Kingwell, a Toronto philosophy professor, asks a lot of other questions as well in his meandering bestseller Better Living (also released as In Pursuit of Happiness). His answers aren’t up to the standards of those in his later, extraordinary book The World We Want, which I’ve previously written about. But then, the questions he asks in Better Living are as old as philosophy itself.

The book includes some wonderful quotes on the subject of happiness, such as:

Yes, I believe we may find ourselves forced to approach the whole question of happiness, which philosophers have gone round and about for so long. The idea of happiness is surely the sun at the centre of our conceptual planetary system — and has proved just as hard to look at directly. [Michael Frayn, A Landing on the Sun]

Although a rational pursuit of personal happiness, if it were common, would suffice to regenerate the world, it is not probable that so reasonable a motive will alone prove sufficiently powerful. [Bertrand Russell]

“I always say you can have too much philosophy”, Mrs. Kirkfield said. “It isn’t good for you. It’s disorganizing. Everybody’s got to wake up sometime feeling that everything is terrible, because it is.” [James Thurber, Midnight at Tim’s Place]

Here are some of Kingwell’s thought provoking, and important, questions:

  1. What is happiness? Kingwell dissects a lot of philosophers’ answers to the question, but he doesn’t really get around to the one I’ve always found useful: The absence of suffering.
  2. Does happiness drive our behaviour? If we’re happy, or think we are, does that make us complacent, passive? Do we need to be really unhappy, or at least sufficiently unhappy, before we get out from behind our computers and do something about it?
  3. Does more information actually inhibit our ability and willingness to act? Neil Postman suggests it does, which can actually lead to a sort of double paralysis: The more we learn, the less confident we are that we know what to do, and the more moral teachings we’re subject to, the more fearful we are of doing the ‘wrong’ thing. So doing nothing gets pretty tempting.
  4. Which is the easiest route to happiness: lowering your expectations, putting your dissatisfaction in rational perspective, or focusing on the positive? And is the easiest route the most honest? Can you rationalize your way past unhappiness? It’s foolish to blame yourself or dwell on things that you can’t change, so Bertrand Russell thought you should talk yourself logically out of all your negative feelings. Kingwell is dubious it can be done.
  5. Would you trade permanent happiness for your ability to think? Kingwell wouldn’t, and believes he’s in the majority. I would, and I think I am in the majority. Academic question perhaps, but an interesting and provocative one, for what it implies about ‘human nature’.
  6. Is news really information, if it doesn’t inform us what to do? Or is it all filler, meaningless stuff we’re addicted to consuming the same way we’re addicted to consuming the equally empty and unsatisfying products that eat up most of our earnings? The word information suggests giving form, facilitating understanding, suggesting options for response and action. But most news doesn’t do any of these things. Kingwell talks about news junkies who were forced by circumstances to go ‘cold turkey’, and says most of them never read a newspaper again even when they could. Sounds like an addiction to me.
  7. Are children, as a whole, happier than adults in the same culture and economic situation? If so, and if they are more sensitive than adults are, what’s wrong with adults?
  8. Is the role of modern Western man to write and direct his own story? I’ve written a lot about the importance of story and narrative, but it never occurred to me that our fascination with story might be partly because we’re looking for scripts to steal, to incorporate into our own story, or that, as Kingwell suggests, happiness is nothing more that writing and starring in your own, satisfying, story. This could also explain why we’re so conservative in terms of making sudden changes in our lives: Perhaps we recognize that discontinuity in narrative is jarring. And those moments when we first wake up in a jumble of confusion each morning are perhaps nothing more than attempts to find ‘our place’ in the script we’re in the process of writing for ourselves.

Interesting questions. Still sorting out some answers in my head. In the meantime, I’d welcome yours.

Kingwell has recently been doing some interesting work with Naomi Klein on cultural jamming, while a new Canadian book suggests it’s impossible to jam the culture. And Klein has made a film about how entrepreneurship in Argentina rescued the country from ruin when the corporatists fled for their lives after the recent financial collapse. I’ll have more to say on this in an upcoming post.

Photo: source unknown, 2001. Not my work, alas.

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  1. Interesting stuff, as philosophy often is, but I think defining happiness is beyond philosohy now. In many ways I view philosophy as a way to get our heads around something we cannot yet understand scientifically. I believe happiness is something we can, and are getting a grasp of scientifically.I think science is starting to get a good grasp of what happiness is, or more precisely what causes happiness. We have determined that people feel ‘happy’ when certain chemical processes occur in our brain, just as we feel depressed, sad, surprised, and other emotions through a variety of chemical processes. So the real question for me is what causes those chemical processes and the answer is a scientific one, not a philosophical one.The answer is also fairly individualistic in nature and relates to a person’s personality. An extreme extrovert might go skydiving to get the boost he needs to be ‘happy’ while an extreme introvert might find sitting at home reading a great book as something that makes him happy. The introvert would probably be frightened skydiving while the extravert would be bored to death reading a book. Other things, such as stress, are happiness killers to almost everyone (which would explain why children can be happier than adults).I suspect when Kingwell said he wouldn’t trade his ability to think to be permanently happy because to him, he gets a certain amount of happiness out of thinking. Personally, I see where he is coming from. For you Dave, you obviously do a fair amount of thinking as can be seen through your blog articles, but I get the feeling you also generate a lot of happiness, and probably much more, out of other more artistic things such as nature, art, beauty, etc. which are more observational, or feeling in nature than thinking.But maybe the philosophical question in all of this is that, if you are always happy, and never experience sadness, fright, shock, depression or any number of other emotions, would you no longer be able to relate to happiness? Do we need sadness in our lives to be able to enjoy happiness and without sadness as a reference point, happiness is nothing special?

  2. Redza says:

    Hmm.. on the question what is happiness? Read somewhere that “it is having enough time and resources to do what you want”. Resources in terms of health and money, I suppose. I find this to be the best definition or articulation of happiness so far.

  3. David Fono says:

    My partner wrote an article about why Kingwell’s students at U of Toronto hate him. Apparently he’s a bastard.

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