Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Pursuit of Unhappiness

A lot of my reading centers on well-being and living a good life. In this vein I just started reading The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, by Daniel W. Haybron. He makes a distinction between the approach the ancient Greeks took toward happiness and well-being versus that of the Enlightenment that I have not encountered before. I feel it is worth highlighting this difference before finishing the book. I plan to write a review after reading it. Below are several key quotes from early in the book. (Note these quotes are not contiguous.)

The ancients apparently took it as a given that individuals are not, in general, authorities about their own welfare. Quite opposite: most ancient philosophers followed Socrates’ lead in distinguishing ‘the many’ and ‘the wise,’ with the former and much larger class being, basically dolts. Aristotle notoriously maintained that some of us are so ill-fitted for self-governance that we are better off enslaved, with masters to look after us.

The spirit of modernity is rather different. Inspired by Enlightenment optimism about the individual’s powers of reason and self-government, modern liberals tend to believe in one or another form of the sovereignty or authority of the individual in matters of personal welfare: by and large, people know what’s best for them, and tend to act rationally in the promotion of their interests.

But what if it turns out that people don’t have this kind of authority? What if they frequently and predictably make serious mistakes about what matters in life, act irrationally, or otherwise err in ways that undercut their prospects for well-being? What if, as a result, they tend to botch their lives at an alarmingly high rate, in many cases being unwitting pursuers of unhappiness?

The central thesis of this book is that people probably do not enjoy a high degree of authority or competence in matters of personal welfare.

I’m sure the rest of The Pursuit of Unhappiness will flesh out the empirical case for Haybron’s thesis. I’ve read other books that report results of various studies which reveal the inability of the average person to recognize the effects of genetics, temperament, and subjectivity on decision-making. To me these findings don’t prove it is impossible to be objective, just that it’s work. Sometimes it’s hard work!

In any case, I’ll write more on this interesting book when I’ve finished it. Wanted to throw out these quotes as thought provokers.

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