What’s really worth doing? A philosopher weighs in.

Adam Adatto Sandel’s “Happiness in Action: A Philosopher’s Guide to the Good Life” points out three keys to lasting satisfaction and joy. 

"Happiness in Action: A Philosopher’s Guide to the Good Life," by Adam Adatto Sandel, Harvard University Press, 304 pp.

Becoming a world record holder in pull-ups surely requires dedication and resolve. One might not expect a person who has accomplished that feat to be averse to a life focused on goals and achievement, but one might not expect the pull-up record holder to be a philosopher, either.

Adam Adatto Sandel has a doctorate in and has taught philosophy, and, as he explains in “Happiness in Action: A Philosopher’s Guide to the Good Life,” he has also devoted an inordinate amount of time to what he describes as “the absurd task of hanging from a bar and then raising oneself until one’s chin is over the bar, again and again.” 

Since 2014, that training has paid off to the tune of three Guinness World Records for Most Pull-Ups in One Minute (Sandel is currently working to reclaim the record). But it’s also led the author to think deeply about why the accomplishment of goals so often fails to bring about lasting happiness, even when we expect that it will. Instead, he writes, “Orienting our lives to achievement somehow leaves us perpetually unsatisfied.”

“Happiness in Action,” as its title suggests, proposes that fulfillment comes not from racking up successes, but from losing ourselves in activities that we find meaningful. (He contrasts “goal-oriented striving” with “activity for the sake of itself.”)  In the case of the author’s pull-ups, the pleasures and challenges of his immersion in the exercise, not to mention the camaraderie he enjoys with friends and mentors at the gym, has led him to excel. He regards his world records as the fruits of a character-building journey, not as the result of a single-minded fixation on achieving a particular outcome.  

The book is organized around three interrelated virtues that Sandel says are essential to happiness: self-possession, friendship, and engagement with nature. All three, he believes, have been displaced by the pressure, both internal and external, to prioritize future success over experiencing life in the moment. He explicates these virtues using his own life story, the work of ancient and modern philosophers (Aristotle and Socrates in particular), and examples from popular culture.

Self-possession, friendship, and engagement with nature represent, in Sandel’s words, “activity that is intrinsically meaningful and that does not await some future accomplishment or acquisition for its justification.” Self-possession, which he notes is not to be confused with self-confidence, involves living one’s life purposefully and with integrity, through both successes and failures; it’s akin to what Aristotle called “greatness of soul.” 

Self-possession in turn enables true friendship, which Sandel distinguishes from the alliances our goal-oriented society encourages us to pursue in order to further our careers or improve our social standing. Finally, Sandel argues that we often assume an adversarial stance toward nature and use technology to attempt to master or tame it. “In mobilizing nature for our goal-oriented striving,” he writes, “we overlook its beauty and sublimity.” For the author, engaging with nature means immersing ourselves in our surroundings with interest and wonderment.

“Happiness in Action” offers much to ponder; Sandel’s critiques of technology and its effects on our judgment and agency are particularly resonant. The book’s examples help elucidate its themes, but one wishes Sandel had drawn from a wider range of material. He returns to the Larry David sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm” again and again, aptly calling it “a caricature of our cultural maladies,” but surely there are others. In addition, as a philosophy book seemingly intended for a wide audience, its extensive refutation of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism might be of limited interest to the general reader.

Finally, it is notable that the author’s vision of happiness is biased toward being in demanding positions: he endorses “adventure and risk,” “situations of resistance,” and “hardship and failure.” This inclination is perhaps not surprising from a guy whose idea of fulfillment has for years involved pushing himself through grueling sets of pull-ups. Some readers might associate the good life with less arduous pursuits, and with things like fun or tranquillity or well-being. “Activity for the sake of itself,” of course, will mean something different to everyone.

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