Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.


By Mark Vernon
Acumen Publishing
ISBN 9781844651535
Published in October2008


buy this book


Type ‘how to be happy’ into Google™ and you get 276 million hits. That’s a lot of advice! But why does so much of it – work less, earn more, keep fit – sound so trite? If it were that easy, wouldn’t we all be happy by now? The reason is that a central and tricky question is being glossed over: just what is happiness?

In his absorbing book, Mark Vernon explains that finding happiness is not as simple as having good friends or a full social life. For Vernon, writing as a religious agnostic, the crunch issue is our ability, or inability, to find within ourselves a sense of meaning or deeper purpose, something not found in everyday life. The search for transcendence, argues Vernon, is the greatest challenge of our day. The idea that we are part of ‘something bigger’, something unfamiliar and unknown, was, until modern times, a fundamental step in cultivating wellbeing. Whereas today happiness is all too often associated with pleasure, a concern with the bits and pieces that make up a good life rather than a love of the good itself and a search for the good in life. Unless our understanding of wellbeing is both more expansive and profound, Vernon argues, people will only be let down, and although many warm sounding words will be uttered, life will continue much as before.

Drawing on the thought of the ancient Greek philosophers, Wellbeing challenges us to think about our values and beliefs, to discover a sense of place in the universe, and to work out what we love and how to love it. In doing so, a sense of wellbeing is shown to be within the grasp of us all.


'Vernon's book is a fine one. He has important things to say and he has thought hard about them.’
John Armstrong, The Australian

‘This is an important study that will lead you to question just about everything you hear about ‘wellbeing’’
Frank Furedi

‘A beautifully written book.’
Australian Journal of Adult Learning

'the art of living' series

Wellbeing is part of The Art of Living series, Mark edits. From Plato to Bertrand Russell philosophers have engaged wide audiences on matters of life and death. The series aims to open up philosophy's riches to a wider public once again. Taking its lead from the concerns of the ancient Greek philosophers, the series asks the question, how should we live? Authors draw on their own personal reflections to write philosophy that seeks to enrich, stimulate and challenge the reader's thoughts about their own life. In a world where people are searching for new insights and sources of meaning, The Art of Living series showcases the value of philosophy and reveals it as a great untapped resource for our age.

'Acumen’s The Art of Living series is leading the way in bringing philosophy to the wisdom-seeking masses.
Financial Times

Extract from ‘wellbeing’

If you were a pollster and asked me on the street, clipboard in hand, whether or not I was happy I would probably reply in the positive: ‘Yes’ – with an understated but distinct rising inflection. If you pressed me and asked me to place my happiness on a scale of 1 to 5, I’d pause for a moment and position myself, say, as a 4 – perhaps 4 to 5 if the sun were shining.

If you were a politician, party badge on your lapel, and asked me the same question on the street I would probably reply more equivocally. You’d get a ‘Yes, but…’ – the ‘but’ being my opportunity to express anxieties about foreign wars, global warming or ‘selfish capitalism’, as Oliver James has called it. I’d give the impression that personally I am happy, more or less. But I think there are some pretty unhappy-making events and forces in the world around us. In my pessimistic moments I might even say they are out of control. I’d be happier with a visionary leader that I felt could address them.

If you were a psychologist and asked me in the lab whether I was happy I’d have a different reply again. Now I’d be feeling that much of the time I am pretty fulfilled. I am passionate about my work, blessed in my relationships, engaged by my interests and more or less content with my lot. OK, so I do have some sleepless nights troubled by work. Well, in fact, probably at least one a week. And I can worry quite irrationally about how I would cope if my partner died – and sentimental as it is to admit it, I know I’d be seriously upset if my cat passed away, though I’d cope. (Of course, I shouldn’t say ‘if’ my cat passed away, for my cat will die: but isn’t everyone allowed a little denial about mortality, doctor?) Also, there is that discontented side to me that, say, would like it if we had a second home in Kent – nothing extravagant – and more cash to regularly escape the city. But, hey, most of the time these concerns are background. They’ve only overcome me two or three times in my life when subterranean bleakness has been unleashed and I’ve become depressed.

If you were a philosopher and asked me in a book whether I was happy... Now you’re talking! I’d argue that the problem with happiness is that there’s a Catch-22 implicit in the pursuit of it. With a little thought I’d come up with some metaphors to capture the enigma. Perhaps the search for happiness is circuitous, like the ‘resting’ actor who can only find work with an agent, but only find an agent with work. Or do you remember random-dot stereograms, those fuzzy optical illusions that require you to look through them to catch sight of the 3-D image in them? They are like the pursuit of happiness inasmuch as the picture seems to dematerialize if it comes too much into focus. Maybe the search for happiness is a bit like the quest for God. All the greatest mystics testify that there is something profoundly paradoxical about divinity: God is bliss to know but is known as unknowable. Saint Augustine fell back to asking, ‘What do I love when I love God?’ Replace ‘God’ with ‘happiness’ and does not the question also make sense?

Then, perhaps our conversation would continue. We’d ask a different question, not are you happy but what do you think it takes to be happy. Here I could be clearer. I’d say that I suspected my own happiness is not actually best served by focusing my efforts on my own happiness. That sounds contradictory. And yet when I think about it, my intuition is that the sources, even the possibility of happiness are located in something other than essentially self-centred concerns. To put it another way, it is futile to think of life mostly as a fight for felicity – though often, if I am honest, I act as if it were.

My essay, here, is a work in progress – like life. But it is born out of my struggle to see, as clearly as I can, just where or what that joy-giving something else might be. I want to push as deeply as I can into the question of human wellbeing, to look beneath the surface happiness represented by the approach of the pollster and understand more about the uncertainties that the questions of a psychologist or philosopher would throw up. They may be uncertainties, often well buried. But they are also opportunities, to not just have a life but to know life in all its fullness.

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