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by Mark Kingwell
Crown, 1998
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Aug 1st 2001

In Pursuit of Happiness

Mark Kingwell has written an unusual book about the nature of happiness and the idea of "better living." Ultimately, he defends an Aristotelian view of happiness as leading a virtuous life, but on the way he gives plenty of analysis of modern trends in popular culture, psychology, and philosophy. He also writes about his own life as a philosopher and his experiences as a explorer of modern life. This mix of genres is welcome and interesting--it takes a great deal of skill to combine them without alienating all readers, and Kingwell does a good job of making the book both approachable and intellectual.

A nice feature of the book is Kingwell's ability to mix together popular culture, academic philosophy, psychology, and literary studies, and intellectual journalism from magazines such as The New Yorker. Thus, he refers to The Simpsons, Star Trek, self-help books, Kingsley Amis, Freud, Hobbes, Bertrand Russell, Christopher Lasch, and Malcolm Gladwell. It's a great asset to be able to do this unconventional sort of thinking, and it is rare for writers to be able to do it well. One of the reasons it is important is that it makes academic work more accessible to a wide public.

In his investigation, Kingwell reads a large amount of self-help and is especially taken by Become Happy in Eight Minutes by Siimon Reynolds because it provides him so much material with which to take issue. He also spent a week at the Option Institute in Massachusetts, where Barry Neal Kaufman, author of Happiness Is a Choice, runs a program to teach people to he happy. Of course, Kingwell brings a great deal of skepticism to the seminar, and finds a lot of it to be nonsense, but he does not condemn it wholesale. He sets it out and relates it to the traditions of the Stoics and Lao Tzu and the Buddha. He also relates various thoughts and episodes that occurred while he was going through the seminar, and one gets a sense of what the experience means to him personally.

The style is rather rambling, and sometimes Kingwell moves from topic to topic so much that it is hard to know what his main point is. For example, in chapter 3, on "The Normal and the Pathological" there are the sections on the following topics. Kingwell tries Prozac, by getting it through a friend, without getting any diagnosis, and relates his experience on him. He discusses the long tradition of equating happiness with pleasure, and shows the problems with such a view. He examines the question whether western culture is devoted to providing people with pleasure, or denying them pleasure, and concludes that hedonism and puritanism are in fact closely linked together, and that we are "a culture suffering from bipolar disorder." (107). He analyses the notion of "cool" from the 1950s to the present and the role of the funny fat man in our culture. He explains the importance of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in our culture and Paula Caplan's critique of the way the manual is put together; then he discusses a proposal to make happiness a mental disorder. He concludes that enhancement technologies threaten the integrity of individual experience. This dizzying array of subjects makes for fun reading, and his discussion of each one is sensible and imaginative, but it's not clear how they all fit together as a whole. One or two chapters seem to border on incoherence, even though they are fascinating reading page by page. While there is probably a rational thread of ideas in all of the chapters, the mixture can be confusing.

When it works, Kingwell's approach is a heady mixture. One of my favorite chapters is "The Consolation of Philosophy," which discusses how philosophical insight can contribute to people's happiness. Kingwell is a philosopher, but he is atypical, ready to criticize the profession, and even make fun of it at times. He believes passionately in the power and importance of philosophy, not just as a profession but as a way of life for everyone. Indeed, he thinks that a philosophical approach to life is essential for a well lived life. The methods of philosophy are useful when examining popular culture, high art, societal trends, self-help manuals, and psychological theories. Indeed, philosophical scrutiny is not just useful, but in fact essential to understand the world we live in.

Of course, it is dangerous to assume that there are any methods definitive of philosophy. Philosophers tend to theorize and work in abstractions, rather than perform experiments, but there has been a growing realization that philosophy can be about the real world and that it can be extremely practical. There are different approaches within philosophy, and often philosophers passionately disagree with each other about which approach is best. Kingwell does not explicitly identify himself with any particular school of philosophy, and the facts that he did his graduate degree at Yale and teaches at the University of Toronto do not provide much clue as to his philosophical stance. He does not use pure conceptual analysis or deconstruction. Maybe the best way to describe his approach is to say that it takes elements from many different traditions and ends up with a rather moderate use of common sense. Inevitably, given the way the book is written, some philosophers may complain that it is not rigorous enough. But in fairness to Kingwell, to make the book more rigorous would be to make it a very different project for a different readership.

In the end, I think the parts of this book are greater than the whole. Kingwell argues for a plausible view of happiness, but there's nothing particularly original about his conclusions -- they are, after all, basically Aristotelian. But the individual discussions that he gives along the way are worth taking seriously, even if they occasionally smack of academic dinner party conversation. (Such conversations, can indeed be some of the best conversations we can have.) This book will appeal to a wide range of readers, and deserves to get public attention.

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.>