The Happiness Myth

Cover of The Happiness MythRight now, I’m re-reading an amazing book by the historian, philosopher, poet, and funny kook Jennifer Michael Hecht. The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think is Right is Wrong. If you’re feeling troubled about the current state of the world, and confused by what seems like weekly changes to scientific theories about happiness, this book is just what the doctor ordered.

There is so much to admire in this book, and like her previous book on trends in religious questioning through the ages (Doubt: A History) Jennifer Hecht takes us on a whirlwind tour through history and across continents to ask: What has made humans happy in the past? What ideas were fads of the moment, and what ideas transcended their time to prove themselves worthy? How do celebrations, health and beauty, money, and drugs really correlate to happiness in the grand arc of human history (instead of in the tiny snapshot of our current ideas and fads)? What do philosophers, historians, and mythologists know about enduring happiness, and what current ideas about happiness look very suspicious, considering the lessons of the past?

The Three Kinds of Happiness

Though this book is wide-ranging, Jennifer Hecht gets right to the point in describing the kinds of happiness she wants to explore, and the reasons we seem to know so much about happiness, yet don’t really experience it reliably. On page 10, she lists three distinct kinds of happiness, which, surprisingly, are often in conflict with one another:

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 euphoria.

Anything we do may facilitate one kind of happiness and inhibit another. Researchers have plaintively wondered how people can report that they are so happy watching television when by other tests we find that they are only semiconscious when doing so. Yet every one of these people will tell you they prefer life to death; they want to be here. The answer is very simple: The three kinds of happiness are not only very different; they are at often at odds. They can be united in one experience, but more often than not a euphoric experience is also a painful or difficult one; a good day includes more playing than would add up to a happy life if you did it all the time; and arranging for a happy life is effortful and often unpleasant. We get confused when we forget that these three kinds of happiness can rarely be served at once. If you live every day as if it is your last, you miss out on all the happiness connected with effort and building, and will be struck by all the trouble that euphoria entails. If you attend only to one kind of happiness and find yourself generally unhappy, you should look to the other kinds. (from The Happiness Myth, pp 10-11)

Jennifer Hecht isn’t a self-help author, so this book isn’t a simple-minded how-to book on happiness.  Instead, its an unusually educated person’s request that we take off the blinders of our modern certainties and consider the long view.  I appreciate this approach; it helps me look at our pursuit of happiness in new and more educated ways. The Happiness Myth: it’s a keeper!

2 Responses

  1. Karla
    | Reply

    Here’s something interesting along these lines: A new longevity study suggests that worry, hard work, and divorce can be good for you! Hah!

    I’d like to see the self-help books and government guidelines based on this new research.


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