Book Reviews - Spring 2007

Happy Talk

What did we know about joy, and when did we know it?

By Wayne Curtis | March 1, 2007

The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong by Jennifer Michael Hecht, Harper San Francisco, $24.95

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich, Metropolitan Books, $26

The happiness industrial complex is experiencing an unprec­edented boom these days, and, were I a financial adviser, I would strongly recommend investing in happiness futures. Not because jollity itself is booming (moroseness continues to show very strong fundamentals), but because the outlook for ancillary markets—the sales of pickaxes to happiness prospectors—is exceedingly bullish.

Here’s one imperfect gauge: 16,531 books were listed recently on with the words happiness or happy in their titles. Many of these are self-help books (The Sedona Method: Your Key to Lasting Happiness, Success, Peace and Emotional Well-Being), but happiness is making its way into other fields as well, including business (What Happy Companies Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better) and even the occult arts (SunShines: The Astrology of Being Happy).

The Web is, of course, rife with discussions, reports, and personal testimony about happiness, and it serves as a lively souk for hawkers of various nostrums and regimens for boosting our well-being. One Web site I stumbled upon, called The Happiness Show, offers 138 half-hour epi­sodes, viewable free online. In many of these, two pleasant, middle­-aged men, George and Lionel, discuss happiness from a Wayne’s World-style set adorned with smiley-face decorations. As they talk, they smile. A lot. It’s disturbingly mesmerizing.

But the site also reports some troubling news: Americans are, on average, only 69 percent happy. This puts us only slightly ahead of the world population, which is 65 percent happy. The Happiness Show also features a global happiness index, one of many circulating these days. The happiest nation on earth by this reckoning? Nigeria.

I have nothing against happiness—someday I wish to be as happy as the average Nigerian. And I agree with journalist D. T. Max’s comment that “positive emotions widen the sphere of what it is to be human,” which appeared in his recent New York Times Magazine article about the rise of happiness studies (or “positive psychology”). A happier world is, undeniably, a happier world.

But when I find myself amid a gold rush, the first thing I do—after checking my wallet—is step back and take a long view. Two new books helped me do exactly that.

In The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong, Jennifer Michael Hecht sets out to write “a history of what really makes us happy.” She traces the pursuit of happiness from Plato’s Apology to Frank Costanza’s Festivus, with many stops in between. Hecht covers a lot of territory; as the author of Doubt: A History, she has experience with this and manages her survey with efficiency and dispatch.

At its core, The Happiness Myth is a study of the arbitrariness of ideas. Hecht serves as a sort of Jacob Marley to us modern-day Scrooges, leading us among people chasing happiness in times past. Our contemporary notions of happiness, she suggests, are no doubt just the result of an undigested bit of beef or a blot of mustard—some illusion of our own devising. By visiting the past, we can see that each era in turn was convinced of its infallibility, but that no era, including ours, is infallible. “Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs,” Hecht writes. “They make their weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren’t true.”

Hecht starts her tour in the bazaar of traditional wisdom, where she grounds the discussion in the four tenets of classic happiness theory—know yourself, control your desires, take what’s yours, remember death. From here, she moves forthrightly on to the book’s four chief provinces: drugs, money, bodies, and celebration.

We learn that money has gotten a pretty bad rap (“The truth revealed by historical research is this: money can buy happiness, and it already did”). We find out that drugs can make you happy (Marcus Aurelius, “the only person ever known as a great emperor and true philosopher was on a steady, carefully managed diet of opium highs”). Conversely, we discover that practices that our current culture believes make us happy, like exercise, actually may not (“Anyone above the lowest quintile of activity is not going to get happy as a direct result of exercising”). And as for sex, well, we’ve got that under control. “We’re pretty good with sex,” she admits.

A few patterns emerge. Among them: the most proven way to achieve happiness is to start with nothing. To go from sleeping on rainy cobblestones to a straw bed, or from near starvation to supping on a crust of bread, is to experience a bliss wholly unknown by some dandy sleeping off a foie gras binge on a bed of goose down.

Another pattern: once you start the climb from the bottom, be careful of what Hecht calls the “abundance inference,” a sort of corollary to the oft-cited hedonic treadmill of more recent vintage. She writes, “a little food makes us a lot happier, so we think a lot of food will make us a great deal happier.” (Re: Dickens; see: Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, I want some more.”) In fact, it generally won’t, a notion that Hecht admits is not new, quoting Epicurus: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.”

Hecht serves as an engaging tour guide, but the destinations tend to be fairly commonplace and uninspiring. (Money can buy happiness? Who knew?) Some minor annoyances also crop up—among them, Hecht’s writing style, which is dryly academic here, breezily chatty there, and all self-help-manual elsewhere (“At weddings, get up and dance. Go to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, preferably dressed up like a mermaid”). It’s a bit like living with someone impetuous and unpredictable, which is endearing at first, but over a longer time not so much. Also, Hecht is fond of exclamation marks, which she deploys like a bottom-pinching uncle who doesn’t know when to stop.

Hecht turns to group celebrations in her final section, proclaiming that “sometimes a pack needs to bay at the moon together.” She laments the eclipse of traditional festival culture, which has led to lives lacking in highs and lows: “We first-world moderns are not like everybody else,” she writes. “Historically, the average person expected to be a little miserable most of the time and ecstatic on festival days. We now expect to be happy all the time, but never riotously so.”

Probably so. And this “post-­festive” culture is really the launching point for the more engaging of the two books, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, by Barbara Ehren­reich. Where Hecht is a fox who knows many little ideas, Ehren­reich is a hedgehog with one big idea: that collective joy is an innate and essential part of human society that has been systematically oppressed by various killjoys who view such rituals as a threat to their power.

Ehrenreich starts with a compelling notion: that dancing and collective joy may be the “biotechnology of group formation.” She suggests that groups that danced together may have had an evolutionary advantage—with their robust bond they may have been better able to defend themselves when attacked. “No other species ever figured out how to do this,” Ehrenreich writes. “We alone are gifted with the kind of love that Freud was unable to imagine: a love, or at least affinity, holding people together in groups much larger than two.”

This sort of primal bonding through community rituals was by definition a tool of the masses. So, as elites emerged, they invariably viewed this as a threat to their dominance and routinely sought to eradicate the rituals that promoted group bonding. Ehren­reich inventories these spoilsports through the ages—Roman leaders, dour missionaries, corporate chieftains, and, of course, John Calvin, history’s archenemy of spontaneous joyfulness.

It’s great sport to watch an author go out on a long and swaying limb. Ehrenreich’s notions of neuroscience and the historic oppression of joy get her about halfway out, but she’s well among the twig ends when she suggests that the degradation of public festivities may actually have induced a general rise in depression around the 16th or 17th century: “Could this apparent decline in the ability to experience pleasure be in any way connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities?” Remarkably, the limb holds, if with lots of loud creaking, in large part because Ehrenreich tends to suggest rather than insist. And the idea is so intriguing and original (if ultimately unsupportable) that you find yourself rooting for the branch to hold.

You needn’t buy all of Ehrenreich’s ideas to find her detours wonderfully engrossing—how Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies tried (unsuccessfully) to tap into the power of collective joy; how the fans of rock ’n’ roll and modern sports have reintroduced an updated form of ecstatic ritual into public life. Rock, she reports, rejected history not just in musical terms but, more sweepingly, in how members of the audience were supposed to relate to the music and to one another. Ehrenreich is by no means the first to suggest that followers of the Grateful Dead (five index citations) formed a sort of latter-day traveling Renaissance fair, but no one else has given that phenomenon such an elaborate contextual home. And her history of, among sports fans, the wave, the wearing of team colors, and face painting (“The origins of this practice are as murky as those of costuming”) lends an endearing anthropological seriousness to subjects that rarely ask for it.

Ehrenreich notes that Dancing in the Streets took root in her research for an earlier book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, which is, by and large, the same topic viewed through a glass, darkly. Ehrenreich is also the author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a journalistic account of her travels among the working poor. She showed in the latter volume her strength as a reporter who could file vivid dispatches from a world seen but dimly understood—her typology of toilet stains from her stint as a bathroom cleaner certainly made a more lasting impression about income disparity than a roomful of Federal Reserve studies. But there’s little of that sort of reporting here—except for a marvelous and brief description of a samba rehearsal she stumbled upon in Brazil. I found myself wishing for more participatory journalism—reports from rock concerts, sports events, and megachurches. It would have added a bit more life to what should be an immensely lively topic.

One theme that surfaced in both books is that happiness tends to be at its most profound when an individual experiences a wholeness or connectedness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to bode well for the future—so you might consider divesting some of those happiness stocks. Ours is the age of disconnectedness, despite the wireless cloud of instant, constant communication in which we all now live. Bluetooth cyborgs walk down the street having merry conversations with their invisible friends, oblivious of their surroundings. At coffee shops, customers bask in the private blue-glow hearths of their laptops, enveloped in their own world, only occasionally issuing forth with an abrupt and private laughter.

That sound, more like a bark, always seems like a fleeting and tinny happiness, and it instantly renders everyone around unincluded and just the littlest bit sadder for it.

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