Wednesday, June 06, 2012

A happy pretzel brain

Early this morning I finally finished reading a book I started about a month ago, called In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac by Mark Kingwell.  Now before you think I've finally succumbed to the self-help aisle of the bookstore, trust me when I tell you this is not an instruction manual for how to live a happy (and/or better) life.  Nor is it a smug, clinical analysis by some stuffed-shirt academic on why a happy life is the only one worth living and if I'm not living one, then I'm deficient and deserving of sympathy.  Rather, this book is a series of personal reflections on the part of the author (a young, PhD-toting Canadian philosopher) on what our culture says that happiness is, and what it says about us that we keep striving to attain it.  Kingwell was inspired to write the book one afternoon when he was with some family friends at the playground, watching their daughters play on the equipment.  He wondered whether as adults, there is anything in our lives that makes us as happy - as purely happy - as kids are when they are lost in their world of playtime.  At what point do we lose that simple, happy pleasure?

The book goes on to discuss what Aristotle and Plato had to say on the subject of happiness, and focusses a lot on Socrates and his assertion that "the unexamined life is not worth living".  In raising this point (and using stories from his own life as examples), the author realises that sorting out what makes you happy is a really independent exercise - because what makes you truly happy might not be the same thing(s) that makes me so.  And only by examining your life in this way - moment to moment - can you divine for yourself what happiness means and how you can work on attaining it.

Some parts of the book do veer into academia but I suppose an educated author can't help but do so, when so many of the points he's trying to make are grounded in philosophy, psychology or similar sciences.  But for the most part, I liked the fact that Kingwell is basically just a storyteller.  The chapters devoted to the time he spent at the happiness camp in Minnesota (yes, there IS such a thing) are a particular delight.  Ditto the stories about the time he put himself on Prozac, just to see what all the fuss was about, and to find out whether happiness really can (or should) be found in pill form.  In Kingwell's case, the answer was no.

I chose to read this book not because I was looking for the secret to happiness, or anything nearly as soul-searching or wanky as that.  I honestly just thought the title was really clever (and the cover has a big yellow smiley face on it).  I was just really curious about how the author would link the ancient perspectives of Plato and his contemporaries with the modern-day happiness pill.  Has humanity's quest for happiness really been going this long?  Haven't we figured it all out yet?

Examining his own life for the exercise, Kingwell draws the conclusion that happiness doesn't come from stuff - well, it can, but consumer-borne happiness is fleeting, as the sensible part of our brain already knows.  So it seems that you don't just wake up one day and decide to be happy.  Real and sustained happiness comes from a commitment to work, dedication to good thought and deed, plus a bit of luck thrown in.  And to achieve all those things, you have to keep working at it throughout your life - popping a pill is not going to make it happen for you.  Curious.

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