June 29, 2006

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C’mon, get happy
The latest books show you how

It seems to be the season for happy books.

There’s a plethora – truly a plethora, I’m not just using that word for the thrill of it – of books about happiness hitting the shelves this year. Among them are The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt; Stumbling On Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert; Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, by Matthieu Ricard; What Happy Companies Know: How The New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better, by Dan Baker et al.; Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, by Ronald W. Dworkin; The Happy Plan: The Complete Diet and Lifestyle Plan for Natural Happiness, by Charmaine Yabsley; Happiness: A History, by Darrin M. McMahon; A Brief History of Happiness, by Nicholas P. White; The Science of Happiness, by Stefan Klein; and my personal favorite, a reprint of 1962’s Happiness is a Warm Puppy, by Charles M. Schulz.

We’ll review a few of these in coming weeks, but let’s start with the one that hit the streets first, Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 297 pages).

Haidt makes two bold claims: that he will tell us an answer to the meaning of life, and that he will present us with brand-new ideas.

He sort of comes through on the latter, not so much on the former.

I can’t say whether his ideas are brand new, but some of them felt new to me.

The meaning-of-life thing, though, was a disappointment.

I should have read more critically. What he says, on page xiii (in other words, before the book even gets going), is “I’ll … consider what people mean when they ask, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And I’ll give an answer to the question—an answer that draws on ancient ideas … but that uses very recent research to go beyond these ancient ideas, or any ideas you are likely to have encountered.”

And that’s what he does, in the book’s last chapter (after leading you on for the first ten). He gives an answer to the question people really mean (he says) to be asking when they ask ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Which, Haidt neatly determines, isn’t actually ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but ‘How can we find meaning within life?’

For the record, Dr. Haidt, when I ask “What is the meaning of life?” I mean “What is the meaning of life?”
Meaning within life also intrigues me, sure, but the bait-and-switch, that’s not nice.

He’s right that the book, like life, demands savoring; it is not designed to give us a quick fix, despite the simplified come-ons of its subtitle (“the meaningful life is closer than you think”) and its introduction (“This is a book about ten Great Ideas.”)

“Wisdom … floods over us from calendar pages, tea bags, bottle caps, and mass e-mail messages,” Haidt says – but (and this is a big but) “We might already have encountered the Greatest Idea, the insight that would have transformed us had we savored it, taken it to heart, and worked it into our lives.”

Dang. I knew it. After all, my attraction to books is based partly on the hope that somewhere in the vast library of humankind lurks the answer, the key that will assure my happiness or at least explain the universe. It could be in a book titled “The Key to Everything,” but maybe not.

Haidt’s title had me thinking he’d offer one great hypothesis about how to be happy. No; Haidt says “There are several different ‘happiness hypotheses,’” that have been proposed throughout human history or that can be inferred from various bits of psychological research, and herein he examines each one for validity, showing where it needs qualifying or extending and why. Starting with the idea that life is what you make it, he refines each idea in turn by adding the best parts of the previous one, ending up with sort of one big conglomerated “happiness hypothesis.” (At times his references to “the happiness hypothesis” are confusing because he doesn’t specify exactly which version he means at that moment – the whole conglomeration he’s gummed together so far, or just the currently-being-examined subset.)

Very early in the book Haidt lays out this plan – that he will come up with a final hypothesis after examining several great ideas.

“I could state that final version here in a few words,” he says, on page xii, “but I could not explain it in this brief introduction without cheapening it.”

To which I say, “Tease.”

I mean, perhaps it’s true, but then why bring it up at all?

But despite minor irritations – brought on largely by high expectations – I really liked this book. First I really wanted to; then I was disappointed; then I was re-appointed. Undisappointed. Whatever. Because the hypothesis? Is pretty much, as the great rapper Akrobatic said, you gotta have balance. Oh, sure, you knew that all along and who needs to read a whole book when you could fit it on a tea bag? But somehow it’s in the telling. Many of the ideas in The Happiness Hypothesis are not original to Haidt, but the enlightenment is in how he frames and connects them. And gives us permission to not always be happy, and to sometimes find a particular tea bag sentiment helpful and other times find it useless. Haidt is a teacher (of psychology at the University of Virginia) and obviously a good one. This is not a book you should read while you’re feeling lazy; it demands real attention (as good teachers do) – he frequently refers to a metaphor in which your psyche comprises an elephant and its rider, and if you don’t have a good grasp on that you’re going to miss a lot. If you do grasp it, though, there is much here for you.

“We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing,” Haidt says, and in order to change from unhappy to happy we must not only educate the rider (our thinking self) but retrain the elephant (our unconscious self). Wisdom, he points out, doesn’t mean diddly unless you live it.

Which is why I am going to stop talking already. A

— Lisa Parsons
Next up: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness.

Lisa Parsons


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