Thursday January 5, 2012
I’m delighted to say that today is the official launch date for my book Introducing Happiness: A Practical Guide, published by the lovely Icon Books, both in hard copy and also on the Kindle. The book is a brief and breezy guide to various practical and philosophical approaches to happiness, from the world of positive psychology and the so-called “new science of happiness”, to the disreputable behaviour of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, to the intricacies of Buddhist meditation, to the sublime idleness of Zhuangzi. And it’s filled with what I hope are both entertaining and intriguing practical exercises so that intrepid readers can put some of the ideas in the book into practice.
Happiness these days is big business, and everyone (including me) seems to be getting in on the act; and it seems to me to be a good thing that there is a wider move to take happiness seriously. Nevertheless, as I have written before on this site, there are problems with some aspects of the current happiness agenda. And so whilst it was my aim in this book to put forward a variety of philosophical and practical approaches that have been claimed to lead to greater happiness — an Epicurean intelligence with respect to pleasure, for example, or the practice of Buddhist meditation, or the cultivation (harder than it looks) of uselessness after the model of Zhuangzi — it also asks the reader to look more closely at the claims that are made for happiness, and to ask what else, aside from happiness, might matter.
The book begins by saying fairly emphatically that it does not actually promise the reader happiness (even whilst I hope that it doesn’t actively make people unhappy). There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that too many books make over-inflated claims about happiness, as if the problems of life might be solved by coughing up the price of a paperback; but my hunch is that they probably can’t. This isn’t to say that books cannot contribute to happiness — many books from Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to Tove Jansson’s Comet in Moominland have, in their own obscure and peculiar ways, contributed to the happiness and richness of my own life — but it seems unfair to demand that any one book should be able to sprinkle the fairy-dust of happiness over its reader and make Everything All Right.
But there is another reason that the book, whilst it is cheerily practical, doesn’t actually promise happiness; and that is because there are various kinds of thing, not all of them the same, that we might call “happiness”. The happiness of an Epicurean in their garden is not the same as the happiness of a Stoic; the happiness of the Buddhist meditator is not the same as that of the idle Daoist sage; and the believer might claim that even the most supremely happy non-believer is somehow missing out on true happiness. To take an example, I sometimes look at descriptions of the supreme happiness promised in Buddhist texts and think, “Hmm… I’m not sure I’d be happy with that kind of happiness…” (which, the orthodox might respond, is simply a sign of my incorrigible worldliness. Ho hum…) So even if these various approaches to happiness all “work”, they don’t necessarily lead us to the same point, to the same form of life. So one of the things I want to encourage readers of the book to do is to look more closely at what is being offered and promised when happiness is being talked about, and to ask whether, and to what extent, this is in fact desirable.
And this, finally, leads to the other aspect of the book, which is that it tries to encourage readers to look at the wider political issues that are necessarily a part of any talk about happiness. It seems to me that too many happiness books treat happiness as if it were exclusively a matter of working on your own inner life; but there are always broader political questions at stake, and so in the book I wanted to give readers a few ways in to exploring these questions. Because if this is a practical guide, then — as Aristotle knew — practical philosophy is not just a matter of ethics, but also of politics.
If you want to get hold of a copy, the link is here: Introducing Happiness: A Practical Guide.
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