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IN PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS: Better Living From Plato to Prozac

By Mark Kingwell
393 pages, $25

Mark Kingwell's overblown ode to finding happiness is easy to dismiss. The premise itself is suspect: It's a slowly unfolding, under-edited book on our futile search for happiness in this age of abundance. Even if you can excuse his faulty assumption -- wouldn't a self-absorbed search for happiness be less successful than doing something in hopes that happiness comes as a byproduct? -- Kingwell gives you an Eveready Rabbit of a book. It just keeps going and going.

Then there's a criticism any skeptic quickly draws -- the book was written in response to Kingwell's repeated (and we mean repeated) denial of tenure. Kingwell's inability to get a job drives the 300-plus pages he writes about that elusive quality of happiness. Not the stuff of high drama or timeless conflict.

It's difficult to embrace a book on happiness by an author who doesn't inspire respect or affection.

It happens slowly, but Kingwell wins you over. How can someone be all bad who starts taking Prozac (obtained by unmentioned shady means) so he can write in his book whether or not his depressive mood lifts? (It didn't. Kingwell says his spirits improved when he stopped taking it.) Who can turn his back on an author who says the St. John's Wort natural remedy he experimented with elicited an auditory hallucination that sounded like the Linda Blair exorcist voice saying, "Beg for me?" (Kingwell's explanation: his wife was yawning.)

Somewhere between Kingwell paying thousands to attend what he calls a "Happy Camp" in rural Massachusetts and sorting through the extensive happiness literature of Western intellectual tradition, a likable and credible guide to a probably unanswerable question emerges.

Kingwell is no dummy. Besides his readable sorting through happiness thought from Socrates to Freud, Kingwell defines his search using something solvable: He tells us what happiness is not.

It is not endlessly repeating the intoxication of alcohol, sex, drugs or ego gratification. "This is not living life to its fullest," he writes. "It is living life in a permanent state of alternating excitation and self-denial."

It is not having the best car or best house or best meal.

"A person in this condition either lurches from pleasure to pleasure, satisfying appetites but never achieving personal satisfaction, or he collapses into a psychic shambles of self-hatred," says Kingwell. "This, then, is the deepest form of unhappiness we can imagine, the one in which we are not at peace with ourselves."

Even love -- that experience that supposedly bridges so many unsolvable gaps -- is suspect.

"How is it that happiness can include, apparently as a necessary condition, so much potential unhappiness? How is it that love, which brings so much strength, should also entail this enduring vulnerability, this dreadful potential for pain?"

Gradually, he gets around to delivering the goods. After reading through all the thick preambles and academic musings, what is happiness all about anyway?

Unlike other authors offering happiness formulas, Kingwell is wise enough to avoid any golden pill of success. Instead, he leads discussions. And as much as the skeptic meter goes off over the words "human journey," this approach seems to work well in this case.

"Happiness is not about feeling good all the time," he writes in one passage that has particular resonance. "It is, rather, about the ability to reflect on one's life and find it worthwhile -- to see it as satisfactory. Work is an important ingredient in that satisfaction, because it gives purpose to our existence, places us in a structure of goals and tasks and furnishes the incomparable personal rewards of achievement; the sense, so deeply pleasurable, that one has done something impressive and maybe even lasting.

"Happiness is not simply a feeling or emotion; it is a connection to the world; a realization of one's place within it."

Kingwell agrees with Aristotle, who linked the good, virtuous life to the happy life. Honor, understanding, knowledge, pursuit of excellence and truth: the path to these virtues also leads to happiness.

Kingwell devotes much attention to what he calls the narrative hypothesis, the idea we all need to live lives that make sense in terms of a story. Our personal narrative hypothesis confirms rather than unsettles our sense of ourselves as worthwhile and meaningful people. It carries healing potential. "I come to terms with a traumatic event or dramatic personal failing by successfully constructing a story of my life that makes it mesh with the other acts or chapters in the drama."

The narrative drama doesn't solve problems, he says. But it does provide a useful way of thinking about them.

So for those looking for Kingwell's wisdom in brief, here it is: Ask yourself this question: What is the good for me (taking into close account Aristotle's ideas of how the good and virtue are very close indeed)? Then ask yourself how best to live out that unity and bring it to completion under that personal narrative hypothesis.

Want one sentence? Try this: Am I living a life that can be judged worth living?

Sound too abstract and mushy? The best formula for happiness I've heard in a long time came from the author of "Ask First Sunday," the irreverent but excruciatingly insightful advice columnist in The News' monthly Sunday magazine. The writer (who, despite urgings to be outed, insists on anonymity) created these tips for preserving mental health (which as anyone worthwhile knows, is the same as happiness):

Slow down. Get enough rest. Spend time alone. Spend time with friends. Do something creative. Indulge your senses. Do something altruistic. And materialistic things will only enhance your life if you make some personal sacrifice to attain them.

Kingwell's book has a great footnote. After spending a good part of his book whining and lamenting about his unsuccessful job search -- psychic pain that clearly jumpstarted his book, by the way -- he was granted tenure at the University of Toronto just after "In Pursuit of Happiness" was released. He puts this information in the preface.

This is the final act that endears Kingwell to readers, a profound belly laugh to life's absurdity and serendipity. Kingwell takes it in stride. "I remain as troubled as ever about the way we are all subject to the power of self-imposed expectations to make us miserable," he writes.

"Just as your mother and mine used to say, sometimes you get what you want just as soon as you stop wishing for it."

It's possible, Kingwell admits, his colleagues gave him a permanent job just to shut him up. More likely, Kingwell would put this event into his personal narrative hypothesis and quote, as he does often, the ancient Athenian philosopher Solon.

"Call no man happy," the wise man said, "until he is dead."