HANSON — In a famous early television sketch, an overseer pauses while thrashing Roman galley slaves toiling at the oars, to ask them, “Is everybody happy?”
Is it possible that some might have been?
Can mass murderers claim to have been happy in their lives? Does anybody really know what happiness is — and can we be mistaken in our assumptions?
Hanson residents and philosophy professors Jennifer Wilson Mulnix (UMass, Dartmouth) and her husband M.J. Mulnix (Salem State University) examine the issue in their new book, “Happy Lives, Good Lives,” [Broadview Press, June 2015, 300 pages trade paperback, $24.57] through the examination of seemingly disparate examples such as mass killer Ted Bundy, physicist Stephen Hawking, Hugh Hefner, the Dalai Lama and fictional Truman Burbank from the 1998 film “The Truman Show.”
They hope readers glean a broader understanding of what happiness is and things they could do to now to make themselves happier as well as understanding the value we place on happiness.
“Where do we place happiness in our lives?” M.J. said.
Both are originally from the Midwest.
A professor specializing on the mind and what we know, Jennifer graduated from the University of Nebraska, Omaha and earned her master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Iowa. She became interested in philosophy as a high school student because she found it was challenging.
Teaching courses focused on value theory and morality, Michael, who goes by M.J., is a native of Denver, Colorado, and a graduate of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. He, too, went on to the University of Iowa where he earned his master’s and Ph.D. He came to study philosophy almost by accident, taking his first class in the subject as a college sophomore and finding his interest had been piqued.
“It turns out that getting a philosophy degree pays pretty well,” he said. Tied with math, by mid-career, philosophy majors are among the highest earners, they noted, because of the critical-thinking skills instilled by the subject and ability to work independently.
Their careers brought them to Massachusetts and, ultimately, to Hanson.
“I’m down in Dartmouth and [he’s] up in Salem,” Jennifer said by way of explanation of how they came to move to Hanson almost eight years ago.
“We kind of like the feel of the town,” M.J. added.
The couple intends to provide copies of “Happy Lives, Good Lives” to the Hanson Public Library. They hope to do author talks at some area libraries, as well.
“This isn’t the area I studied when I was in grad school,” Jennifer said. “I focused my research initially on theories of the mind and knowledge, then as I started teaching I wanted to focus more on the practical elements of philosophy like … how we live a meaningful or valuable life.”
That led to her study of happiness.
“I felt my students could benefit from it and there wasn’t a lot out there on it,” she said. Much of the writing on happiness came under the self-help genre and she wanted to focus on its meaning.
“We both decided, especially for people who might not have much access to philosophy — or much introduction to it — this is a way to show what philosophy is about,” M.J. added. “What it means to have happiness in your life, what’s under your control and what isn’t.”
“All of us want to be happy, but many of us haven’t thought about what that means,” Jennifer said.
The book, designed for a broad audience — not just for college philosophy students — aims to bring the reader to a greater understanding of what they think happiness is and common causes and strategies for achieving a happier life.
“The Truman Show” — which has also been studied for themes such as Christianity, media ethics, existentialism and psychology — features a character adopted by a media corporation for the purpose of raising him, without his knowledge, as a reality TV character.
“One of our brainstorms for the book was to start each chapter with an interesting case study of someone who brought up questions about happiness,” M.J. said.
“What we found is, when you start thinking about happiness, you have these questions,” Jennifer said. “Do you have to be moral to be happy? Does your life actually have to be going the way you think it’s going to be happy? Do you have to have a reflective set of goals? Each case pushes those questions.”
Those who feel Truman was happy in his artificial life may be happy themselves, despite a life that’s not going the way they think it is ,because they view happiness as purely an internal state of mind, they write.
Bundy raises the question of whether one must be moral to be happy.
“Some people think happiness has to be the same for everyone, and that’s one of the questions we raise in the book,” she said. “Is happiness different for different people or do we all have to follow the same path?”
They also explore the more commonly conflicted thoughts surrounding childbirth or the coping with other physical pain such as Hawking’s ALS.
“Is it possible that someone could say that, while giving birth, it is the most painful but also the happiest moment in her life,” M.J. said. “If you make sense of that, maybe happiness isn’t — as the hedonists would say — just about experiencing pleasure and not experiencing pain.”