The Happy Life by David Malouf

I stumbled upon The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World by David Malouf at the local library. It was on a front-piece or thematic shelf and caught my eye.

Drawing on mythology, philosophy, art and literature, Malouf traces our conception of happiness throughout history, distilling centuries of thought into a lucid narrative. He discusses the creation myths of ancient Greece and the philosophical schools of Athens, analyzes Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary declaration that “the pursuit of happiness” is a right, explores the celebration of sensual delight in Rembrandt and Rubens and offers a perceptive take on a modern society growing larger and more impersonal.

I believe the only book of Malouf’s that I have every read was Ransom but it was a short book on an interesting subject which appealed to me in this season of my reading discontent. So I grabbed it and added it to the pile of mostly children’s books I was lugging home.  This weekend I read it.

It was an interesting read; a sort of discursive discussion of happiness and the changing nature of that term. A dose of the ancient western world, some Montaigne, a dash of Thomas Jefferson, some Dostoevsky and musings on our hyper-technological world.

Malouf notes that happiness is surprisingly hard to pin down.  Too often we associate happiness with material things  – the good life. But why when in the developed world so much of the material life is provided for (at least at a basic level) are we so unhappy.

Malouf explores the perhaps unintentional radicalism of the inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness” in the  Declaration of Independence; Montaigne’s idea of knowing how to “belong to yourself” of finding comfort in solitude and self-knowledge; the way technology might be taking us beyond the boundaries of what we can seem to grasp in a natural and ordered way; and the singular and unique nature of happiness.

Malouf seems draw to the stoicism and moderation of the ancient world.  Throughout he gives short shift to religion; relegating it to things like guilt and restraint.  And he wonders whether the modern world is full of stress and anxiety because it has lost all proportion to our bodies, communities and natural scope of thought.

On the other hand, the most interesting section of the essay explores how according to a Platonic creation myth, the French philosopher Condorcet and a 17th devotional poem man is defined by his movement, by his constant seeking for ever-increasing power and innovation; that our minds or driven to motion rather than rest. This brings much reward but seems to prevent contentment and rest.

Malouf doesn’t offer much in the way of answers.  His conclusion, based on Dostoevsky, seems to be that happiness is carved out of small moments and is more basic and contingent that we would like admit.

Those of you of a philosophical and literary bent will enjoy these musings I would think.  But they really are just that, musings rather than tight and clean conclusions.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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