Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac


408 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-670-87502-3
DDC 170




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the trade, scholarly, and reference editor of the
Canadian Book Review Annual.


Mark Kingwell, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of
Toronto and the author of the critically acclaimed Dreams of Millennium,
has written a thought provoking and eminently readable book about
humankind’s quest for happiness. As he notes in his preface, Better
Living “began life as ... an attempt to decipher the insistent ethos
of happiness in our contemporary, media saturated life” but soon
evolved into “an attempt to uncover the richer social and personal
implications of happiness.”

Kingwell begins by ravaging the facile prescriptions of modern
happiness merchants such as Simon Reynolds, the author of Become Happy
in Eight Minutes. He then takes up the more formidable challenge of
defining happiness. It is a task that leads him to critique the
happiness theories of authorities past and present (Plato, Aristotle,
Boethius, Epictetus, Hobbes, Freud, and Maslow, to name just a few) and
to consider such matters as the modern manufacture of contentment, the
confusion of pleasure with happiness, the cultural pattern of
puritanical and hedonistic pleasures, notions of selfhood, and the
implications of advertising for personal identity. In the course of his
research, the author participated in a “get happy” program at the
Option Institute, popped Prozac and subsequently St. John’s Wort (for
Kingwell both remedies had an effect that was “almost the precise
opposite of the desired result”), and visited the Better Living Centre
at the Canadian National Exhibition.

The definition of happiness Kingwell arrives at (“the possession of
virtuous character and the performance of virtuous action”) reflects
his attempt to “navigate a virtuous middle course between the duty
based theory of Kant and the happiness based theory of the
utilitarians.” Kingwell’s brand of happiness incorporates “a
willed detachment from worldly contingency,” and those who possess it
experience it as “the sense that one is where one ought to be.” This
is a far cry from the instant gratification that is a staple of our
consumerist culture. The author’s prescription for “a life worth
living” combines the AA serenity prayer with “individual acts of
cultural resistance.” Kingwell, a self described Cynic in the
classical sense, has in this erudite but never portentous book reclaimed
for the general reader ideas that have for too long languished in that
hermetic world known as academia.


Kingwell, Mark., “Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024,