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A concise and engaging exploration of how we understand happiness.
What does it mean to feel happiness? As a state of mind, it’s elusive. As a concept—despite the plethora of pop psychology books on the subject—it’s poorly understood. In this volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, psychologist Tim Lomas offers a concise and engaging overview of our current understanding of happiness. Lomas explains that although the field of positive psychology, which focuses on happiness, emerged only in the last twenty-five years, interest in the meaning of happiness goes back several millennia. Drawing on a variety of disciplines, from philosophy and sociology to economics and anthropology, Lomas offers an expansive vision of what happiness means, exploring a significant range of experiential territory.
After considering such related concepts as wellbeing and flourishing, Lomas traces ideas of happiness from the ancient Buddhist notions of sukha and nirvana through Aristotle’s distinction between hedonic and eudaemonic happiness to today’s therapeutic and scientific approaches. He discusses current academic perspectives, looking at the breadth of happiness research across disciplines; examines the mechanics of happiness—the physiological, psychological, phenomenological, and sociocultural processes that make up happiness; explores the factors that influence happiness, both individual and social; and discusses the cultivation of happiness.
Happiness is "elusive" and "poorly understood," suggests Lomas (Translating Happiness), a research affiliate at Harvard's Human Flourishing Program, in this straightforward introduction to the concept. Lomas defines happiness as "a desirable mental experience of quality, which encompasses wide swathes of psychological states relating to well-being," and notes that the term didn't take on that definition until the 1590s, when "burgeoning secularism began to generate new modes of inquiry." Lomas explores what it meant to be happy in Mesopotamia (the small joys emphasized in The Epic of Gilgamesh give a good glimpse) and BCE China (when constant change was believed to be the path to well-being), as well as the role of happiness in religion, such as the joy of the mitzvah in Judaic teachings. Turning to the present, Lomas examines how happiness has been conceptualized by science, expertly drawing on genetics, neurochemistry, and psychology, and offering a taxonomy of 14 "flavors" of the emotion, including hedonic, mature, vital, evaluative, and accomplished. Lomas sagely observes that there's "a blurry line between whether something can be deemed to create happiness... or influence it," and while the more academic second half will best suit philosophy or psychology students, the first half will work its charm on all comers. Readers with an interest in positive psychology will find this a fine place to start.