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Is it all about getting happy?

Will Bowen is a Kansas City preacher who challenged his congregation one Sunday to stop complaining for 21 days.  As Lisa Miller tells the story in a recent Newsweek article, Bowen handed out a purple rubber bracelet to everyone in his church:  “Put on the bracelet, and each time you hear yourself complain, switch the bracelet to the other wrist and start the clock over.  It took Bowen three months to stop complaining; other churchgoers took much longer.”  The point for Bowen was to emphasize for his listeners the corrosive consequences of negative thinking by imposing a kind of happiness therapy, and his approach has been both successful for him (he’s been on Oprah and they’ve mailed more than 5 million of those bracelets) and something of a theme for a lot of the mega-churches.

Happiness has been getting a lot of attention lately, and not always in a nice way.  Dr. Laura, the toxic and nastily judgmental radio host whose snappy cruelty continues to attract millions of listeners, has a new book out that claims the secret to happiness is developing an ability to “balance the beauty with the bullshit.”  But it’s only one of the hundreds of popular titles claiming to coach readers to happiness and reflects a now long-standing popular cultural attention to the topic.  A couple of weeks ago 60 Minutes did a story aiming to figure out why people in Denmark are (on average, of course) measurably the happiest on the planet; as far as I could tell, the implicit message was that people living there are happier because they aren’t plagued by the infinitely high expectations that impossibly characterize life in the United States, where a social dymanic has been cultivated such that even the winners feel like losers.  I got the sense we were being told to step off the merry-go-round, but in a way the report also felt like another of those now-common cautionary tales about American hubris more than finally focused on happiness and its acquisition.

Still, it’s hard to resist books offering research-based happiness guarantees.  Many years ago a good friend recommended that I read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s bestseller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and I found myself pretty captivated by his argument that the secret to happiness is to find full-immersion experiences where time slows down and one’s full and passionate energies are occupied.  I’m not alone, of course, in finding this stuff compelling – just one small recent reminder was hearing that among Harvard’s most popular courses is Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Positive Psychology.”  And this:  Ed Diener (a psychologist at the University of Illinois) has been on the road advocating national measures that would index happiness as opposed to more common variables like infant mortality and literacy and income.  Beyond the life coaches and motivational speakers and the happiness gurus has emerged (most definitely in the last quarter century) a remarkable attention to the so-called “science of happiness.”

These approaches are unpacked and interestingly criticized in several interesting new books.  Allen Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield have published The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder (Oxford), which traces the development of the DSM, DMS-II, DSM-III, DSM-IV (with a DSM-V in production) and how the APA’s work to concretize diagnostic categories has gradually medicalized the absence of happy feelings.  Horwitz and Wakefield are intent to tell a cautionary tale about the risks that even precise diagnoses raise when actually normal sadness is pathologized.  “People,” argues Horwitz, “are starting to think that any sort of negative emotion is unnatural, that they can take medication and feel better.”  Emily Martin’s Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (Princeton University Press) explores similar territory (by which I mean the work that has long attended to the social construction of madness and mental disorder), in part by stressing how American culture rewards manic behaviors (such as by encouraging those who regularly exert stupendous energy in the service of their work).

Eric Wilson has produced something different, a sort of manifesto Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).  As summarized in a recent review by Garrison Keillor, “American obsession with happiness, typified by the widespread use of anti-depressants, is eliminating melancholia, the wellspring of creativity, the source of so much great art and poetry and music… a good old-fashioned broadside against American optimism.”  The cast of indicted happiness behaviors will not come as a particular surprise – New Age techniques, jogging, smiling therapy, Wal-Mart, the suburbs, and even Cool Whip – and the message finally reflects a long history in our literature of embracing the tragic.  As Wilson puts it:  “The greatest tragedy is to live without tragedy.  To hug happiness is to hate life.  To love peace is to loathe the self.  The blues are clues to the sublime.  The embrace of gloom stokes the heart.”

I liked Wilson’s little book the best, perhaps simply reflecting my enjoyment of his crankiness, but also because of his appreciation for the debates over happiness that have so long characterized the humanities.  When he quoted the old Flaubert line that to be chronically happy one must also be stupid, I think my mood even brightened a bit…

SOURCES:  Lisa Miller, “Stop Your Sobbing – Now,” Newsweek, 10 March 2008, p. 20; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991); Sally Satel, “Science and Sorrow,” New Republic, 27 February 2008, pgs. 37-43; Garrison Keillor, “Woe Be Gone:  A Melancholic Frets That Americans Are Addicted to Happiness,” NYT Book Review, 16 March 2008, p. 7; Hugh Freeman, “A Bit Down,” Times Literary Supplement, 14 March 2008, p. 30; Sharon Begley, “Happiness:  Enough Already!,” Newsweek, 11 February 2008, pgs. 50-52.


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