Boks, with Rosenblatt this morning, pursue meaning and application of happiness


Derek Bok and Sissela Bok

Joanna Hamer | Staff writer

The question of what makes us happy, says Derek Bok, is just about as old as the human race — but we may not be much closer to understanding it now than we were in the Stone Age.

Dr. Bok and his wife, Dr. Sissela Bok, will speak with Roger Rosenblatt at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater. Last year, the Boks published books in tandem about the definition and pursuit of happiness.

Sissela, a philosopher, ethicist and senior visiting fellow at the Harvard Center for Population Studies, wrote Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science. Her book is an expansive and lucid overview of the many disciplines that study happiness, including philosophy, psychology, theology and economics, and also personal narratives.

Derek examined a topic more similar to his background as a lawyer and former Harvard president, whose academic interests focus on higher education. His book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, evaluates the reliability of happiness studies and their potential political implications.

“We liked the idea of both writing about the same subject from different points of view and in slightly different ways,” Derek said. “We knew that would make it all the more enjoyable to compare notes and read each others’ things and discuss them at the dinner table.”

One of the phenomena that makes happiness research so interesting, the Boks said, is the surprising fact described in the introduction of The Politics of Happiness — that “average levels of happiness in the United States have risen very little if at all over the past 50 years despite substantial growth in per capita incomes.”

“People are so often wrong about what they predict will make them happy,” Derek said. “For example, they seem to consistently over-emphasize the importance of more money in making them happy.”

Multiple studies have shown that donating time or money to others increases happiness much more than self-indulgent acts. Education can also help raise happiness — particularly education that emphasizes the study of happiness.

“It’s not easy to change the level of people’s happiness,” Derek said, “and like most valuable things in life, it takes a certain amount of willpower.”

In their talk today, the Boks and Rosenblatt will explore the study and experience of happiness and grief. Derek has known Rosenblatt for more than four decades, as they worked together in 1969.

“I was the dean of the law school, and he was an assistant professor, and all hell was breaking loose at Harvard at that time — building occupations, throwing deans out of windows,” Derek said. “He and I had a lot to do with trying to put the university back together.”

Derek sees much in common between the study of happiness and the exploration of mourning through writing.

“There are very few things, according to happiness studies, that produce lasting happiness, or lasting unhappiness,” he said, “but one of them is the death of a loved one.”

That deep heartache is evident in Rosenblatt’s writing, but it is mitigated somewhat by the genuine and powerful happiness that comes from helping care for his grandchildren. Being there for the kids has given a real purpose to Ginny and Roger, Derek said.

“In a certain sense, he’s perhaps experienced in the last three or four years in a more direct way, both teachings about unhappiness and the teachings about happiness, and so perhaps understands all that at a deeper level than most of us.”

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