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Generosity: An Enhancement

[Anne:] “True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out–you must stay out; and to stay out, you must have some absorbing errand” (the epigraph for Part Two of Richard Powers’ 2009 novel, Generosity; taken from Henry James ‘s 1875 novel, Roderick Hudson).

So, Powers’ novel is not on our reading list here, but I’m re-reading it just now for another course I’m teaching this semester on The Evolution of Stories. And as I’m preparing for my lecture there, I’m finding it quite relevant here. A few excerpts:

“Well-being is not one thing….optimism, satisfaction, capacity for happiness, and capacity for unhappiness are all independent…

People in positive moods are more biased, less logical, and less reliable than people in negative moods. Score one for…’depressive realism’….

Happiness is probably the most highly heritable component of personality…People display an affective set point in infancy that doesn’t change much over a lifetime. For true contentment, the trick is to choose your parents wisely….

Yet… like perfect pitch: a little early training in elation can bring out a trait that might otherwise wither” (pp. 48-49).

“…happiness is a moving target, a trick of evolution, a bait and switch to keep us running. The doses must keep increasing, just to break even. True contentment demands that we wean ourselves from all desire. The pursuit of happiness will make us miserable” (p. 71) –THE NEXT-TO-LAST SENTENCE HERE SOUNDS LIKE ADVICE FROM THE BUDDHA. BUT THE LAST ONE MAKES IT SOUND AS IF OUR “HAPPINESS PROJECT” IS DOOMED BY DESIGN.

“The secret of happiness suddenly seemed absurdly simple: surround yourself with someone who was already happy” (p. 92).

“Most people are already pretty happy. What we really want is to happier. And most people think they will be, in the future….” (p. 136).

“Boethius…insisting…no one will ever be safe or well until Fortune upends him” (p. 138).

“The secret of happiness is meaningful work” (p. 218).

Joy does little to increase one’s judgment. Happiness is not the condition you want to be in when you need to be at your most competent” (p. 226).

“If a reasonably alert person wants to be exhilarated, she just has to read a little evolution…. Why do we need happiness when we can have knowing?….Three billion years of accident is about to become something truly meaningful. If that doesn’t inspire us, we don’t deserve to survive ourselves” (pp. 274-275).

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