'Happiness' Is More Complex Than You Might Think Most people strive to be happy, but take a look at the overflowing self-help shelves in bookstores — happiness can be pretty elusive. In her new book, Exploring Happiness, Sissela Bok draws from philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and everyday wisdom to explain what we really know about how to be happy.
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'Happiness' Is More Complex Than You Might Think

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'Happiness' Is More Complex Than You Might Think

'Happiness' Is More Complex Than You Might Think

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Andrea Seabrook in Washington; Neal Conan is away.

For centuries, the contemplation of happiness belonged to philosophers and theologians. Today, it's the subject of psychology and neuroscience, and we all have our own experiences with striving for, and sometimes achieving, happiness.

Now, moral philosopher and writer Sissela Bok is trying to put all these threads together in her new book, "Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science." Bok weaves together poetry and contemplation, data and experience, ultimately calling on all of us to think clearly and with sensitivity about how we perceive happiness.

This hour, we'll speak with Sissela Bok, and we want to hear from you. Where did you learn about happiness? Who taught you what that means? For me, it was summer camp, where I discovered that I control my identity and my happiness; no one else does.

Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website, as always. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later this hour, we'll have a Q&A on the recall of half-a-billion eggs after a salmonella outbreak. But first, Sissela Bok joins us from the studios at MIT in Cambridge. Welcome to the program.

Ms. SISSELA BOK (Author, "Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science"): Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.

SEABROOK: Well, it's great to have you. There are so many books out there that talk about achieving happiness - telling us how to do it, what does and what doesn't create happiness. Your approach is more than just what to do and what not to do.

Ms. BOK: Absolutely. I think that's the last thing, in a way, that I want to do. My book is called "Exploring Happiness" because I very much want to set out to try to understand all the different approaches.

I just found out that if you Google happiness, you get hundreds of millions of entries. So there are so many different people telling you how to be happy, giving you paths to happiness, and many of them have quite different points of view.

So one thing I really wanted to do was to try to see what it is all about, try to put together both the philosophy and the arts and the literature on the one hand, but also the sciences that have really done so much over the last recent or the recent decades.

SEABROOK: Yeah, that was one of the things that got me, right from the beginning of your book. You write: Not since antiquity have there been such passionate debates as those taking place today, about contending visions of what makes for human happiness.

Ms. BOK: Yes, if you just take, for instance, different religious views or different political views - or all kinds of self-help books, very often telling you to do what the author happened to have found a good path toward happiness.

So one thing I wanted to do, also, was to have a chance for people, for readers to think it through for themselves - and to be rather skeptical sometimes - about the fact that there are so many different messages, and then to try to sort out for themselves how all of this affects their own lives, what they think about happiness in their lives.

And I was interested that you immediately began to think what had made you realize more about your own happiness. I found that when I was writing the book, first of all, people might be a little skeptical. What is going on? Why is this person writing another book about happiness?

And then, however, almost immediately, they would bring up some memory, something important in their lives that had mattered to them. And that's why I called one of my first chapters, really, "Experience." I'm very, very interested in how people do experience happiness.

SEABROOK: It was so fascinating because it's not you're not just talking about the state of happiness or contentment with one's life but in fact, the experience of euphoria or happiness after some of the worst experiences in one's life.

Ms. BOK: Yes and indeed, my book also has, as a cover, a painting by Turner called "Sunrise and Sea Monsters." And to me, that's very important. Yes, there is sunrise in everybody's life, but there are, indeed, also monsters of various kinds. And so it's the combination of happy experiences and experiences, sometimes, of great suffering that teaches us much more about how to lead our lives, I think - if we really learn to look at that carefully.

SEABROOK: Let's bring it down out of the ether for a moment, and say that our own daily experiences in the world help shape how we perceive and define happiness. But there's a philosopher, Robert Nozick, who created an experiment that tests the question: Is there more to life than being happy? Tell us about that.

Ms. BOK: Yes, that's called the experience machine, and it's a thought experiment. Robert Nozick asks us to think: What would it be like, and would we in fact want to choose to live in a kind of machine where we would always have perfectly happy experiences? We could choose the kind.

We might, for example, believe that we're a great scientist or a great artist, or have wonderful love experiences or children who love us. It's just that none of it would be true. But we would feel that way.

So the question is: Would we choose to enter that kind of machine?

Now, most people say no. But the interesting thing is that when professors ask this question in various classes, some students say maybe - almost as a just, yeah, why not? I might try it.

SEABROOK: It's like the movie "The Matrix," sort of...

Ms. BOK: It is a little like the movie "The Matrix," that's right. And that, in its own right, is a thought experiment. It helps us to think through those questions.

SEABROOK: Are we the best judges of our own happiness?

Ms. BOK: I certainly think you have to start with our judgment of our own happiness. It's not possible just to have people try to look at us from the outside. But I don't think it's enough.

Say, there are some people who might think they're really happy, and yet they may be living in a world very much like that machine. They may be totally deluded, for instance, about themselves.

So we need to have both the personal experience of happiness and the outside point of view.

SEABROOK: Let's take a couple callers. I am going to try and pin you down at some point and tell me how to make my life happy, even though you don't want to. But let's take a couple of callers first. We have Max(ph) in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Tell me: What is your experience? Hello.

Ms. BOK: Hi Max.

MAX (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. My faith teaches me that serving my fellow man is what I'm supposed to do. I went to with a group of people, went to Mississippi after Katrina, and I went to Texas a couple years later after that storm. I've done, you know, worked with Stop Hunger Now. Those things truly make me happy, and bring peace to me.

Ms. BOK: Well, more honor to you. I think a great many people would agree with you. There are others who might find happiness in very different experiences -say, for instance, some great artist, or a person who just loves being an artist, who might never go to help his fellow man and yet experience happiness of another kind.

SEABROOK: Thank you for your call, Max. Let's take a similar thought here from Jessica(ph) in Liverpool, New York.

JESSICA (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I found that when I was a child, I got a lot of satisfaction out of complimenting other people. I did feel some guilt from it, though, because I wasn't always honest with people.

Sometimes I would say oh, you look so nice today, or I love your outfit, and I realized that even though I might be making that person smile or feel good, it wasn't always necessarily the truth.

So as I became older, I found that I got the most satisfaction when I was able to help other people, and now I've gone into a career with social work, where that's what I do every day. And I'm happiest when I spend the majority of my time putting other people first.

SEABROOK: Thank you so much for your call. Go ahead, Sissela Bok.

Ms. BOK: Yes, I think again, I really honor that, too. And I think it's very interesting that you came to the conclusion that just telling people something that wasn't true - as you say, it might make them smile, but it wouldn't necessarily be what you would want for them or for your own happiness.

And therefore, to me, when you think about happiness, it really has to do both with yourself, what kind of person you want to be, what kind of life you want to lead - we've now had two callers who have talked about that. But also, what can you do for other people? And then, to me, very important, you need to step back and say: Am I really helping them, or do I just think I'm helping them sometimes? Maybe I'm meddling in their life in ways that I shouldn't be.

SEABROOK: Why is that, Sissela Bok? Are we just socialized into this idea that helping others should make us feel good? Or what do you think's going on there?

Ms. BOK: I do think we are often brought up, from the very beginning, to think that we feel better if we help other people. Now, I think children are often very suspicious of that - you know, the idea it's better to give than to receive.

Well, in the beginning, children are not at all so sure. And so we need to become much more perceptive, also about that giving. Are we giving people things that will actually make them happy or not? And therefore, again, thinking about happiness, one's own and that of other people, involves trying to take the perspective of those other people, and really to try to see what is going to be the best for them.

SEABROOK: Well, you do bring up morality quite a bit in the book. And you're almost suggesting that happiness does not have to be associated with morality. It's not immoral, but just amoral.

Ms. BOK: Well, it certainly is true, if we stop to think, that there are a lot of people who seem happy, who are not at all impressive from a moral point of view, so that it's very much too simple to think that happiness and being nice and kind and altruistic - that those two things always combine. It doesn't.

There are some really awful people who may very well actually be happy, and there are some unbelievably kind and lovely human beings who nevertheless, are suffering.

SEABROOK: How do people judge their happiness, from Socrates, Voltaire and Montaigne to now?

Ms. BOK: How do people judge their happiness? Well, one thing is simply to ask oneself, and there you can take on the one hand, moment to moment, am I happy right now? Was I happy yesterday? What kinds of ups and downs have I gone through?

And on the other hand, a very different kind of question is: Am I satisfied with my life as I look back? Even though I may have had a lot of happy moments, is that what I really wanted to do with my life? That's a very different question.

SEABROOK: We're talking with Sissela Bok. The book is called "Exploring Happiness," and we'll get more of your calls in just a moment. We'd like to hear from you about where you learned about happiness. Who taught you what that means and how to achieve it?

The number is 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email; the address is talk@npr.org. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Sissela Bok is the author of "Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science." And Ms. Bok, I want to ask you, there's a certain line of thought that seems to be pretty prominent, talking about happiness, and it's brought up by one of our listeners, Nancy Griffith(ph) in Sacramento, California. She says: I wonder if the guest would comment on Abe Lincoln's statement, people are about as happy as they set out to be - this sort of purposeful, mindful kind of happiness.

Ms. BOK: I'm interested that Abe Lincoln said that. In a way, it's what we would like to believe, perhaps, that we can set out to be happy and if we do, we shall be happy. It's not clear that his own life worked out exactly like this, judging from biographies, and I think much more enters in.

Things can happen that one simply cannot plan in advance, and it's not possible, I think, to do what many self-help books say; namely, simply to quote-unquote choose happiness.

One has to do a lot more about it, and one also has to think through what happiness should mean in one's life. And there, again, we come back to moral questions. Even if I can set out to be happy, is that what I really want to do with my life, or are there some other things that matter more, perhaps?

SEABROOK: Then who are the happiest people?

Ms. BOK: Ah, who are the happiest people? There, researchers have done a lot over the last few years, you know, with questionnaires all through the world, comparing different countries, different societies, different levels of education, different levels of wealth and poverty.

So they've made a lot of comparisons. And I, because I'm of Swedish origin, I couldn't help noticing that Scandinavians, on the whole, score quite highly on those questionnaires. So do the Dutch and the Swiss - and the Costa Ricans, interestingly.

There are all kinds of differences that make for the differences among the responses to these questions.

SEABROOK: Now, it can't just be nationality.

Ms. BOK: No, it's not nationality, I think, at all. It does have to do with a variety of factors. One has to do one is really, how secure do you feel in your society? Is it a society, for instance, that is at peace? Is it a society where you have some expectation that you're going to get community support if you are in poor health or in other kinds of trouble?

But then there are other elements as well. It does seem, for instance, that Latin American societies, even though they may be poorer, very often, that there is something that brings about greater cheer often, comparatively, in their societies.

SEABROOK: Let's take a couple calls. Carol(ph) in Sturgis, Michigan. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CAROL (Caller): Hi there, yes, Sturgis, Michigan. How are you today?

SEABROOK: Good, thanks for calling.

Ms. BOK: Hello, Carol.

CAROL: Hi there, Ms. Bok. You know, I think your comment about choosing to be happy is interesting, and it sort of leads into the two things in my life that helped me to be happy. I'm 62 years old, and my father taught me at a very young age that I should always live my life in such a way that when I reached advanced age I don't know if I'm advanced age now, but I'm getting there that I would be able to look back and never be sorry for the way that I lived my life, to try to achieve everything that I could achieve, and be the kind of person that I knew was the right person to be.

And then in my teenage years, young teenage years, there was a song that came out by Donavan: Happiness runs in a circular motion, you can be happy if you let yourself be. And that song throughout my life has - with my father's advice and that song, has just made an incredible impact on the way that I worked and chose, I think, chose to be happy.

I really did choose to be happy. I mean, good and bad things happened to me in my life, but I worked through them in a way that at the end, I always ended up being happy, and I know that I'm really fortunate for that.

SEABROOK: Thank you so much for your call, Carol. Go ahead, Ms. Bok.

Ms. BOK: Yes, I'm very interested in your father's advice, and then also in the song and in your combining those two. And certainly, you can interpret the word choose to be happy in such a way as to sort of consider the way you lead your life.

If you lead your life in a way, in such a way that you can look back and not be ashamed of things you've done in the past, that's already, I think, very comforting. And then, however, to deal with problems in the way that you mentioned having dealt with them, that can also help.

And yet there must have been times for you when things have been so difficult that you might say, well, I wish I could choose to be happy right now but frankly, I don't think I can.

SEABROOK: Let's go to Veronica(ph) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

VERONICA (Caller): Hi, my comment is about expectations. For me, that's where happiness or disappointment stems from. Growing up like most teens, you know, accepting what you look like, what you sound like, where you're from. And for me, I have really large teeth.

And one day, I just decided - maybe at 10 or 12 - like, I have teeth, though. You know, I have so much to be thankful for, and it's okay. This is me, and I don't know. From that, it touched everything in my life, and I feel like I'm at peace, like beyond happiness. I feel like I'm at peace.

My friends tease me. They call me a silver liner finder. I'm that person that they call when like, they can't see the good in anything, you know. So I don't know. To me, it's just about peace.

Ms. BOK: And that, I think you've touched on something that I think is very important from the point of view of exploring happiness - namely, trying to understand who you are. That's the beginning of the whole if you really understand who you are and what your expectations are, as you mentioned, then that's already going some way.

And then I also think you mentioned, you know, the possibility of being grateful for what one has. And gratitude has is extremely important, as many of the writers on happiness mention. Even then, I think we have to step back and ask: Am I grateful for things that maybe I have and other people don't have, and maybe I'm shutting myself off from understanding them?

But on the whole, yes, being able to be grateful for what you have and being able to accept who you are, that certainly is a very good starting point.

SEABROOK: Thank you so much for your call, Veronica. We have lots of emails coming in. A simple one, from Michael(ph). He says: Happiness comes from God.

Ms. BOK: Ah, happiness comes from God. Now, you see, then you have to stop and ask which God. There are many different people who, of course, have different religious beliefs. And indeed, that makes some of them happy. Not others, especially those who might be very fearful, for instance, of what might happen to them in the afterlife.

So I don't think it can be as simple as that, though it is certainly religious views, and they're very important in my book - comparing the different religious views about what makes for happiness and what does not. Some religious views, of course, say that there is not much you can do about happiness in this life. You have to wait for the next life. Others look at it very differently.

SEABROOK: Sissela Bok, I want to ask you something that keeps tweaking me in my head, and that is: Is this question really one of privilege? Are we only able to contemplate this because we are so rich, as a culture, and comfortable? We start to ask ourselves these sort of philosophical questions because we're not, you know, picking coffee all the time.

Ms. BOK: Ah, yes, that is a very interesting question, but the fact is that ever since the beginning of time - when people, of course, often have not at all been particularly well off - they have been asking that and sometimes, at times of great misery.

Even now, when we look at research from the world over, the fact is that most countries, however poor, have - in most countries, the majority of people are moderately or very happy, or say they are.

So yes, it can certainly happen that privileged people have more time to sit back and ask about their own happiness. But in every society, people have done so and sometimes, especially when things are really difficult.

SEABROOK: Alice(ph) in Prescott, Arizona, hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ALICE (Caller): Hi.

SEABROOK: Hi, go ahead.

Ms. BOK: Hi.

ALICE: Hi there. Well, my comment is - and people are sort of talking similarly to this - do you look at your glass as if it were half-empty or half-full?

Ms. BOK: Yes.

ALICE: You have the same quantity of things, but are you disappointed about what you don't have, or are you glad about the milk that's half-full in the glass?

And I have, for a long time now, chosen to live my life looking at all the good I have in my life. And by far not a perfect life, but I do have a great deal of good, and I try to focus on what I have and deal with any problems that come up, but not let them overwhelm me or get me down, or dwell on them.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Alice. Go ahead.

Ms. BOK: Thank you very much. Yes. And that whole question of how you look at your life - the glass half-empty, as you say, or glass half-full - that's certainly is something important to consider in your life. And people differ very much from the point of view of how they look at particular circumstances. At the same time, there's a real danger, of course, in shutting out evidence that might be very important to you because it might disturbing, also. And there are some people who go through life very cheerfully without noticing, for instance, that they might be making trouble for their children or their husband or their friends, or something like that - simply shutting out evidence, shutting out information that might disturb them. So we always have to be able to look, again, at a number of perspectives at ourselves and asking ourselves, you know, yeah. It's very good that I'm so happy. It's very good that I'm so cheerful. But am I leaving something out? Am I forgetting to ask important questions?

SEABROOK: Okay. Don in Charleston, South Carolina.

DON (Caller): Yes. I had an unexpected experience of joy in my mostly rather dreary life earlier this summer. I've been - had an old, old border collie, and he almost died - and spent weeks, you know, just waiting on him hand and foot and feeding him through an eyedropper. And he's recovered pretty well, but it was a very difficult experience. But at times, it was just a lot more satisfying than, you know, normal work and all.

And I've had a great aunt that took care of her sister when she was in her late 80s, that the younger sister was - the older sister was well into her 90s. And you just didn't - I just didn't understand how it was humanly possible to care for an invalid at that age. But I - kind of seeing now maybe what kept her going through all that.

Ms. BOK: Yes. Your description, that's really very important. And to go through the experience that you had of joy, as you say, and what you found and what you could do, that could, in turn, teach you to look at how other people deal with difficulties - and the joy that they might find even in circumstances that could seem very, very difficult. So that's a real learning experience, I think.

SEABROOK: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

A couple of emails along that same point. From Sheila, in Florida - Jacksonville -we hear: When I finally understood that perhaps all of the unpleasantness I had experienced in my life was a lesson, is when she learned about happiness. That lesson is to learn the ability to identify and really know what happiness is. How can you really know what happiness if you've never experienced unhappiness?

And here's an email that I think everyone can identify with. This is from Brian in San Antonio, Texas. He writes: My wife and I had a discussion about happiness last night, where she complained about not knowing how to find happiness. She's so stressed at work that she can't find the time to explore what would make her happy. I thought about recommending yoga but with twin children and her two jobs, time is a precious commodity for her. So, same question, isn't it?

Ms. BOK: Yes, it is. I'm very interested both in Sheila's and in Brian's, and those - what they're talking about really, again, is trying to explore what it is that makes for happiness, how we can deal - stress, I think, is just something that everybody would agree makes it more difficult to find, sort of, spot of happiness in the midst of terrible pressures. But it's that kind of exploring, discussing with one's wife, thinking through one's life that, to me, makes me think that exploring happiness is a kind of lifetime undertaking, and one can learn a lot from other people and from oneself.

SEABROOK: And it's hard to tell someone with two children and two jobs, oh, just choose to be happy. Doesn't always works that way, huh?

Ms. BOK: Right. I think that is a very good point. Just choosing doesn't work. On the other hand, there may very well be things that one can do to improve the situation, once one steps back and says, okay, are all these elements in my life ones that I must have there? Or can I choose, perhaps, to set some aside for a later time?

SEABROOK: Now, Sissela Bok, I have to know: What did you ultimately hope to achieve by joining together the writings and thinking and results of philosophers, writers, poets, scientists - all of these different students of happiness?

Ms. BOK: What I wanted to achieve very much, by bringing all those perspectives together, was to deepen the perception that people might have - readers and others - of what's really involved in happiness. But also, very much, I would hope - because I think that we're very much at the very beginning of research and understanding of happiness - I would hope that we could have what you might call a greater and more profound science of happiness that draws on all the different perspectives without leaving out, at all, the ethical perspective.

SEABROOK: Are you happy?

Ms. BOK: Well, I would have to say that I am. And there, I'm a little worried, because I have noticed that many happiness researchers also tend to think that they are. It is possible that one talks oneself into some of that. But I have to say that I am very grateful for so many things, and I have learned from experiences, and also experiences that the callers have pointed to in this very program. One learns so much. And one learns, I think, to understand happiness. And one learns to understand things that one should be grateful for in one's life.

SEABROOK: So perhaps the lesson from you, Sissela Bok, and from this book, is keep studying, keep thinking and contemplating one's own happiness.

Ms. BOK: Keep exploring and thinking about your own, but very much also that of other people - and trying to understand different perspectives, and trying to learn from experiences such as the ones we've been hearing about this hour but also, of course, in the various books that I've been talking about, and studies.

SEABROOK: Sissela Bok's newest book is "Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science." You can check out an excerpt from the book on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us from the studios at MIT in Cambridge. Sissela Bok, thank you so much.

Ms. BOK: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SEABROOK: Up next, the massive egg recall could get even bigger. We'll talk about food safety, the recall and the salmonella outbreak.

Stay with us. I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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