Better Living:
In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac

by Mark Kingwell,
408 pages,
ISBN: 0670875023

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Happy Camper?
by Thomas Hurka

There are two attitudes to happiness. One is to wonder what it is and how it relates to other important concepts such as pleasure, duty, and the good life. The other is to try to get as much of it as possible as quickly as possible. The first is the attitude of philosophers, the second that of many of us in our everyday lives.

Mark Kingwell's Better Living explores both these attitudes. Kingwell is a philosophy professor who's also a frequent commentator on pop culture for Canadian magazines, TV, and radio. Better Living brings his two intellectual selves together, offering a philosophical analysis of our current culture's search for the good life. More specifically, it offers philosophical therapy, proposing to help us toward happiness by changing our idea of what happiness is.

How successful is the diagnosis? Kingwell gives an entertaining survey of the 1990s hustle for happiness, one sprinkled with wry insights and written in lively prose. But his philosophical discussions are disappointingly thin, skimming over ideas rather than explaining clearly what they are and why we should believe them.

We in the '90s are hardly unique in seeking happiness, but Kingwell thinks we do so with a distinctive attitude. We see happiness as our birthright; we think getting it should be quick and easy; and we pursue it using technology, either literally, as with drugs and electronic toys, or figuratively, with the pseudo-scientific techniques of the self-help movement. Our attitude is taken to its extreme in the title of one recent self-help book, Become Happy in Eight Minutes.

Kingwell's dissection of this attitude takes him to many corners of contemporary life. He attends a "happiness camp" in Massachusetts run by a self-help guru nicknamed "Bears", who offers unconditional love and the lesson that "happiness is a choice." Though skeptical, Kingwell comes home with a new desire to hug people. He tries Prozac and a herbal equivalent, St. John's wort, finding they leave him with a racing mind but unable to get out of bed. "Was this my new brain," he asks, "with a cutting-edge operating system unaccountably stuffed into early Apple-era hardware?" He explores consumerism, analysing the definition of "cool" and what it means to wear an Armani suit.

His responses to all this range from gentle amusement at the follies of humans to anger at the perpetrators of fraud. (His ire seems especially aroused by advertisers, who he thinks exploit our tendency to envy.) But throughout he has a larger theme. If our contemporary search for happiness fails, as he thinks it persistently does, it's because we understand happiness in the wrong way. We see it as a matter of feeling good, of enjoying contentment, or a sequence of pleasures. But this "hedonistic" view of happiness is shallow and confused, he claims, beside what he calls "eudaimonistic" happiness. This latter happiness can't be had quickly; it requires hard work. But it's a worthy and attainable life-goal.

Exactly what eudaimonistic happiness involves is a little hard to pin down, since Kingwell discusses it only in brief snatches. But it seems to have two components. One, shared with hedonistic happiness, is a feeling of satisfaction, only now stretched out. The object of this satisfaction isn't something momentary, like a sunset or a funny joke, but your life as a whole, and the satisfaction too lasts a long time. The second component is a rational basis for this feeling. You're justified in feeling satisfied about your life because it contains things that are good independently of your satisfaction. Kingwell gives a plausible list of such things, including work for the community, sports, and art. But his main one is virtue, and he therefore calls his theory the "virtue theory of happiness". Happiness is being compassionate, courageous, and so on, and feeling the satisfaction with your life that those virtues make appropriate.

This is a high-minded idea of happiness, one far removed from what's on offer at happiness camp or in sneaker ads from Nike. It has the impressive whiff of ancient Greek philosophy. But it also raises questions that, disappointingly, Kingwell never seriously addresses.

One is why we should think the two components of eudaimonistic happiness, virtue and satisfaction, go together, as they must do if it is to be a coherent concept of happiness. On the face of it, they don't. Studies show that gang members feel as much self-esteem as the law-abiding, and virtuous people can surely be miserable. They can see evil and suffering in the world that they're powerless to relieve, and feel anguish about that suffering that's only slightly reduced by the knowledge that they're responding to it virtuously.

Faced with this crucial issue for his theory, Kingwell resorts to quoting dead philosophers. Aristotle, he tells us, believed that virtue is the best route to lasting satisfaction. So did Cicero and Seneca, so maybe we should believe it too. But this is name-dropping in place of serious argument. It would of course be wonderful if the virtuous life were always most satisfying, and philosophers from Plato on have wanted it to be so. But in philosophy as in everyday life, wanting something to be true doesn't make it true; the world needn't be that kind. If it isn't kind here, we may face a choice between virtue and satisfaction, not the comforting illusion that the one will bring the other.

Another question is whether Kingwell's picture of eudaimonistic happiness isn't unpleasantly narcissistic. Surely it's characteristic of virtuous people not to dwell much on their own lives and moral character. Their attention is directed outward, at things in the world that are more important than their own little psyches. Kingwell may be hindered in seeing this by a feature of his own writing style.

Like much contemporary non-fiction, Better Living is written in a highly personalized way. If we learn about happiness camp or Prozac, it's through Kingwell's own experiences and emotional reactions, often charted day to day. And we learn a lot more about him. We read of his anxieties about his marriage and about finding a permanent academic job; we get reminiscences of trips to the Better Living Centre at the Canadian National Exhibition, and descriptions of phone calls with his friends. If the book's main subject is happiness, a secondary one is Kingwell himself, its moderately happy (or maybe unhappy) author.

This personalized style leads to some of the book's best moments. Facing a long separation from his wife, Kingwell reflects on how solitude can be an occasion for freedom and achievement, not the mark of loserdom it's commonly taken to be. Elsewhere he remarks on how dedicated gossips, among whom he counts himself, often can't imagine that others might talk about them and are shocked to learn they do. But there's also a deep irony about Better Living's style. One of Kingwell's central complaints about our culture concerns its self-involvement and narcissism, as taken to an extreme in confessional talk shows. But what could be more part of that culture than discussing intellectual issues primarily through the prism of the author's own emotions? If Kingwell wants to offer therapy to the age, one wants to say, Physician, heal thyself!

In one way Kingwell is ideally suited to write about happiness in the '90s. He is admirably open-minded and, partly because of this, spectacularly widely read, familiar both with classical and contemporary philosophy and with the myriad products of contemporary culture, in print and other media. It's hard to imagine anyone with a better background for tackling this topic. But as often happens, background tends in this case to overwhelm foreground. Like many people who are widely read, Kingwell seems happier commenting on others' ideas than properly developing his own. Better Living contains brief summaries of dozens of other thinkers, from Plato and Epictetus to Bertrand Russell, Abraham Maslow, and Howard Mumford Jones. But the reader waits in vain for a systematic explanation of how the components of Kingwell's own theory of happiness fit together.

There's indeed something manic and self-defeating in our contemporary search for happiness, and Better Living does a good job of identifying our pathologies. It also suggests in a general way how a different understanding of the good life might make us better able to live that life. There's a start here at a fruitful collaboration between cultural commentary and philosophical analysis. But those looking for a more sustained attempt at this analysis will have to look elsewhere. 

Thomas Hurka teaches philosophy at the University of Calgary.


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