The Secrets of Happiness: Three thousand years of searching for the good life

by
02 November 2006

Profile Books 15.99 (1-86197-909-6); Church Times Bookshop 14.

Between Plato and Prozac: David Self considers the 3000-year-old pursuiof happine

ACCORDING to the surveys, sex makes everyone feel better. The second-besthing appears to be having a drink after work with your friends. Lesobviously, work also contributes greatly to human happiness. Even morsurprisingly, four per cent of us enjoy traffic jams. Happiness means differenthings to different people.

Nowadays, however, a great number of us regard happiness as our birthrightand, if we feel deprived of the sensation, we turn to anti-depressants, a lifcoach, alcohol, or even Botox.

This is Richard Schoch's premise: "Somewhere between Plato and Prozachappiness stopped being a lofty achievement and became an entitlement." He thetakes us on a 3000-year journey, in which he considers the differing attitudeto happiness of the Epicureans, the Stoics, the 18th-century Utilitarian(notably the philosopher Jeremy Bentham), and the great world faiths.

He begins his chapter on Christianity by suggesting that one result of thincarnation was that happiness came to be understood as "an intimatrelationship with God", and that only in the next life could true happiness bexperienced. Not until the 13th century did the medieval Church "allow a morearthbound approach", in Thomas Aquinas's teaching that "God wants us to finhappiness," having pointed us in the direction of bliss at the moment ocreation.

Professor Schoch also reminds us that Aquinas (whose thinking was shaped ipart by Aristotle) taught that it was "unnatural for mankind to turn away frohappiness". For Aquinas, that goal lay not in bodily perfection, but in uniowith God. Even so (we are reminded), Aquinas did not regard the body as "thlocus of shame": on his deathbed, the theologian called for the Song of Songto be read to him.

The Christian reader will find interest in other chapters. For exampleEpicurus taught that happiness was achieved not through bodily satisfactionbut in quiet contentment. Mystic Sufi Muslims attain happiness by overcominselfishness. An ancient story about a Bedouin sheikh, which a Hebrew poeturned into the Book of Job, teaches us that happiness is won by asking, in thmidst of suffering: "What does life expect of me?"

The author may be writing for atheists and agnostics as much as believersall will benefit from his humanity, humour, and warmth - even if his finaanswer is that life is a process of striving, and that it is in that strivinthat true happiness lie

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