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"Not since antiquity have there been such passionate debates as those taking place today about contending visions of what makes for human happiness."

So writes Sissela Bok, an internationally esteemed moral philosopher, at the start of her elegant new book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science.

The operative word of the title is "exploring." There's no prescription. Contrary to what you might think – or more to the point, what you have been led to believe – happiness is not as easy to achieve as following a step-by-step guide.

The longing for it is a central tenet of the human condition, and that in itself makes it complex, layered, nuanced, idiosyncratic and ancient.

It's like the desire for love: a universal wish that isn't satisfied in the same way for every person.

"Such a tissue of paradox," Victorian scientist Sir Henry Finck once wrote about the human heart – a beautiful observation I love because it helps explain why the heart's discovery of happiness is just as mysterious as the how, when and why of how it settles upon love.

You can't buy either feeling off-the-rack. It has to work for you and, most important, for your moral conscience. Would you be content, for example, if a consequence of your joy was significant unhappiness for others?

Dr. Bok, a senior fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies who has previously written books on morality in public life and the ethics of secrets, makes her contemplation of happiness as broad as possible by incorporating the observations of poets, authors, social scientists, philosophers and neuroscientists.

Asked why we find ourselves so concerned with happiness now, she explains that it isn't just because of the deluge of new scientific research on the topic, or the lifestyle shifts of modern life. There are always new challenges to happiness, no matter what era we are in, Dr. Bok says.

Rather, she sees a great similarity between now and antiquity (in particular the first century after Christ) in our widening understanding of the world.

"There was a great movement of people in the first century A.D.," she explains. "Many people came up against notions of happiness that never occurred to them. It wasn't like growing up in a small Greek village where, on the whole, people knew what the going idea of happiness was – mostly religious.

"Now, we're at a time when people are having to confront the fact that there are extremely different views on happiness," she continues. "Some of it involves the afterlife. Take, for example, people who believe that if they engage in jihad of a particular kind, they are going to be happy in the next life and so will their relatives. That's something that many have not contemplated."

It helps, then, to know that happiness should be, and always has been, an intellectual puzzle best handled by studying all its variations.

"People need to be more understanding of the different ways there are to look at happiness, and when you do that you learn more about yourself," Dr. Bok says.

Classical thinkers defined happiness as eudaimonia – not an emotional state so much as a human flourishing or excellence that involved virtue. But opinions clashed on the relationship between the two: Could you be happy if you were virtuous and poor, or did you also need some external things, such as wealth, to fully realize your eudaimonic potential?

Aristotle thought you needed morality, intellect and education as well as strength, good health and beauty. Wealth, friends and good children helped, too. Plato and the Stoics, meanwhile, believed that virtue was sufficient.

And does virtue result in happiness, or does happiness lead to virtue? That, too, is worthy of hand-on-forehead intellectual deconstruction. One only has to think of virtuous people who suffer or bad people who are as happy as pigs in mud to realize there are no absolutes.

Dotted throughout the book are observations on happiness from famous people. Sigmund Freud was a pessimist who saw the hope for happiness as illusory. It could come only in brief experiences of satisfied needs, he believed. Mystery author P. D. James feels it in the spring, standing in a complete silence "broken only by the note of a single bird and the susurration of the breeze in the wayside grasses."

Such individual explanations of happiness help reveal the shortcomings of quantitative survey results. Some studies may show that, for many people, happiness comes from going out and being social. But that doesn't correspond to those who cherish solitude. And it doesn't take into account people such as Petrarch, a loner who had a great sense of companionship with Plato, Aristotle and St. Augustine – philosophers who were all dead.

To further complicate matters, aside from the idiosyncratic nature of happiness, our own reporting of it is often unreliable. Dr. Bok recalls that upon the birth of her third child 41 years ago, she noted in her journal how delighted she was to have her children and her husband (Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, whose latest book, The Politics of Happiness, was published last year). But she neglected to note how pleased she was that she had also just finished her doctorate, something that she knows in retrospect to have been a source of great joy.

Such is the fluid complexity of happiness that the omission makes perfect sense.

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