The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think is Right is Wrong by Jennifer Michael Hecht

happinessmyth‘The Happiness Myth’ is an unlikely title to find in my hands. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a self-help book, but like Hecht’s previous (excellent) book Doubt, it’s a mix of philosophy and history and the author’s opinion. Maybe a little self-helping.

(not that there is anything wrong with self-help books, but generally gripping, inventive fiction or engrossing non-fic is of the most help to me, not instructive wisdom & motivation.)

The general premise of The Happiness Myth is this: we have three conflicting kinds of happiness.

  • Good day happiness: Reading a good book, eating a piece of cake, watching a movie. Instant good feelings.
  • Euphoria: Drugs, mindbending sex, spiritual visions. Rare and sometimes dangerous extreme feelings.
  • Good life happiness: Advancing in your career, raising a family, building your life. Generally not individually happy events, but the overall accomplishment feels good.

These three categories often compete with each other. For instance, eating a whole pizza feels good in the moment but won’t feel so good later if you have certain life-wide fitness goals. Likewise, pursuing a career that forces you to always be on does not offer many times to take hallucinogenic drugs. Our culture has a bias towards good-life happiness at this current era of history and disparages euphoria in particular.

The second part of Hecht’s argument is that the methods that people have used to achieve happiness have been vastly different across civilizations and time periods. More importantly, we have a tendency to think our era’s methods are correct, when in actuality, they’re just as nonsensical as anyone else’s. We have maxims built into our language such as “Money cannot buy happiness” which is objectively false. We tell pregnant women to exercise. Victorians told pregnant women to avoid exercise and partake in opium vials instead. We condemn the latter, but it’s not any more risky or dangerous than the former. In fact, they’re both very slightly dangerous and pregnant are better off not doing either!

Like Hecht’s previous book Doubt, this book is strongest when it’s revealing the obscure historic details and quotes. It’s fascinating and it did provoke me to analyze my actions w/r/t the people of the past, which is like the definition of a book like this succeeding at its aim. There’s a few spots where Hecht generalizes people at large and gives direction for our culture that doesn’t entirely mesh with me. For instance, I really like going to the gym. And while I understand public mourning and would like to attend the massive, chaotic week long festivals of the ancient medieval and hellenic worlds, it would be as a bystander, not a participant. I don’t think there’s much emotional release for me in crowds.

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