Toward an Anthropology of Purpose in Life
Edited by Iza Kavedžija and Harry Walker
Afterword by Joel Robbins
How people conceive of happiness reveals much about who they are and the values they hold dear. Drawing on ethnographic insights from diverse field sites around the world, this book offers a unique window onto the ways in which people grapple with fundamental questions about how to live and what it means to be human. Developing a distinctly anthropological approach concerned less with gauging how happy people are than with how happiness figures as an idea, mood, and motive in everyday life, the book explores how people strive to live well within challenging or even hostile circumstances.
The contributors explore how happiness intersects with dominant social values as well as an array of aims and aspirations that are potentially conflicting, demonstrating that not every kind of happiness is seen as a worthwhile aim or evaluated in positive moral terms. In tracing this link between different conceptions of happiness and their evaluations, the book engages some of the most fundamental questions concerning human happiness: What is it and how is it achieved? Is happiness everywhere a paramount value or aim in life? How does it relate to other ideas of the good? What role does happiness play in orienting peoples’ desires and life choices? Taking these questions seriously, the book draws together considerations of meaning, values, and affect, while recognizing the diversity of human ends.
Values of Happiness is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and often very moving book. As we are taken through people’s reflections on happiness in a wide range of cultural contexts, we see the extent to which happiness is rarely—well—happy. The authors use the complexities and ambiguities of this state of being to explore the ways in which happiness as both idea and experience inescapably shapes time, personhood, and social life.
— Sherry B. Ortner, author of Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject
It is a great accomplishment of this collection that it shows us that happiness without value appears to be a rare occurrence. Even if there are very few societies in which happiness itself is the primary, overriding value people seek to realize—it is rarely the supervalue that rallies all others to its cause—we now know that happiness is routinely tied up with the disclosure and realization of values, and hence with the complexities of the personal and social management of time. This unusually rich collection of articles puts this important point before us, and in doing so redeems its promise of showing why happiness is an important subject of anthropological investigation.
— Joel Robbins, author of Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society
This is wonderfully rich and stimulating collection of essays by some of the most creative and perceptive anthropologists writing at the moment. And the theme works brilliantly to cast questions about values and ideals, virtues and vices, aspiration, interdependence, and responsibility in a new and thought-provoking light.
— James Laidlaw, author of The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom
Harry Walker is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Under a watchful eye: Self, power and intimacy in Amazonia (University of California Press, 2013).
Iza Kavedžija is Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Exeter. Her monograph Meaning in life: Tales from aging Japan is forthcoming from University of Pennsylvania Press.
Joel Robbins is the Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and author of Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (University of California Press, 2011).