The widespread loss of a sense of transcendence lies at the root of our current anxiety about happiness, according to Mark Vernon's Wellbeing. Borrowing a distinction from Charles Taylor, Vernon suggests that our contemporary view of happiness encourages only "lower flourishing" when "higher flourishing" is what is needed for wellbeing.
Vernon chooses to speak of wellbeing rather than happiness because he feels that wellbeing has "wider, deeper connotations" (p. 3). Pleasure has a role to play in wellbeing, but meaning is more important, and the transcendent provides an essential dimension of depth. Indeed, Vernon refers to a sense of the transcendent as the "crunch issue for contemporary wellbeing" (p. 8).
Vernon writes as an agnostic, seeking a middle way between the exclusive humanist (which denies any transcendence) and the doctrinally religious, for "what transcendence turns on is not divinity but mystery. It is mystery that yields a sense of meaning that counts"(p. 98). He approves of the Buddhist approach, but ultimately recommends the ancient Greek philosophers for a Western vision of a meaningful way of life, ending the book with a discussion of Plato's concept of thumos in relation to love.
Wellbeing is part of the "Art of Living Series" from Acumen Publishing, a series that "aims to open up philosophy's riches to a wider public." This volume is short, at around 130 pages, and lacks the scholarly apparatus of footnotes or endnotes, but is nevertheless challenging, as the author leads the reader up a steep path from pleasure to meaning, transcendence, mystery and love. Vernon does a wonderful job of presenting the issues in a very compact form.
At times he dismisses some alternatives too quickly, however. For example, after discussing some of the ways (here termed "exclusive humanist") in which people find meaning in causes or in the pursuit of science, Vernon concludes "I find it hard to see how an exclusive humanist approach – one that insists that everything is ultimately this worldly, transparent, describable – can be humanly satisfying. To my mind, such a stance deepens, not resolves, the crisis for human wellbeing: only some sense of higher flourishing has the capacity to raise the human sphere to significance, and transform the flat emptiness of the otherwise ordinary." (p. 59).
While I personally find Vernon's views sympathetic, I wonder if wellbeing is necessarily "one size fits all.'' Is there only one meaning of wellbeing that is "humanly satisfying" or might it not come in forms as varied as humankind can be?
© 2009 Debbie A. Foster
Debbie A. Foster, MLIS, is a librarian who blogs about books on the mind at http://www.mymindonbooks.com.