An examination of our various definitions of happiness, written by philosopher Kingwell (Dreams of Millennium, 1997) with erudition and wit.
Kingwell’s formidable task is to take on the topic of happiness, avoid the usual grandiose or sentimental approaches, and transcend (without avoiding) the efforts of Madison Avenue, the feel-good gurus and therapists, and the A to Z of happiness products (alcohol to Zoloft). There are several prongs to his attack. He recaps several millennia of philosophical inquiry on the subject (Aristotle to George Burns) in his description of a weekend at a Maslov-inspired, Esalen Institute–type retreat. There he contemplates happiness amid the group’s exploration of feelings, their generous bear hugs, and their attempts at self-actualization. Kingwell remains an aloof, slightly cynical academic among these “near-suicidal depressives and possible schizophrenics”: he even tries Prozac and St. John’s Wort, but he gets no dopamine rush and notices no change whatsoever beyond the usual tedious side-effects. There are some dense passages of philosophy (from Solon or Boethius) included in Kingwell’s musings, but he also finds time to consider why Star Trek’s utopianism makes us feel good and to compare the relative virtues of overweight comedians (from The Honeymooners, Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show, and The Simpsons). These large Americans, Kingwell claims, represent our consumer culture’s satisfaction of appetites—the low road to happiness. Kingwell’s high road involves the virtue theory of happiness, pleasures more anticipated and remembered, our Founding Fathers’ property-based pursuit of happiness, and the words of Voltaire (“we must cultivate our garden”).
The ample bibliography and index attest to Kingwell’s wide learning, while the easy mix of popular culture and academic philosophy reflects well on his formidable writing skills.