Careful Distinctions Needed in “Happiness Studies”

August 20, 2010

The publication of Sissela Bok's Yale University Press book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (excerpt), along with its recent review in the WSJ by Paul Beston, bring to center stage once again the topic of happiness.  Happiness is, indeed, a significant issue, not the least because it is harder and harder to obtain in today's cultural climate.  Social science survey after survey demonstrates how illusive genuine happiness has become.  Since I have not read Bok's book--I have read only Beston's review--I have little to say directly about her claims.  However, in light of the review, one thing should be mentioned.  In any discussion of happiness, one must be very careful to distinguish the contemporary notion--a feeling of pleasurable satisfaction--from the classic one--a life of wisdom, virtue, and character, being good at life.

Many things currently contribute to a loss of happiness (in both senses), but to the degree that worldview considerations are among them, it seems obvious that the classic sense is far richer and more important than the contemporary one.  And the paradox of hedonism warns us that the more people try to be happy in the contemporary sense, the less happy they become.  What people are missing today is a worldview that provides an overall sense of meaning to life, a bigger picture within which a life of character formation, sacrifice to a greater cause, an  other-focused orientation, and so forth make sense and are at home.

Christian theism is just what people need to make sense of classic happiness.  And given the deeper focus, people will be happier in the contemporary sense than they would be my making it their primary goal.  I have discussed all this in my book with Klaus Issler--The Lost Virtue of Happiness.  We have a moral duty to be happy people in both senses of the term.  And a proper ordering between them, along with a correct understanding of how they are achieved, is crucial.  And only within the scaffolding of a Christian worldview can a life of happiness in either sense have an ultimate foundation.

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