“Happiness: A History” by Darrin McMohan
21 Aug 2008
A New Yorker book review by John Lanchester of the book Happiness: A History (544 pages, 2006) by Darrin M. McMahon, is pretty awesome! By tracing the history of the word 'happiness' over the last two thousand years, the book is the historiography of Western happiness. Eastern philosophers approach 'happiness' differently.
Virtuosity and Happiness

The book review notes that prior to the Industrial Revolution, virtuosity was the goal of Western life, with no guarantee that virtuous behavior would lead to 'happiness', which was associated with fate or blessings. These sentiments resonate with the first verse of Bhagwad Gita: "Karmanye Vadhika Raste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana", which means that one should do one's duty without eying its rewards. In the same spirit, 'Service before Self' is the guiding motto of many institutions. With Industrial Revolution, basic necessities of life became more abundant and more predictably available so that 'happiness' slowly got equated with pleasure and 'pursuit of happiness' got equated to one's goal of life.

Equanimity and Happiness

Eastern philosophy emphasizes equanimity instead of happiness. The word equanimity denotes composure in the face of situations that give us pleasure or pain. For example, in Buddhist insight meditation, a practitioner is instructed to notice both pleasurable and painful bodily sensations with equanimity: without craving for pleasurable sensations or aversion to painful sensations. This trains the mind to react without craving or aversion in any situation, thereby maintaining equanimity under all circumstances. Such mental training is different from the modern approach of pursuit of pleasurable sensations and employment of 'stress reduction techniques' when painful sensations arise.

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