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What We Can Learn About Our Own Happiness

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Were it not for my young mother's ideas about happiness, I would never have seen the light of day. She had come close to death after a traumatic miscarriage, then developed a large uterine tumor. Her doctors had urged her to undergo a hysterectomy to remove the tumor, warning her of the high risks to her life from any future pregnancy. But she had refused point blank to have an operation that would have rendered her sterile. Convinced that there could be little happiness for parents in what she called "miniature families," she longed to have siblings for the one child she and my father had at the time -- my brother Jan, three years old.

Five decades later, I came across a letter in which my father supported her decision to refuse the hysterectomy and opt for a more difficult operation to remove only the tumor. "We are putting the outcome in the hand of fate. We have always had magical luck up to now with all that we have undertaken, and I don't understand why that should not be the case again."

As I read that letter, I could see my life, still to come, hanging by a thread, while my mother-to-be, shy and uncertain though she must have felt when confronted with the doctors' expert opinion, insisted on having her own way. Only thanks to the decision my father describes and the luck he and she hoped would continue to be theirs did I come into this astounding world at all. For that opportunity I continue to be awed and humbly grateful.

When I look at my life and those of all others as resulting thus from innumerable twists of fate, I see these lives as strange and unpredictable adventures. It makes no sense, from such a perspective, to settle into the rut of blaming parents, society, or fate for the course one's life has taken; or to feel locked into some particular mold that nothing can help one crack open. Yes, we are buffeted by forces and random events far beyond our control. But this is no reason to stop generating efforts of our own, to alter the situations in which we find ourselves, as my mother did.

Happiness, in such a perspective, is to be sought out, pursued, striven for, as in the myths and folk tales about young persons setting out to seek their fortune. They have no assurance of success, no assurance that happiness is owed to them. They have to traverse unknown regions, encounter seductive lures, take high-stakes risks, sometimes come back empty-handed. They must find the right balance between empathy and resilience -- between fellow-feeling and self-protection - as they learn to perceive the humanity and the urgent needs of many a strange-looking creature, while remaining wary of all who claim to know the one and only path to happiness.

The same is true for anyone embarking, as I have in writing about happiness, not so much on a quest to find it, still less to prescribe steps for others to take to achieve it, as to explore what we can learn about its nature and its role in human lives. Just as the seekers in myths and folk tales need more than a little luck in order not to return empty-handed, so does anyone setting out to study happiness today. Even as those seekers benefit from combining sympathetic understanding with a dose of healthy skepticism, so did I when I ventured into the jungle of claims and counterclaims about happiness.

Looking back to when I first set out to explore the subject of happiness, I find that the undertaking has been just the kind of adventure I hoped for. I have relished the chance to examine today's striking scientific findings against the background of the long-standing traditions of reflection by philosophers, religious thinkers, poets, and so many others -- all while taking my departure from what people say about their own experience of states of mind such as bliss, joy, elation, contentment, pleasure, euphoria, happiness, ecstasy. I have found that when people ask what my book is about, and I tell them, the very mention of the word "happiness" almost invariably leads them to hesitate, as if to look inwards, then recount some intense experience of being overcome by happiness -- a great burden lifted, maybe, an unexpected piece of good fortune, a blinding insight, or a deepened awareness of great beauty. Some people respond far more deeply, broadly, intensely to what they experience than others, much as some respond more intensely to what they see than those who are color blind or have weak eye sight. Part of seeking to learn about the experience of happiness has to involve asking ourselves how we can come to perceive it more vividly in its many forms.

Sissela Bok's new book, "Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle To Brain Science," can be ordered here.