Josh Cohen on happiness and feeling fulfilled

I recently read Josh Cohen’s new book ‘How to Live. What to Do: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature.’ It’s excellent in showing how reading novels can play a fundamental part in understanding ourselves and feeling more fulfilled. These are the parts that I think are particularly relevant to this course.

“In a discussion of the history of the concept of happiness in American political life, the philosopher Hannah Arendt offers some rich clues. She points to the second US president John Adams’s idea of ‘the passion for distinction’ as the most ‘essential and remarkable’ of human faculties. The desire to distinguish oneself in life, which Adams called ‘emulation’, is a great virtue when channelled in the service of public happiness. Recalling Freud, we might say that our unconscious belief in the immortality of our own ego has its positive side.
But when the desire for distinction serves the aims of personal power, it becomes a vice, which Adams called ‘ambition’. This kind of ambition, Arendt argues, became endemic in America when Thomas Jefferson’s ambiguous concept of ‘the pursuit of happiness’, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, came to be equated with private gain rather than public good. For Arendt, this privatisation of happiness, in Adams’s terms the triumph of ambition over emulation, came to corrupt the national soul of America.”

“Isn’t this pull between moral conviction and materialistic desire all too recognisable to most of us? Following John Adams, we all want to believe, especially when we’re young, that our ambitions are rooted in the noblest motives – to help our fellow human beings, to increase worldly happiness. But Arendt reminds us that in our competitive individualistic societies, where we’re encouraged to see the pursuit of our own happiness as isolated from the pursuit of a common happiness, private ambition is liable to cut itself off from public good.”

“Among the affinities between psychoanalysis and the novel is their refusal of easy answers to the difficulties of life. Both remind us that the first step in learning how to live is the recognition that there is no circumventing the confusion and pain that come with being alive. This is in large part because they both understand the human being as divided, pulled between irreconcilable impulses and desires – security and adventure, dependence and independence, solitude and sociality.
These internal divisions, while being central to what it means to be human, prevent us from ever achieving an unbroken state of happiness. Because we must make choices, we must also endure losses. As parents, for example, we can feel both deep joy in our children while yearning for the freedom and independence we enjoyed before they arrived.
Perhaps this is what Tolstoy meant when he said, ‘Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.’ I’ve always preferred this unsourced quote to its more celebrated cousin, the first sentence of Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
What does the first Tolstoy quote mean? An allegory is a tale whose purpose is to impart some universal lesson unfolding in a timeless region peopled by Everymen rather than real human beings. An allegory exists in a world free of ambiguities; therefore, if happiness is an allegory, it means that a truly happy person can exist only in a flattened, one-dimensional world.”

“This pressure to be happy, or rather to be seen to be happy, reflects a binary understanding of happiness and unhappiness as strict opposites. It’s a view “aggressively pushed by our consumer culture, which is forever projecting beautiful bodies, bathrooms and beaches, exuding a happiness from which all the stains of anxiety, ugliness, pain or age have been expunged.
Tolstoy reminds us that the relation of happiness to unhappiness is more accurately and more humanely conceived as one of two parts of a single reality. Do we really want our deepest relationships to be lived in the emotional equivalent of perpetual sunshine? It seems both truer and more life-enhancing to experience the variety of the seasons.”

Last night, I watched Josh Cohen talk live about the book via the York Festival of Ideas via zoom, which was fascinating. It’s not online yet, but I’ll link it if it is put on youtube. This other talk with Cohen and the Idler is also worth looking at, as it is about ‘finding fulfilment and happiness in the modern world.’


Hi @Hamish, thank you for your generous contributions! I am a big fan of Hannah Ahrendt. Thank you for pointing to Josh Cohen, I will check it out. Interesting food for thought.

I agree with this. I have also noticed that people are uncomfortable around depressed people; they don’t know what to say or do so they will try to avoid them. I think that the “happines ideal” enhances this discomfort: we don’t know how to handle it and we are afraid that it is contagious. Also the common neo-liberalist opinion is that people that are unhappy have themselves to blame. I think that if being unhappy would be accepted as a normal part of human existence, more people would be happy :-). What are your thoughts?

PS do you now the blog of Maria Popova, I think you’ll like it.


I also like brainpickings and always look forward to her Sunday morning email with her updates.

Neoliberalism has many problems, in our relationship with possessions, in status anxiety, with its promotion of a selfish and greedy society, and with how it contributes to the destruction of the environment.
I read this earlier today by Jeanette Winterson, which stuck with me: ‘Capitalism depends on creating new desires, so that people want what they have never wanted. The permanent gap between what we want and what we can afford may be necessary to keep markets growing, but in psychological and emotional terms it is gulf that daily threatens our fragile sense of who we are and what things matter.’ It’s a good article on how status anxiety causes so many problems in society. I’ve been watching some of Alain de Botton’s documentary on it too, some of which is fun.


Thank you for this short thread, Liesbeth and Hamish :slight_smile:
Very relevent to our topic and addressing very fundamental questions, which very few of us understand. I like fundamental questions. They are often the hardest to answer, yet provide solid ground and depth to develop our knowledge and wisdom on any topic. The following quote from M. Scott Peck (pyschiatrist / writer) is relevant to this thread:
“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience – to appreciate the fact that life is complex.”
Hopefully see you soon on our live session with, Raj.


Love this thread. I wasn’t aware of Arendt or Cohen, but am looking forward to reading Cohen’s book. Thanks for this guys and see you soon (from beautiful Costa Rica!)


York Festival of Ideas finally uploaded the Josh Cohen talk to their website. If you want, you can watch it here. It’s well worth it.

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