more real ... Through purposeful action, we become our future and find our contentment. We accomplish ourselves." This all sounds terribly nice and uplifting, even for those of us who feel quite "real" enough already. But it is not clear why Schoch's self-helpy definition is an improvement on anybody else's. He provides an adequate starter tutorial in the approaches of various schools--utilitarians, Epicureans, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Stoics and Jews--although "the teardrops that moistened the pages of his book", a reference to Mill's emergence from dejection on reading Marmontel's Memoires, is a difficult moment for the reader.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Schoch's related polemical objectives are to reject an "enfeebled" notion of happiness as "mere enjoyment of pleasure, mere avoidance of pain and suffering" in favour of happiness as a "lofty achievement", and to rescue happiness from the grubby hands of social scientists. Schoch has fun--some of it legitimate--with the idea of a "happiness-based public policy" proposed by modern "neo-Benthamites" led by Richard Layard, whose book Happiness: lessons from a new science was published last year.

It is true that Layard's book is philosophically weak: he jumps from the now cliched fact that the UK is richer but not happier to outlining a policy programme that includes a higher top rate of tax, but does not address the devastating criticisms of utilitarianism made by Bernard Williams and Amartya Sen in Utilitarianism and Beyond. Yet Schoch is irresponsibly careless in his critique: "The hedonic psychologists asked 'How happy are you? …

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In Search of the Good Life: Books about Happiness Are Pouring off the Presses, but We Still Haven't Cracked the Secret of Well-Being. Is Our Culture of Instant Gratification the Problem? Is It the Job of the State to Make Us Feel Better? Richard Reeves Ponders Some Suggestions
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