Couldnt put it down. But here are my complaints: The author 1. It is clear to me by reading the excerpts that most of the thinkers thought very clearly and thoroughly about happinessthere was much less development over time than he claims there is. His I loved this book. It is clear to me by reading the excerpts that most of the thinkers thought very clearly and thoroughly about happiness—there was much less development over time than he claims there is.
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Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers. What changed? April 18, By Darrin M. But the truth is that where the pursuit of a full and flourishing life is concerned, good times matter less than we think. Most religions and philosophies suggested that the best way to deal with suffering was to look it in the eye, prescribing a variety of regimes.
Aristotle advised a life lived in accordance with virtue as the best means to happiness. Jews recommended fidelity to the law; Christians, the cultivation of charity.
Confucians and Daoists, for their part, taught their followers to live in accordance with the Way. And Muslims sought submission to God and his word. Most religions and philosophies suggested that the best way to deal with suffering was to look it in the eye.
Yet what all of these traditions shared was the belief that suffering, though pervasive, could be overcome through discipline and sacrifice. It was important to resist short-term pleasures in favor of long-term cultivation of the mind, spurning fleeting seductions in favor of more lasting harmony and peace.
Whereas happiness had once been seen as a rare and special achievement in a world of suffering and pain, now there was a growing consensus that many stood a good chance of outwitting suffering, once and for all.
It was a telling question. Americans, too, spoke of a right to the pursuit of happiness in their founding Declaration of Independence. And in a number of their state constitutions, such as those of Virginia and Vermont, they even spoke of a right to obtain it. Human beings did not have to suffer from birth until death. All men and women should have cause to expect happiness in this life. After so many years accepting suffering as the norm, why did people think they could make it an exception, putting happiness in its place?
A number of factors contributed to this shift. Famine and epidemic disease were in decline, which meant that people could worry less about surviving, and more about living well.
Improving living standards combined with a sense of greater control over the environment: homes were better heated, fields were better tilled, and streets were better lit. That allowed people to imagine continuing to exert control over their circumstances, bending the world and all its uncertainties and privations to their will.
Finally, new religious and philosophical views associated with the Enlightenments in Europe and America downplayed sin and damnation, while praising the human capacity for enjoyment. We were built to be happy in this life, it seemed, not just the next—and God wanted it so. Collectively, these developments served to undermine the longstanding view that suffering was inevitable, which meant that it was no longer necessary to be so suspicious of pleasure.
Why was it a sin to enjoy our bodies and the fruits of this earth? And why should we not work to multiply our wealth, and with it our ability to procure more pleasant feelings? Pain was bad. Pleasure was good. We should work to minimize the one and to maximize the other. Once thought of as the summon bonum, the highest good of a virtuous life, happiness was increasingly conceived in hedonic terms as subjective emotion—good feeling registered by a smile.
Many an oppressed worker or captive slave must have scoffed at the vaunted right to pursue happiness. Many others agreed. And yet the logic of the revolution in human expectations worked in a countervailing sense, encouraging the belief that happiness was not something we earned, but something we deserved.
Thinking of happiness in terms of pleasure also fostered the belief that it could be had for a price. In a nascent capitalist economist like the United States, that was a powerful motivator. The pursuit of happiness, in effect, became the pursuit of prosperity and the pleasures it could afford—the pursuit of the American dream. Life on the hedonic treadmill Over the course of the next two centuries, that dream was embraced by ever-wider segments of the population.
It is easy to understand why. Like the revolution in human expectations on which it is based, the American dream has much to recommend it.
Hope, we know, is a staple of happiness in its own right. And whatever the older moralists might have had to say on the subject, contemporary research suggests that in any given society, the rich are happier than the poor, while in comparative terms, the happiest countries of the world tend to be the wealthiest.
Surely the possibilities for feeling good are multiplied when one faces fewer financial constraints. It is hard to really regret the passing of a world in which suffering was regarded as the norm.
And yet we also know that despite massive gains in wealth in recent decades, the US, like other developed nations, has not grown considerably happier in this period, if at all.
At the same time, we have witnessed an alarming growth in reported cases of mental illness, loneliness, and other indicators. This suggests that whatever the state of our credit card bills, we have yet to max out the happiness of the greatest number—a conclusion that the last presidential election would seem to confirm. The causes of such social unease are necessarily complex. Philosophers and thinkers have long predicted this result. It drove Americans to endlessly multiply their needs, while encouraging their desires to continually outrun their capacity to fulfill them.
The constant search for good feelings came at a cost. Their work would seem to validate older wisdom about human flourishing. The education that these traditions provide in disciplining our desires and steeling our souls against suffering can also be extremely effective in fostering mindfulness and resilience in the face of misfortune. Take solace in the wisdom of the ages. And rather than focusing on how to make yourself feel better, consider digging a little deeper into the causes of your suffering and doing a little spiritual heavy lifting.
As the coaches like to say, no pain, no gain. Subscribe to the Daily Brief, our morning email with news and insights you need to understand our changing world. Sign me up.
Happiness : a history
Happiness: A History