Peter Jones

Horace still understands happiness better than the LSE

The art of matching pleasure with purpose

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So here comes another book about how to be happy, written by Professor Dolan, an ‘internationally renowned expert’ at the LSE. The key evidently lies in ‘pleasure and purpose’, derived from your ‘daily felt experiences’, an analysis hymned in the introduction by a Nobel prize-winner as a ‘bold and original move’. Really?

Since Dolan asserts that happiness derives from your ‘felt experiences’ (or ‘paying attention to the things that make you happy’), he is simply saying that it is a state of mind. Very original. This old hat is a form of 4th century bc Stoicism, which asserted that happiness depended on what went on inside your head, because that was all that you could ultimately control. And the ‘pleasure’ principle is, of course, pure Epicurus, inventor of hedonism (341-270 bc).

To the objection that moral value appears not to play any part in the equation, Dolan asserts that ‘happiness is the arbiter of the rightness of what makes you happy’. Socrates has endless fun with this absurd claim in his dialogue Gorgias. Take, for instance, the man who thinks that happiness lies in holding power, but the man currently in power is a savage, lawless despot — the leader of Isis, say. To win the despot’s confidence and his own happiness, the man must turn himself into an equally lawless savage. He is now happy; therefore he is right. That at least is ‘bold’.

Further, Dolan affirms that altruism plays no part in his theory, because altruism is always ‘selfish’. But as Aristotle points out, indifference to others denies us the relationships of trust and co-operation implicit in the term ‘society’, to which mutuality is the key.

Finally, the whole formulation is half-witted. ‘Purpose’ (Dolan means ‘purposefulness’) is simply a means (one, surely, among many) to an end; ‘pleasure’ is the end. A far more intelligent and helpful key was formulated by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 bc) in a literary context: mixing utile — being useful, which adds the vital social element, with dulci — providing pleasure.