The pursuit of happiness: the social and scientific origins of Hans Selye’s natural philosophy of life
History of the Human Sciences
In 1956, Hans Selye tentatively suggested that the scientific study of stress could ‘help us to formulate a precise program of conduct’ and ‘teach us the wisdom to live a rich and meaningful life’. Nearly two decades later, Selye expanded this limited vision of social order into a full-blown philosophy of life. In Stress without Distress, first published in 1974, he proposed an ethical code of conduct designed to mitigate personal and social problems. Basing his arguments on contemporary understandings of the biological processes involved in stress reactions, Selye referred to this code as ‘altruistic egotism’. This article explores the origins and evolution of Selye’s ‘natural philosophy of life’, analysing the links between his theories and adjacent intellectual developments in biology, psychosomatic and psychosocial medicine, cybernetics and socio-biology, and situating his work in the broader cultural framework of modern western societies.
© The Author(s) 2012. Open access article.
25(5), pp. 13-29