The Secrets of Happiness by Richard Schoch

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The Secrets of Happiness by Richard Schoch

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Category: Home and Family
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A breezy and accessible survey of 3,000 years of thinking about the persistent human quest for happiness, from Buddha to Bentham.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861979896

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If The Secrets of Happiness is mistakenly shelved among the growing ranks of self-help manuals in bookshops, it should carry a health warning. I won't say the book depressed me, but I was left under no illusion as to the winding, precipitous and uncertain nature of the road to happiness.

Richard Schoch, professor of the history of culture at Queen Mary College, London, is clearly at home with the thinkers from the past three millennia, whose lives and writings his book traverses. Yet he manages to communicate the salient points of their philosophies in an informal, accessible style.

As a non-philosopher, I can't assess how much he simplifies in this brief overview. But his tone doesn't seem to patronise, even when he relates the thoughts of Seneca, Buddha and Epicurus in terms that most of us would understand: gyms; Bentleys; hangovers; he even mentions Scarlett Johansson.

The book covers the gamut of theories about happiness - from the "cold-hearted logic" of Jeremy Bentham's balance-sheet approach, where the happiness of the greatest number can be legislated for, through to the unbelievable stoicism of Holocaust victims. Oddly, I found more food for thought about happiness in that extreme example of human misery than in all his abstract discussions of virtue and reincarnation, or in the far-distant lives of Roman emperors.

In fact the most inspiring moment in the book comes when Schoch quotes the memoir of Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl. Frankl wrote of those who walked through the concentration camp huts giving away their last pieces of bread. They showed him that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances".

That quote comes in the last of the book's four sections, in which Schoch discusses how suffering need not be a bar to happiness. Previously he covers three other key themes which run through most thinking on the subject: pleasure, desire, and reason. What may surprise and dismay readers who see happiness as a right, is that many great thinkers agree that it is nothing to do with the avoidance of suffering or the fulfilment of desire. In fact it's often the opposite.

Uncovering such paradoxes is this book's most valuable achievement. Neither it, nor the philosophies it surveys, will give you much practical advice on how to be happy. But they do give you starting points for your own thinking and your exploration of what happiness means for you.

If they share little else in common, most of the great minds of the past agree on one thing: happiness won't come from outside. Indeed, it has to be independent of your circumstances. Only through an inner journey can you map your own path to happiness.

I was impressed by Schoch's generosity towards often contradictory schools of thought. Although he did, for me, overdo the stress on the theistic traditions. Readers like me, who approach the book from a modern, secular point of view, will identify least with those for whom happiness can exist only in a literal afterlife, or in a life spent yearning for one.

Yet, by accommodating such philosophies, and encouraging us to do so, he says something important about their value, even those which may seem alien. In the pursuit of happiness, he implies, whether you call it enlightenment, fulfilment, God or heaven, the journey is as - if not more - important than the destination.

My thanks to the publishers for forwarding this book.

If you're interested in thinking about humanity's place in the scheme of things, and the existence or otherwise of God, you may also enjoy A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins. You might also enjoy Not Exactly - In Praise Of Vagueness by Kees van Deemter.

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Jill said:

Oh, how fascinating. I suppose, then, as the founding fathers would have us believe, it's the pursuit of happiness that is our right. Or rather, it's our duty.

Magda said:

Oh, any book that reminds us that happiness has not much to do with the avoidance of suffering or the fulfilment of desire is to be welcomed in our obsessively navel-gazing era.

Psychological studies generally tend to show that - unfortunately - happiness is more of a personality, or even temperamental trait than effect of anything that happens to us or that we do. I think it's a very good reason why making people happy should NOT be a political aim: people can be happy in pretty much any circumstances (maybe apart from the very extreme ones).