The Rap on Happiness
By AMY BLOOM
Published: January 29, 2010
Smart people often talk trash about happiness, and worse than trash about books on happiness, and they have been doing so for centuries — just as long as other people have been pursuing happiness and writing books about it. The fashion is to bemoan happiness studies and positive psychology as being the work not of the Devil (the Devil is kind of cool), but of morons. “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness,” Charlotte Brontë wrote in 1853. “What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould and tilled with manure.”
In “Bright-Sided,” Barbara Ehrenreich recently looked with dismay at what she views as the industry of happiness, a culture bludgeoned by insistent — even aggressive — good cheer. Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor (as she points out, neither the designation “victim” nor “patient” is regarded with much favor), was appalled and articulate about the shortcomings of the pink-and-fluffy approach to cancer. Not everyone shares her aversion to that affirmation-heavy culture of support, but I do, and I don’t object to her snarking about the power of positive thinking, either. (It doesn’t prevent cancer; it doesn’t even prevent colds.) A book published two years ago was actually titled “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.” Its author, a professor of English named Eric G. Wilson, wasn’t really against happiness, of course; he was against obtuse, simple-minded complacency, which he thought some people might confuse with happiness.
It is true that ever since Americans began turning away from Calvinism (and who could blame them: long winters, smallpox and eternal hellfire?), the country has been a breeding ground for good news, for the selling of paths to contentment. The quick-witted and genteel opportunism of Mary Baker Eddy and the medicine-free healing mantras of Christian Science begat Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” and every other “Think Your Way to Wealth and/or Happiness” coach from Father Divine to Suzanne Somers to Deepak Chopra. With questions like “Are you tired of being a victim?” “Do you feel stuck?” “Is something missing?” “Is life passing you by?,” there have been a lot of people giving happiness if not a bad name, then certainly a moist, oily “spray-on tan with a side of cash” kind of name.
Actual happiness is sometimes confused with the pursuit of it; and the most mindless and crass how-tos can get jumbled in with the modestly useful, the appealingly personal and the genuinely interesting. Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24) is quite personal and most interesting when she takes the broader view. An insightful observer, Gore notes that the things she thought might make her happy did not, and she notes further that a vast majority of books on happiness and positive psychology have been written by men — by Martin Seligman (who has contributed to the genre many, many times) and by an armada of other male psychologists. She says she was puzzled and intrigued by that, but she was irritated, too, and began her own exploration of women’s happiness through hundreds of interviews. Gore concludes with a plea for liberty, joy and happiness, and the acknowledgment that it’s awfully hard to achieve all that when fear, pain, abuse or poverty encroach. (You would think this was old news. Not so. There are rafts of books by warm, dry, comfortably clad people who write as if none of these bad things will impinge on your happiness if you simply maintain the right attitude.)
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (Harper/HarperCollins, $25.99), is lighter and narrower in her approach, and seemingly falls in the camp of our first happiness blogger, Benjamin Franklin. She demonstrates, as Franklin did, a fondness for charts and goals, minutiae and frequent updates of aspirations and accomplishments. Rubin set out to spend a year, as she puts it, “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happy — from Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah,” because she found herself more affected by life’s annoyances than she wished to be — and less grateful, and less pleasant. She discovered that happiness (if you have the necessaries) takes energy and discipline. Like Franklin, Rubin is a good-natured, intelligent, privileged person, and she’s frank about the privilege; she resolves to set limits on buying treats for her kids, she resolves to rid herself of the seven kinds of clutter she has accumulated and goes right to the Container Store to do so. She resolves to find a more efficient fitness routine and does; it’s a quick 20 minutes with a great, albeit expensive, one-on-one trainer. She doesn’t apologize for her problems or for her solutions. Her lack of high-mindedness and of goals for world peace, and her willingness to list artificial sweetener on salad as one of her great discoveries, make her book not necessarily life-changing (although it has been a great hit with plenty of people), but at least pleasant company.
We could put these two in a blender with Daniel Gilbert’s attention-getting 2006 book “Stumbling on Happiness.” Gilbert, who has now popped up again in the PBS series “This Emotional Life,” is a psychologist who has more to say about why we are such complete idiots about predicting our future happiness than he does about how to find it. He argues that enough money is crucial to happiness — though more than enough doesn’t make you happier — and that the widespread belief that having children will make you happy is utterly unfounded. He does all this in an endearingly oddball (that is to say, neither academic nor clinical) way, with sensible conclusions and plenty of endnotes that, typically, he suggests most readers can afford to skip.
We could canvass Gore, Rubin, Gilbert, the Dalai Lama and the many authors on the happier.com Web site and produce the Fundamentally Sound, Sure-Fire Top Five Components of Happiness: (1) Be in possession of the basics — food, shelter, good health, safety. (2) Get enough sleep. (3) Have relationships that matter to you. (4) Take compassionate care of others and of yourself. (5) Have work or an interest that engages you.
I don’t see how even the most high-minded, cynical or curmudgeonly person could argue with that.
The real problem with happiness is neither its pursuers nor their books; it’s happiness itself. Happiness is like beauty: part of its glory lies in its transience. It is deep but often brief (as Frost would have it), and much great prose and poetry make note of this. Frank Kermode wrote, “It seems there is a sort of calamity built into the texture of life.” To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies. No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.