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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / science

Exploring Happiness

Sissela Bok

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To purchase Exploring Happiness

Title: Exploring Happiness
Author: Sissela Bok
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 178 pages
Availability: Exploring Happiness - US
Exploring Happiness - UK
Exploring Happiness - Canada
  • From Aristotle to Brain Science

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, wide-ranging overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scholar . Winter/2011 Priscilla Long
Financial Times . 21/8/2010 Marek Kohn
The Globe & Mail . 6/2/2011 Sarah Hampson
The Guardian . 4/9/2010 Steven Poole
The NY Rev. of Books . 23/12/2010 Thomas Nagel
Wall St. Journal . 20/8/2010 Paul Beston

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bok considers happiness not as an unquestioned good, but in light of morality. Her strategy is to spell out dozens of divergent (Western) views and to take something from each. She is both tolerant and critical. She likes the idea of happiness but considers it against a backdrop of human suffering. (...) Exploring Happiness is an intellectual feast. Its pleasures include glimpses of the lives and views of such figures as the Stoic Seneca" - Priscilla Long, American Scholar

  • "By now it should no longer need remarking upon, but since the divide between the humanities and the sciences still runs so deep, Exploring Happiness is notable for the way it treats the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences as genuinely equal and complementary. Amid the plethora of books about happiness, from self-improvement manuals to commentaries about improving society, it plays a distinctive and valuable role as a model of how to engage with different kinds of knowledge on the subject, and to get them to engage with each other. It demonstrates the principle that when it comes to happiness, the humanities and the sciences should be intertwined. That, however, is largely because happiness is hardly an outstanding candidate for scientific investigation." - Marek Kohn, Financial Times

  • "Asked why we find ourselves so concerned with happiness now, she explains that it isnít just because of the deluge of new scientific research on the topic, or the lifestyle shifts of modern life. There are always new challenges to happiness, no matter what era we are in, Dr. Bok says." - Sarah Hampson, The Globe & Mail

  • "Bok has the very happy idea of reading Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents together with Russell's The Conquest of Happiness (both published in the same year), and issues some chewy challenges to contemporary orthodoxy" - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Exploring Happiness would do well as a small textbook for a course in the intellectual history of happiness or as a reader's guide for anyone eager to look into the subject for himself. The range of thinkers whom Ms. Bok consults is truly impressive (.....) It is hard to imagine how anyone else, in fewer than 200 pages of text, could better encompass so much Western thinking about a question so important to the way we live. (...) Her even-handedness is commendable, but her unwillingness to take a position -- in the midst of so many varying answers to so many difficult questions -- can be frustrating." - Paul Beston, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Exploring Happiness Sissela Bok considers her subject matter in light of everything -- as the sub-title has it -- From Aristotle to Brain Science . From definitions of 'happiness' to how one might measure it (hedonimetry !) to how one might achieve it, her book offers a fine overview of the subject. Relying on a wide variety of sources, from classical philosophy to contemporary neuroscience, it is also a neat bridge across the supposed two-culture divide between art and science, as she moves easily and fairly comfortably back and forth between them, relying on examples from literature as well as philosophy, theology, and hard science.
       Happiness turns out to be a fairly elusive concept; it's also a fairly subjective one. While Bok notes that generally people who are more well-off, and people in countries that are better off, tend to report higher levels of happiness, many in rather miserable circumstances also report surprisingly high levels of happiness. Money buys some happiness, but rarely all of it. As to how to achieve greater happiness, that too remains largely a mystery: altruistic behavior seems to correlate with some degree of happiness, but the connection isn't entirely straightforward (just going out and doing good doesn't necessarily lead to greater happiness). Among the few paths to happiness that seem to work is what, for example, Tibetan Buddhist monks achieve through their meditation: their measurable brain patterns suggest they actually are able to reach a higher state of happiness than most.
       Happiness apparently isn't the be-all and end-all, either, as people apparently are willing to essentially sacrifice their happiness for any number of reasons (i.e. they value other things higher -- though the question there, of course, remains whether such supposed 'sacrifices' don't actually make for great satisfaction and 'happiness' over the long term ...). Bok also discusses Robert Nozick's 'Experience Machine', which could: "give you any experience you desired" -- i.e. convincingly fake happiness, eternally. Nozick argued against the idea and most apparently agree: Bok cites a figure of only five per cent who would opt for this fake world of eternal bliss -- an amazing result if personal happiness were what we truly aspired to (and suggesting most people are satisfied with what levels of happiness they can attain in their mundane day-to-day lives (or are so confident that happiness awaits them if they just continue on the path they're on now for a bit longer)). (Bok also devotes a chapter to 'Illusion', considering the difference between 'real' and 'imagined' happiness, since much happiness is clearly based on self-delusion -- and, confusingly, people seem to be more willing to accept these (things such as religious delusions of an afterlife to look forward to and the like) than a chosen (yet much more satisfying) delusion such as that offered by the 'Experience Machine'.)
       A chapter comparing Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents and Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness (both published in 1930) is particularly interesting -- including its observations about Russell's own failed attempts at happiness (in marriage and running a school for his children (where, far from becoming happy, they were "bleakly miserable")) at that very time, theory and practice proving irreconcilable.
       Bok offers little that is conclusive or definitive; happiness remains elusive, in every respect. But Exploring Happiness offers an interesting overview and surprisingly comprehensive introduction to the subject matter and the many vantage points from which it can be examined.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 February 2011

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Exploring Happiness: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sissela Bok was born in 1934. She is the daughter of Nobel laureates Gunnar and Alva Myrdal.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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