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Happiness
07.02.04
Society and Community:
The Notion of Happiness
More on This Story:
On the Pursuit of Happiness

Take the announcement made by Samuel Johnson, echoing Ecclesiastes, that no one could surely wish to be born, who had a chance to contemplate beforehand all the miseries that would await him in life. Today, in many societies, such a claim would be met with uncomprehending stares. People might disagree as fiercely as ever about what happiness is and about what factors make it more or less likely, but far fewer disagree about whether it is at least possible. — Sissela Bok

Philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok's October 2003 lecture at Harvard University was well-attended, to no one's surprise. Perhaps this is because the topic of her presentation, "The Pursuits of Happiness," points to an elusive notion that has been discussed for thousands of years. As Bok explains, "the study of these pursuits may be more needed than ever in our time, in part because there has been an unprecedented shift in how people the world over perceive the possibility of happiness in their own lives."

America's founding fathers weren't the first to recognize the importance of the pursuit of happiness. But the topic has been more controversial over time than one might think. Read some of the contrasting opinions on happiness Sissela Bok discovered in her travels researching happiness below.







"He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind, and a nature capable of being well taught."
— Greek philosopher Thales, when asked what man was happy (circa 624–546 B.C.)

"Man's highest faculty being intelligence, its activity is his highest happiness — contemplation; constant, sufficient, and sought not as a means but as an end."
— Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.)

“Happiness...will not tremble, however much it is tortured.”
— Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Cicero (106–43 B.C.)

"A man can refrain from wanting what he has not and cheerfully make the best of a bird in the hand."
— Roman statesman and author Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.)

[Paraphrased by Bok in "The Pursuits of Happiness":] True happiness requires three things: not to have anything criminal to reproach oneself for; knowing how to make oneself happy in the state where Heaven has placed us and where we are obliged to remain; and enjoying perfect health. We cannot be truly happy if we lack one of the three.
— French writer Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d'Argens (1703-1771)

"Unquestionably, it is possible to do without happiness: it is done involuntarily by nineteen-twentieths of humanity."
— British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

"Some writers indeed are so much impressed with the amount of suffering in the world, that they doubt, if we look to all sentient beings, whether there is more of misery or of happiness; whether the world as a whole is a good or bad one. According to my judgment happiness decidedly prevails, though this would be very difficult to prove. If the truth of this conclusion be granted, it harmonizes well with the effects which we might expect from natural selection. If all the individuals of any species were habitually to suffer to an extreme degree, they would neglect to propagate their kind; but we have no reason to believe that this has ever, or at least often occurred. Some other considerations, moreover, lead to the belief that all sentient beings have been formed so as to enjoy, as a general rule, happiness."
— British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

"Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness." — Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness."
— German philosopher, economist, and revolutionary Karl Marx (1818–1883)

"Happiness is a Swedish sunset — it is there for all, but most of us look the other way and lose it."
— American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910)

"How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure."
— American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910)

"One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation'... We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things."
— Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis (1856-1939)

"Those who are in possession of material resources have become slaves of their own instruments. What makes me so sad, in this country, is the fact that people here do not know that they are not happy."
— Indian poet and composer Rabindranath Tagore, while visiting New York (1861-1941)

"The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts. Life is not to be conceived on the analogy of a melodrama in which the hero and heroine go through incredible misfortunes for which they are compensated by a happy ending. I live and have my day, my son succeeds me and has his day, his son in turn succeeds him. What is there in all this to make a tragedy about?"
— British philosopher, mathematician, and social critic Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

"Any story which we tell about ourselves consoles us since it imposes pattern upon something which might otherwise seem intolerably chancy and incomplete. However, human life is chancy and incomplete. It is the role of tragedy, but also of comedy and of painting, to show us suffering without a thrill and death without a consolation."
— British writer Iris Murdoch (1919-1999)

"The hopeless beggar, the precarious landless labourer, the dominated housewife, the hardened unemployed of the over-exhausted coolie may all take pleasures in small mercies, and manage to suppress intense suffering for the necessity of continuing survival, but it would be ethically deeply mistaken to attach a correspondingly small value to the loss of their well-being because of this survival strategy."
— Indian economist Amartya Sen (1933- )

"We want experiences, fitting ones, of profound connection with others, of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative, experiences very different from the bounce and rosiness of happy moments. What we want, in short, is a life and a self that happiness is a fitting response to — and then to give it that response."
— American political philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002)

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