Married Authors Explore Politics, Philosophy Behind Happiness

June 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks to authors and spouses Derek and Sissela Bok, married to each other for 55 years, about their new books exploring the politics and the philosophy of happiness.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, we end on a happy note, or at least a happiness note.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: They seem happy in their Cambridge, Massachusetts, apartment, Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, and Sissela Bok, a philosopher and ethicist, married for 55 years, authors of numerous books between them, and now two more, both on the subject of happiness.

Sissela Bok’s book, Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science, comes out this fall, and, as the title suggests, takes the long view.

SISSELA BOK, author, “Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science”: I felt that it was so important to look at everything that’s been done for millennia, really, in religion, in literature, in philosophy, and to bring that together with all the new research and what’s been done, really, I guess in the last three decades in the social sciences and perhaps the last 15 years in brain research, to try to bring all those things together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Derek Bok’s book, “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being,” was published this spring.

DEREK BOK, author, “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being”: I had always been interested in happiness research. I noticed the one thing that wasn’t written about very much was what implication did this have for — for public policy.

And since the — the great champion of happiness, Jeremy Bentham, had made the point 200 years ago that happiness should be the sole objective of government, it seemed natural to take that forward and say, now that we know something about happiness, what are the results for public policy-makers?

JEFFREY BROWN: Happiness, or at least literature and research on happiness, is everywhere these days, with college courses and whole sections of your local bookstore devoted to everything from academic studies, to how-tos of personal fulfillment.

And both Boks have taken into account the contradictions of what does and doesn’t make us happy: having more money, for example.

DEREK BOK: When you get more money, very quickly, you become adapted to it. And the things you have always looked forward to buying now become commonplace. And the other thing that happens is, your aspirations begin to rise, so that, if you survey the American people and you say, how much money do you need to live a really completely happy life, and then survey them 10 years later, you will find that, 10 years later, they want a lot more money than they did 10 years before.

So, I think our aspirations are always leaping out in front of reality, leaving us about as satisfied and as frustrated as we were before.

SISSELA BOK: It’s true that we can get used to money and all kinds of advantages. We can adapt to that, so to speak. But it’s very much — it’s very good for human beings that they don’t adapt in the same way to, for instance, cherished personal relations, friendships, affection for children, affection — feelings of beauty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Combing through the research, Derek Bok moves from personal to policy and asks whether government puts too much emphasis on economic yardsticks, at the expense of other priorities, measuring a country’s well-being through the gross national product, rather than, say, a gross happiness index.

DEREK BOK: Only Bhutan recognizes gross national happiness as its major objective.

DEREK BOK: But, yes, there’s a lot of dispute in the research on happiness about whether economic growth really does produce lasting happiness. There are some people who believe it does. And richer countries are uniformly happier than poorer countries.

But there’s also a lot of evidence that happiness in the United States has not increased in the last 50 years, even though we’re much more prosperous today than we used to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: For her part, Sissela Bok takes a different tack, looking at the very idea of happiness through time and some of the moral questions it continues to raise.

SISSELA BOK: So, for instance, even if people get happier by something — let’s say that they get happier by living in a very prejudiced society, or that they’re, you know, happy about their own family, their own particular social group, so long as they can oppress the others, perhaps, or draw money from them. Is that happiness worth having? And how should we look at the moral issues that are raised?

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, for both Boks, the study of what can make us happy can illuminate a great deal, about our values, our relationships to each other, to our jobs, money, and so on. But it can also quickly become complicated.

For Derek, for example, the question becomes what exactly government do could do differently to make us happier.

DEREK BOK: Let me give you an example from health care, for example.

If you look at the research, you find that, remarkably, a number of the unhappy things that can happen to you from a health standpoint really don’t have very long-lasting effects on your happiness at all. You get over the loss of an arm quite quickly.

But there are three health conditions that produce lasting unhappiness of a very acute kind. One is clinical depression. Millions of people suffer from that. Another one is chronic pain, more millions of people. And the final — the third one is rather unexpected, is sleep disorders.

And there are, again, millions of people who suffer from insomnia and related disorders. Now, the interesting thing from a policy point of view is that all of those three illnesses are comparatively under-resourced and underemphasized by government policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean that government could step in with — and help people with sleep disorders?

DEREK BOK: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re not worried about proposing something like that at a time where there’s — you know, people are out protesting over health care, government in this, government in that?

DEREK BOK: Not particularly, because I think, in the end, the research also tells us that the thing that matters most to people is happiness.

And, so, I think a government that tries systematically to relieve what causes lasting misery and to emphasize what gives lasting happiness will eventually win the support of the — of the people.

SISSELA BOK: It’s so interesting to look at the — at the huge controversies from the beginning of time about what happiness really means, what it comes from, what it involves.

People have always fought over that, so that there’s always been disagreement about it. There still is. You can ask, for instance, a young person considering whether or not to be a suicide bomber, what will my happiness perhaps be if I do that?

That’s entirely different from lots of other people’s views about happiness. So, that’s one thing I did want to explore.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it require hopefulness to — to write about happiness?

SISSELA BOK: That’s an interesting questions, because it seems to me that some people who write about happiness get very hopeful and quite cheery, just as people who write about, let’s say, child abuse and torture, that can be extremely depressing.

So, there, I think that they have — everybody has to watch themselves a bit and to say, you know, how is the research influencing me, quite apart from, how might I influence the research?

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about when you’re a couple both writing books on happiness?

DEREK BOK: I think that just elevates the happiness even more. I think — I would recommend it to any couple.

DEREK BOK: Write different books, noncompetitive books about the same subject, and you have guaranteed interesting dinner table conversations for months on end.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sissela and Derek Bok, thanks for talking to us.

SISSELA BOK: Thank you so much. Thanks for having us.

DEREK BOK: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.