Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Happiness Myth by Jennifer Michael Hecht

This is a book about many different things, ostensibly tied together into a treatise about what it takes to be happy in our modern (or any other) era. That prescription, as such prescriptions often are, is reduced by the author down to a few simple concepts:

Know yourself.
Control your desires.
Take what’s yours.
Remember death.

But she uses these more as launching pads for a number of entertaining (and sometimes not) digressions than as elements of a cohesive happiness philosophy.

If the latter is what you’re looking for, I far prefer another schematic the author offers, one based on the (perhaps impossible) harmony one should seek among three distinct kinds of happiness:

A Good Day. A good day can be filled with many mild pleasures, repeatable and forgettable, and some rewarding efforts.

Euphoria. Euphoria is intense, lasts powerfully in memory, and often involves some risk or vulnerability.

A Happy Life. A happy life requires a lot of difficult work (studying, striving, nurturing, maintaining, negotiating, mourning, and birthing), sometimes seriously cutting into time for a good day or for euphoria.

More challenging than the first, but more squarely focused on the point of the whole exercise, if you ask me.

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Among the other entertaining bits in the book, one I really enjoyed was the following thesis, which the author returned to again and again throughout the text.

Often, the modern point of view reveals itself to consist of bossy, shaming, controlling nonsense. This realization alone can give us a bit of freedom from the mental costs of our day. Most of the strictures we live under are just cultural stories, no more inherently true than the cultural stories of any other period in history.

And one of her favorite examples is the way we currently think about body image and health.

On some subjects, I fear I will sound like an apologist for indulgence, but I do not think it is morally justifiable for an able-bodied man or woman to devote huge amounts of time and energy to worrying about things that do not really matter much. Don’t you know people who are very proud, for instance, of their “healthy” diet, and other people who are very ashamed of their “unhealthy” diet? Shouldn’t these people be proud and ashamed of something of more substance? I am embarrassed by how pathetic some of our priorities will look to the future. I think it will be clear to future historians that these mythic obsessions with the body are responsible not only for the bony fashion model, but also for the extra-large average person, for whom eating becomes an expression of rejecting these shaming forces of control.

In fact, Hecht’s advice for people saddled with this shame is at the same time refreshing as it is heretical.

I think we would all be better off if we did unproductive exercise only for pleasure. If we want to do exercise, we should walk somewhere we have to go anyway, do a chore you usually get someone else to do, take the stairs, carry the baby, or chop some wood. Forget the gym unless you love it, or perhaps need a change of habit. These exhortations to be a certain type of body are the nonsense jabberings of history. Anyone above the lowest quintile of activity is not going to get happy as a direct result of exercising. If you are exercising and do not enjoy it, or are not exercising and spend time feeling guilty about it, I recommend that you find something to occupy yourself that you do enjoy, whether or not it gets your heartbeat up.

But that’s just one example, and in concept the author is making a larger point.

And it will be clear that our myths about drugs are responsible for a lot of unhappy drug taking and a lot of unhappy drug abstaining. I believe that a moral imperative to be of use begins with a moral imperative to get one’s mind right, to be able to see nonsensical cultural assumptions--trances of value--for what they are, to develop oneself as a truth detector. There is no reason to think that we can each individually do this crucial work on our own, without scholarship, and without carefully sketching out just what it is we think we mean--and what it is we want.

The challenge, of course, is determining what it is that matters most, especially if we agree that it is not necessarily what I think it is, or what you think it is. This is Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape on steroids. Somehow, scholarship will help us determine what matters most to us and our happiness.

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She also deals with the topsy-turvy, the compelling need throughout all human history to periodically turn the social order upside down in order to keep oneself from destroying civilization entirely. Its essence is being euphoric, not privately, but in public.

I think we need this, we do not get enough of it, and what we get is in the form of absurdity in art. Complaining about culture having random, intense rules of conduct is like complaining about the inconveniences of gravity. All we can do is try to find a way to alleviate the pressure now and again. That is what topsy-turvy does. Our arts reflect our hunger for it. Often they do a great job of providing it for us, singly and in communion with others: we share our love for the topsy-turvy by citing our love for artistic expressions of it. Think of the special kind of allegiance people have to films that are absurd: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, or Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, Pink Flamingos, Being John Malkovich, or Donnie Darko. We need play, and the play has to be daring; it need not scatter all meaning, but it does have to turn things upside-down.

I sometimes feel this need intensely as, evidently, do most of the other humans on the planet.

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And there is her mind-stretching idea that, in our modern culture, the nightly news plays a role that may seem odd when described to us, but would not be at all unfamiliar to our ancestors.

Ours is a world keenly shaped by Enlightenment science, democracy, and decorum, but even in the world of the rational, scientific, and objective, we have found a way to tell ourselves the old stories.

Where, today, is the image of a crying woman searching for her abducted daughter, or the unexpectedly pregnant girl searching for a place to have her child? Where is the image of a sad young mother holding her son’s lifeless body? Where are the images of relief when the sobering mother is reunited with her child, who shows up shockingly alive? The answer is the news. We let the news anchors tell us stories of rape, murder, fire, insane mothers, cruel nannies, sly seducers, and violent fathers. This litany sounds different every year, but it is also very much the same, told in a style particular enough to constitute a genre, or a suite of myths.

...the news is our myth, helping us do our psychological work the way Demeter and Mother Mary did.

Maybe this is why I mostly shake my head at what passes for news these days--befuddled and confused at what is more traditionally offered up. But it is evidently my mistake, expecting to hear about the events and forces that have a tangible impact on my life and our society, rather than the archetypal stories of sin and redemption through which cultures throughout history have tried to understand themselves.

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There are also a number of brief passages that, when stumbled upon, helped me reflect on my own ideas of happiness and how to achieve it.

First, from the poem “Happiness,” by Jane Kenyon:

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

More and more often, it seems, this is how happiness finds me. Not planned or pursued, but unsuspecting, perhaps not in my hour of despair, but certainly on what is otherwise an ordinary day.

And second, from a section on Adam Smith:

...when a poor man’s son has ambition, it is a curse. The condition of the rich “appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings,” and to reach it, the young man “sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power.” If he attains wealth, “he will find [it] to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it.” Power and riches are high-maintenance machines “contrived to produce a few trifling coveniences to the body.” The machines “must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and … in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor … They leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death.”

This is about as true as anything you will ever find. Beyond a certain level of health and security, wealth does not add to happiness in any appreciable way. In fact, other than readier access to mechanisms that can provide euphoria, wealth, and the process of gaining and maintaining it, more frequently detracts from the happiness that any ordinary and comfortable life can provide.

In fact, a few pages later, Hecht offers this little tidbit, which can fairly be viewed as a prescription for attaining the balance between “a good day,” “euphoria,” and “a happy life” presented as well-nigh impossible in the opening chapter.

Happiness maintenance work is creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.

I think that is really all you need to do.

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But all in all, the book is a bit of a jumble--the connections of a genius intellect on full display, but few of them corralled and ordered by the efforts of a competent editor. If a dreamy thought journey is your cup of tea, by all means take a swim in this ocean.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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