The (Practical) Pursuit of Happiness
Frédéric Lenoir, Translated by Andrew Brown
Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide
(Melville House, 2015)
In a scene from Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall, the main character, Alvy Singer, having recently broken up with his erstwhile girlfriend, Annie, encounters a tall, beautiful couple on a Manhattan street. He stops them and says, “You look like a very happy couple. Are you?” They say yes, and Alvy asks how they account for their happiness. The woman responds, “I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” and her boyfriend answers, “And I’m exactly the same way.” The scene is unforgettable—what a way to be happy! And yet consider the alternative: neurotic, intelligent, self-aware, but unhappy Alvy. What good is being happy if life is empty and boring? And what good is being self-aware if it only leads to anxiety and unhappiness?
But it needn’t be so, and in Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide French philosopher Frédéric Lenoir explores how thoughtfulness and self-reflection can lead to happiness and contentment. Lenoir writes in his introduction, “Happiness is a matter of fate and chance; but it can also stem from a rational, deliberate approach.” One of the book’s central ideas is that happiness “consists entirely in not setting goals that are too high, unattainable and overwhelming,” and that it is best to “hope for happiness and pursue it while being supple and patient, without any excessive expectations, without stress, with hearts and minds in a state of constant openness.” The book itself functions by these same principles. Lenoir aims to give a brief and open look at many philosophers’ thoughts on happiness, and to offer ways in which we might “work” on ourselves to achieve inner happiness. The author sets an attainable goal, and with patience and diligence, the goal is achieved. But here is a question: when you read words like “patience,” “diligence,” and “work,” do you think of happiness? In my mind, those words have more to do with phrases like “the long haul,” or “long-term satisfaction.” Lenoir’s pursuit of happiness is the “long haul” kind, which is certainly useful, admirable, and practical. But what about the kind of happiness that is impractical, wild, surprising, even enchanted—quick-onset happiness that is sudden and vibrant? Both kinds of happiness are appealing; a mix sounds best. Whether or not the reader finds Lenoir’s book useful will depend on the kind of happiness he or she seeks.
Happiness is loosely structured around several questions: Does every human wish to be happy? Does money make us happy? Is happiness contagious? Can we be happy alone? Can the quest for happiness make us unhappy? A chorus of voices from across the ages and continents answer. Flaubert weighs in on egotism: “From the idiot who wouldn’t give a soul to redeem the human race, to the man who dives beneath the ice to rescue a stranger, do we not all seek, according to our various instincts, to satisfy our natures?”; Schopenhauer on personal sensibility: “Our happiness depends on what we are, on our individuality, while in general we take account only of our fate and what we have”; Jules Renard quips on the question of money: “If money doesn’t make you happy, then hand it over to me!” (Lenoir disagrees); and the Stoic sage Epictetus muses on judgment: “[W]hat insults you isn’t the person who abuses you or hits you, but your judgment that such people are insulting you.” Goethe, Jesus, Aristotle, Freud, and Voltaire offer advice, as well.
Lenoir moves deftly from philosopher to philosopher, challenging some and agreeing with others, ultimately reaching the conclusion that through “everyday attentiveness” and by “gaining self-knowledge, mastering our impulses, [and] eliminating disturbing emotions or erroneous mental representations” we can reach an enduring state of inner happiness. At best Lenoir’s brief approach is agile and pithy, at worst it can give Happiness the tone of a Philosophy 101 book for college freshmen, short attention spans in mind. Happiness is concise and seemingly comprehensive—I never doubted that Lenoir is thoughtful and has read widely and well—but if you are hungry for a hearty five-course meal, be advised that this book is more like a 20-course tasting menu.
Still, Lenoir’s basic proposal is an appealing one: why should we merely hope for happiness when we can make it for ourselves? Lenoir cites Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, who states that our aptitude for happiness is approximately 50 percent from the “sensibility of the individual,” 10 percent from external factors (jobs, possessions, relationships), and 40 percent from “personal efforts.” One might wonder how a state as subjective as happiness can be quantified by percent. Lenoir himself writes in the endnotes that he hasn’t “managed to ascertain what methodology governed the investigation, and so I have to confess that I don’t know how such a precise numeral assessment can be made—but I am communicating it to my readers as it stands!” It is a shame that Lenoir relegates this confession to the endnotes; grappling with the modes of measurement would give the book more depth. But say we are willing to take the numbers as they stand. If 40 percent of happiness comes from “personal efforts,” we have our work cut out for us—all the better if that work involves self-reflection (“personal efforts”), rather than obtaining the right car, house, job, or relationship to make us happy.
With its can-do approach, it’s easy to imagine Happiness appealing to many readers, and it has: in Europe the book is a bestseller, having sold over 210,000 copies since its French debut in 2013. A professor at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Lenoir is well known as a philosopher, sociologist, and historian of religion in France. He is the editor of Le Monde des religions, part of the widely read French newspaper Le Monde, and the producer and host of a weekly program on France Culture radio about spirituality and philosophy. Other books by Lenoir have sold around a million copies in 20 countries. Much of his popularity, one might guess, comes from his open and casual way of discussing spirituality. Also: his optimism is refreshing. At one point in Happiness, Lenoir brings in Michel Houellebecq, a writer Adam Gopnik referred to in the New Yorker as “probably the most famous French novelist of his generation.” Lenoir writes that Houellebecq’s novels contain “an astute description of […] narcissistic individualism: his characters are apathetic, egotistic, frustrated, cynical, the adepts of a joyless hedonism and a disabused narcissism.” If the (probably) most famous French novelist of this generation presents, or satirizes, the individual in this way, perhaps Lenoir’s optimistic take on humanity can offer some relief. If we have to be apathetic, egotistic, cynical, etc., why not at least try to be better? Maybe we’re not all that bad—or if we are that bad, maybe we can do something about it.
In the chapter “On the Art of Being Oneself,” Lenoir writes, “People can never be happy if they go against their deeper natures.” Much of how readers will receive Happiness will depend on their “deeper nature.” Optimists will welcome Lenoir’s positivity, and cynics will roll their eyes. I am no cynic, but still winced when reading certain phrases, like the last sentence of the book, describing happiness as “vibrating in harmony with our deepest being.” Lenoir’s accessible, conversational tone enlivens the book. But still: the great risk of writing on topics like happiness, contentment, and joy is veering too far into the realm of self-help genre or New Age language. Both feel stale and occasionally Lenoir skirts the line.
Lenoir accomplishes what he sets out to do in Happiness—he poses interesting questions, offers various perspectives from a wide range of philosophers, and while not telling readers exactly how to be happy, encourages us to work toward achieving inner happiness. It is a book about lasting, everyday happiness. By the end, I found myself wondering not about the everyday, but about those piercing, singular, overpowering moments of happiness, or something even greater than happiness, that stand out so vividly from the day-to-day—the moments that Zadie Smith identifies as “joy” in her essay by the same name. The joy that Smith writes about “doesn’t fit with the everyday.” The joy that is difficult, fleeting, ecstatic, and sometimes terrifying—“And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?”
HILARY REID writes fiction, reviews, and criticism. Reid works for the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books and lives in Brooklyn.