Christina Patterson: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

For Tolstoy, it was boring. For Hamlet, it was elusive. For Candide, it was to be found, eventually, in the garden. Poor darlings, they were born at the wrong time. What they lacked, with often tragic consequences, was the findings of the new happiness experts. With a Waterstone's on their doorstep, they'd have been just fine.

They would have learnt, for example, that marriage makes you happy, but children don't, and that the pursuit of wealth is a waste of time. Unless, that is, it makes you better off than your neighbours. It would be unfair to say that this finding from the "new science" of happiness is a variation of the old Gore Vidal dictum that "whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies", but let's just say that a little bit of inequality keeps the endorphins flowing.

Publishing is awash with guides to happiness. Last year, an army of consultants took on the formidable task of Making Slough Happy. Well, actually, they took on the formidable task of filling yet another hour of a TV schedule already packed with miserable people chewing the cud, while swarms of semi-psychotic self-publicists screamed instructions. The book spin-off, offering "life-changing insights", was called simply How to Be Happy (BBC, £14.99). Drawing on much of the recent happiness research, it laid out a "happiness manifesto", instructing you to exercise, watch less telly and have a long chat with your partner. And if you don't have a partner? Kill yourself, presumably.

Richard Layard's Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Penguin, £8.99), published in paperback this month, is a more sophisticated variation on the theme. A leading economist, Layard draws on the Benthamite model of happiness, and a battery of new findings, to explore the sociological and economical importance of wellbeing. His passionate and lucid book concludes with a raft of happiness-boosting recommendations for governments, including the novel idea that the "practice of empathy" be taught in schools.

Avner Offer, a professor of economic history at Oxford, offers fewer suggestions, but more meat on the statistical bones in his fascinating new tome, The Challenge of Affluence (OUP, £30). He begins with Stendhal's assertion that "only a very small part of the art of being happy is an exact science", but proceeds to draw on whole libraries of statistical sources to analyse the research that helps us to assess the state of our "subjective wellbeing". "I present these findings," he concludes refreshingly, "in the hope that they will make our choices appear not simpler and easier, but as complicated and intractable as they really are."

Richard Schoch, a professor of "the history of culture", is sick of this "new science". "What, exactly," he sneers in The Secrets of Happiness (Profile, £15.99), "is the unit of measurement of happiness? The happino?" After taking us on a breakneck tour of the happiness philosophers from Epicurus to Aristotle, he concludes that "our life is an ever striving, and we call that striving happiness". Nicholas White, author of A Brief History of Happiness (Blackwell, £9.99)is even more pessimistic. "An important sense of the history of the concept of happiness," he declares, "has been a search for something that's unobtainable."

Gosh. Books that ask a question and then don't have an answer? Books that push complexity? Is this a new trend in British publishing? If so, help is at hand. Next month sees the publication of Life Balance (Michael Joseph, £16.99), Heather Mills McCartney's guide to the "essential keys to a lifetime of wellbeing". Phew! A guru, at long last.