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Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science Hardcover – Aug 24 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (Aug. 24 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300139292
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300139297
  • Product Dimensions: 22.1 x 14.8 x 2.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 399 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #827,700 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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"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."—Wall Street Journal
(Wall Street Journal)

"Sissela Bok makes sense of happiness for adults: what sort of happiness we can seek, and what lies beyond our grasp. The book illuminates 'the pursuit of happiness' in modern economics, psychiatry, and philosophy, but she addresses, in the end, any intelligent reader. Sissela Bok writes so clearly and directly that the reader is often caught up short, suddenly realizing that her arguments are always provocations to think more deeply. This is a wise book."—Richard Sennett

(Richard Sennett)

"What causes true happiness? From ancient philosophers to contemporary neuroscientists -- as well as any of us searching for how to lead a good life -- people have grappled with that most profound of all simple questions. Sissela Bok weaves together the different conceptions of happiness to create a shimmering and subtle tapestry. This book will take you a step closer to happiness by helping you understand the idea better."—Walter Isaacson, President and CEO, the Aspen Institute

(Walter Isaacson)

"A profound, erudite, and lucid exploration integrating a vast array of sources - personal, philosophical, historical, scientific and spiritual - that cohere to illuminate this elusive subject."—Barbara Goldsmith

(Barbara Goldsmith)

“Very smart, sensitive, and thought-provoking. . . . This thoughtful, beautifully written book makes one feel one is present, conversing with the very best minds of the last 2500 years on one of the few philosophical problems that is of universal importance.”—Owen Flanagan, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
(Owen Flanagan Notre Dame Philosophical Review)

"Sissela Bok offers a clear and engaging historical tour though dozens of competing philosophical renderings of happiness over the ages."—Timothy Renick, The Christian Century
(Timothy Renick The Christian Century)

"Happiness is complicated. And Bok elaborates its complications through labyrinthine pathways. . . . Exploring Happiness is an intellectual feast. . . . It is an invitation to turn to personal writing and reflection and to past thinkers from Goethe to Swedish feminist Ellen Key, who thought that happiness was the process of developing our capabilities. Exploring Happiness explores not only happiness but the question of how we should live our lives."—Priscilla Long, The American Scholar
(Priscilla Long The American Scholar)

"[A] wide-ranging study. . . . Bok's fluently written book is an outstanding guide to a topic sure to interest the general reader as well as specialists in philosophy, psychology, and brain science."—David Gordon, Library Journal
(David Gordon Library Journal)

"[Bok] sets up a fascinating dialogue between insights from the history of philosophy and recent work in the social and natural sciences. . . . It will be a treasure for the philosophical counselor: in the classroom, for background reading and for work with clients. . . . authoritative, engagingly written, and thorough."—Kathryn Russell, Philosophical Practice
(Kathryn Russell Philosophical Practice)

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011 in the Philosophy category.
(Choice Outstanding Academic Title: Philosophy Choice 2012-03-12)

“Bok’s best ever . . . [and] the best example of integrative scholarship on happiness to date. . . . Both the philosophy and the science are presented in a way that most lay readers will easily handle, and in her skillful, almost pastoral, style, Bok is able to make all this relevant to the lay reader on an existential level. It is possible to read this book and be transformed.”—Stephen G. Post, The Pharos
(Stephen G. Post The Pharos)

About the Author

Sissela Bok is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and a moral philosopher of international renown. A former member of the Pulitzer Prize Board, Bok is a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and sits on the editorial boards of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Common Knowledge, and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Her many books include the seminal Lying, Secrets, A Strategy for Peace, Mayhem, and Common Values. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Amazon.com: HASH(0xaa776294) out of 5 stars 11 reviews
44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa983fa80) out of 5 stars Felicitous reading Sept. 1 2010
By Jay C. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In this splendid little book Sissela Bok productively explores three perspectives on happiness: accounts of individuals' experiences of it; relevant writings of philosophers, theologians, and historians; and pertinent emerging findings from psychology, economics, genetics, and the brain sciences. She attends both to the empirical evidence about actual happiness (often over-looked by humanists) and to the links between happiness and virtue or moral excellence (often missed by scientists). She argues for "the greatest possible freedom and leeway in the pursuit of happiness, subject to... moral limits."

Some definitions of "happiness" place more emphasis on objective conditions and others on subjective feelings. Bok concludes that there is no single definition that should exclude all others, that there is something to be gained from looking at several together.

Her open interdisciplinary approach leads her to illuminating insights regarding several stimulating happiness questions and issues. A sample follows, with selected responses she discusses indicated in parentheses: What would be wrong with total happiness induced by an "Experience Machine," one which stimulates your brain so that you would always believe you were happy (a lot, according to Nozick)? Is happiness even possible (Russell yes, Freud no)? Is striving to be virtuous the only way to be happy (Plato), or if you strive to be happy will you necessarily exercise virtues (Epicurus)? Is happiness primarily a matter of satisfying desires (Seneca), or more a matter of controlling and shaping desires (the Stoics)? Are there biological set-points that influence our happiness levels (yes, but not definitively and the range of possibilities is broad, according to contemporary research)? Is it all right if we hold certain illusory or false beliefs that contribute to our happiness, if we deceive ourselves (some psychologists yes, Kant no)? Can we be too happy, too resilient (yes says Bok, it can make us inattentive to the needs of others)? Are most humans happy, at least moderately so (yes, but social conditions matter, says the research)?

Bok relies quite a bit on recent social science research on "subjective well-being." Readers seeking clues for how to be happy might learn something from the findings that she summarizes. In particular, it would be desirable to cultivate healthy social contacts with family, friends, and others. Yet no particular single factor, even health, is truly necessary for people to feel satisfied with their lives. One should be cautious, too, in interpreting the research, if only because of correlation issues: are people healthier because they are happy, or happier because they are more healthy, for instance?

Inevitably, some readers will find Bok has not included or sufficiently emphasized facets of happiness that they believe merit more attention. If I had to pick one of my own it would be that she neglects to say much about how happiness depends in part on people's comparisons of themselves to others. More income, for example, contributes to happiness, but less so or not at all if everyone else has more income too -- it is one's relative position that seems to matter. Findings like this have implications that Bok does not explore here. But this is just a small quibble with what is as intelligent and informative a survey essay on the philosophy and psychology of happiness as I have come across.
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa983fad4) out of 5 stars deeply researched and profoundly enjoyable Sept. 28 2010
By Hazel Henderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This deeply researched and profoundly enjoyable book gets to the heart of the new intellectual fashions in studying human happiness. Sissela Bok's breathtaking tour of history and cultures from antiquity to today's brain science is quite the best grounding needed by any serious researcher into this tricky domain. Most efforts to define "happiness," let alone measure its many expressions whether subjective or objective, still fall short.

I relished Exploring Happiness for another personal reason: I knew and admired Sissela Bok's parents, the well-known and respected Swedish scholars Alva Myrdal and Gunnar Myrdal, who clearly nurtured their daughter's wide-ranging, free-thinking mind. I also read Sissela Bok's husband, Derek Bok's study of the field of happiness research and measurement. These two books are complementary. Sissela's approach is more philosophical while Derek's is more instrumental and conventionally focused within mainstream policy paradigms.

I learned far more from Sissela Bok's Exploring Happiness as a student, writer, researcher and practitioner for over 30 years of social measurements of "success," "progress," "satisfaction," and quality of life. I became skeptical of the currently fashionable focus on happiness for many of the same reasons discussed in this book. Defining happiness is almost impossible, while measuring it both subjectively and objectively is fraught with intellectual traps and dire policy implications. As a co-organizer of the Beyond GDP Conference in the European Parliament in 2007, it was evident how the "happiness" focus could lead to regressive policies: if "happiness" is subjective and culturally conditioned, as much research suggests, then why should governments worry too much about social welfare? Shockingly, this profoundly conservative view of several influential economists was embraced by many officials.

Experts from many countries pointed out other traps: a Brazilian pointed out that "happiness" to a resident of Rio de Janeiro might simply mean a reduction in violence, while an Indian remarked that to a commuter in Mumbai, happiness might mean an uncrowded railway station and on-time trains. Others pointed to Bhutan and its developing Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) which has caught popular imagination and media attention worldwide. Critics point out that too much focus on GNH could ignore dire living conditions for many Bhutanese and the extent to which their sense of "happiness" might be linked to their ethnic identities and dislike of other ethnic groups in Bhutan.

My own work has focused on correcting the obvious errors in GDP about which I have elaborated in my Paradigms in Progress (1991, 1995) and many later books and articles, as well as my own Country Futures Indicators © which became the basis for the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators I developed with the Calvert Group of socially responsible investment funds in 2000 and regularly update at [...]

I agree with Sissela Bok that all such studies and measures of "happiness," satisfaction and quality of life must be multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural, using a wide variety of metrics - far beyond the money-denominated indices such as GDP. This is why I have favored the "dashboard" approach, measuring a wide range of phenomena such as the 12 indicators: education, employment, energy, environment, health, human rights, income, infrastructure, national security, public safety, re-creation and shelter that we use in the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators. I also welcome the new effort of the State of the USA, pioneered by Christopher Hoenig, and the support by Derek Bok for their multi-disciplinary "dashboard" approach. The intellectual partnership of Sissela and Derek Bok will enrich the search for measuring wellbeing and quality of life for years to come.

Hazel Henderson, author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy and co-creater of the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa983ff0c) out of 5 stars Let's take an interesting walk with a curious person April 18 2011
By Digital Rights - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
You can't help but be pulled along by Sissela Bok's curiosity and intellect. "Exploring Happiness" is a treat for those looking to reacquaint themselves with a broad range of thinkers, philosophers and theologians contemplating what is happiness or what makes us happy. The book is presented in series of opposing views almost as a debate with some guidance to resolution which is then left up to the reader.

For example, does one take the view of Aristotle that we should pursue Happiness broadly or through limitations? The Stoics say happiness comes from eliminating distractions and aiming for a simple life.

Similarly is someone who appears too happy actually delusional? Freud might say he is whether by taking up religion or simply choosing to see the world from rose colored glasses. Or is there a line in the sand before which imagination and illusion are healthy and positively reinforcing? Bertrand Russell would likely encourage such consideration. Robert Nozick would argue that extreme delusion steals one's free will to determine whether or not you are happy. In his analogy why not just put every in an Experience Machine and impose thoughts or imprint memories. But he concludes that that would not lead to happiness.

And what about the material world? Bok shows that overtime the world is generally "getting happier". She makes a persuasive argument that despite the horrible wars of the 20th century people are measurably happier than previous generations.

Then there is the question of virtue. Aristotle or Kant might argue that you cannot be happy with out first pursuing virtue; that they go hand and hand. Epicurus would argue that happiness leads to virtue. But does it? Bok digs up an ancient tyrant Phalaris of 570 bc Sicily. His evil deeds are described here and yet he appears to be happy. Unfortunately there are many more like that throughout history. She points out that happiness that does not hurt others must go hand and hand with empathy.

Often Bok comes back to Aristotle. His views were more nuanced and deeper. He saw that virtue alone was not sufficient. He argued that you need education, good health, wealth, friendships and a good reputation.

What I found interesting as Bok moves forward it does not appear that our understanding of happiness has improved. Freud and Russell were not particularly optimistic that people could find happiness (she does a great job placing them in a particularly trying time - pre WWII Europe). She shows us that following Shopenhauer advice to lead a more solitary life may actually make you less happy.

Bok suggests that truthfulness as proposed by Immanuel Kant may come the closest to resolving the conflicts of happiness with free will and denial and delusion which can lead to unhealthy self esteem (my words not hers) or substance abuse in hopes of reaching greater happiness.

This is wonderful book. It's both demanding on the brain and requires attention but provokes one to think and the mind to wonder. Here are all the ingredients to happiness. Here are the great thinkers pondering the questions. Here are some explanations now continue on your own path.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa983fef4) out of 5 stars The most important word in the title turns out to be "exploring" July 2 2011
By Chuck - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In reading EXPLORING HAPPINESS, I sometimes felt that I was invited to jump into the ocean and then encouraged to drown. It seemed like every concept about happiness was given a qualification, and then every qualification was given a counter argument. And yes, that kind of examination has its exhilerations, but in the end I found it frustrating. Bok is alive to the complexities of her subject; perhaps I was wrong in expecting some kind of synthesis as well, more of a conclusion than "There have been a lot of theories about happiness. Let me tell you about them. And then you're on your own." For if Bok, with all her brilliance and research, doesn't integrate these theories for us, there's no way that a reader is going to be able to. In a way, I felt I knew less about happiness at the end of it than when I started, that some of my understanding and beliefs had been undercut but nothing offered in its place.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa984f2dc) out of 5 stars Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science July 12 2011
By Maud H. Chaplin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book held my interest: it is intelligent, well-informed, and comprehensive. However, it tends to read like an annotated bibliography: a writer is mentioned, his contribution summed up in a few sentences, and then we move on (there are a few exceptions--a few writers get more extended treatments, but still it is definitely an overview.) It has extensive notes which can suggest further reading. Taken in itself it is fast, relatively brief (178 pages) history of the concept of happiness as suggested by major thinkers.