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The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrongby Jennifer Hecht
Synopses & Reviews
"We think of our version of a happy life as more like physics than like pop songs; we expect the people of the next century to agree with our basic tenets—for instance, that broccoli is good for a happy life and that opium is bad—but they will not. Our rules for living are more like the history of pop songs. They make weird sense only to the people of each given time period. They aren't true. This book shows you how past myths functioned, and likewise how our myths of today function, and thus lets you out of the trap of thinking you have to pay heed to any of them."
The Happiness Myth is a fascinating cultural history that both reveals our often silly assumptions about how we pursue happiness today and offers up real historical lessons that have stood the test of time. Hecht delivers memorable insights into the five practical means we choose to achieve happiness: wisdom, drugs, money, bodies, and celebration.
Hecht liberates us from today's scolding, quasi-scientific messages that insist there is only one way to care for our minds and bodies. Hecht looks at contemporary happiness advice and explains why much of it doesn't work. "Modern culture," she writes, "is misrepresenting me and spending a lot of money to do it."
Rich with hilarious anecdotes about both failed and successful paths to happiness, Hecht's book traces a common thread of advice—she calls it "sour charm wisdom"—that we can still apply today to create authentic, lasting happiness.
"History teaches us, contrary to popular belief, that money can buy happiness, drugs are mostly good, low-fat diets may not prevent cancer or heart disease. For Hecht, the assumptions about happiness that guide our actions are distorted by myths, fantasies and 'nonsensical' cultural biases. Taking a tour of historical and contemporary ideas of happiness, Hecht (Doubt: A History) demonstrates that women's clothes shopping is a celebratory act of freedom from the long nights their ancestors spent spinning, and that the shopping mall gives us back some of the social intimacy of group activity that consumerism wiped out of our lives. In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham encouraged Americans to identify whole-grain, home-baked bread with happiness, a notion still embodied today in myriad message-carrying birthday and anniversary cakes. Our love of sports and exercise stems from Southern slaveholders' need to distance themselves from heavy labor and its connotation of slavery, and from the Protestant equation of happiness with aggressive self-control and self-denial. American ambivalence about drugs reflects our fears about unproductive happiness and palliatives that numb us into complacency. Although the erudite Hecht (Doubt: A History) sometimes loses her audience in verbose, philosophical dissections, her energetic romp through the arbitrariness of history's ideas about happiness is eclectic and entertaining, providing ample perspective on the rituals that make us human. (Apr.) " Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Jennifer Michael Hecht believes that our 'basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense' and that arriving at that realization can be 'wonderfully therapeutic.' The way to achieve the breakthrough, she says, is to study the past, and so she offers her book, subtitled 'A History of What Really Makes Us Happy,' as a form of personal therapy, history as self-help. The undertaking... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) is not as glib — or as outrageously modern — as it first might seem. Renaissance humanists looked to the past to furnish lessons about how to live. And some, such as the French skeptic Montaigne, were moved to treat history's baffling variety of customs and norms as a tonic against taking one's own too seriously. Hecht, the author of the provocative 'Doubt: A History,' joyfully follows Montaigne's example. Focusing on four main topics that have long drawn pursuers of pleasure — drugs, money, the body and celebration — she revels in using the past to poke fingers into the pieties and prejudices of the moment. Thus Hecht would have us consider that Bayer once produced heroin, so named for its 'heroic' success at alleviating coughs, and that the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, famous for his stoic wisdom and equanimity, was a regular user of opium. Such examples suggest the arbitrariness of our distinctions between substances good and bad, legal and illegal. And though Hecht is sensitive to the dangers of abuse and addiction, and cautions us (not entirely convincingly) against breaking the law, her aim is to free us to think more openly and less guiltily about drugs — whether antidepressants, narcotics, coffee or tea — as 'potions people use to get a little happy.' Hecht employs a similar method of historical comparison to question current attitudes toward the body. She points out mischievously that modern America compares only to ancient Greece and 20th-century fascist regimes in its obsession with bodily beauty and adds that 'in the context of most of human history, our idea that a good life includes a lot of physical exercise is bizarre.' Amusing discussions of the happiness philosophy of John Harvey Kellogg, the founder of the Kellogg's cereal company, who believed in the transformative power of sexual abstinence and whole grain, or of the 19th-century craze for fletcherizing (thoroughly chewing one's food), will make you think twice about the wisdom of the Atkins diet and other fads. Nurturing that sort of skepticism is precisely Hecht's goal. Yet she is also willing to think against the (whole) grain in an effort to locate happiness in contemporary practices that many pundits are quick to condemn. She defends shopping, for example, as a viable route to happiness, a quest for lost community. And she sees the outpourings of emotion at the death of Princess Diana and the return of Utah kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart as attempts to participate in group rituals of mourning and celebration that throughout history have helped cultures sustain themselves. Certainly Hecht's curiosity ranges widely, and the breadth of her learning is impressive, even if it is sometimes stretched rather thin. References to country music, 'Harry Potter' and 'James and the Giant Peach' come embedded in discussions of Proust, Baudelaire and Susan Sontag. The result can be fresh and daring analysis. But it can also be overwhelming. If life, in Hecht's view, is 'another tumble in the kaleidoscope of historical culture,' then all those shifting colors may leave you feeling a bit dizzy and confused. Looking through history's kaleidoscope may be a fine technique for dissolving our cultural certainties, but it is less successful at illuminating the 'core, classic wisdom' about happiness that Hecht summarizes in the first 50 pages. The four 'magic formulas' she extracts from the whole of human history yield unobjectionable maxims: know yourself, control your desires, take what's yours and remember death. The outlines of such perennial truths, however, break down amid the chatty categorical imperatives — 'Try different things,' 'Don't overschedule' — that she scatters throughout her book. Still, at a time when Americans are bombarded with advice about how to be happy, Hecht's skeptical bent is refreshing. Indeed, she might have pushed it further. With the exception of several passing references, she fails to engage with the much-discussed 'science of happiness' recently promoted by some of the world's leading psychologists, economists and social scientists. Given Hecht's academic training (she holds a Ph.D. in the history of science), that is a shame. For not only does she miss an opportunity to wield her skeptical rapier, but she deprives herself of a wealth of insights, many of which cannot be easily dismissed. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows in his wonderfully smart and readable 'The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom,' modern science and history have a lot to say to each other. That dialogue is missing here. So, ironically, is a fully historical appreciation of happiness itself, which Hecht defines simply as 'feeling good.' Only recently have human beings come to think of happiness exclusively in this way, slowly abandoning the links to God, virtue and justice that long tied happiness to sources beyond the fleeting feelings of the self. 'The great meaning of the world,' Hecht confidently asserts, 'is each individual person getting through life with some happiness.' Perhaps. But in this she reveals that, for all her interest in history, she is very much, like the rest of us, bound by the present. Darrin M. McMahon, a professor of history at Florida State University, is the author of 'Happiness: A History.'" Reviewed by Julie PowellJonathan YardleyDarrin M. McMahon, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Historian Hecht looks at contemporary happiness advice and, with a newfound historical perspective, liberates readers from the scolding, quasi-scientific messages that insist there is a formula for happiness and offers real lessons that have stood the test of time.
About the Author
Jennifer Michael Hecht is a philosopher, historian, and award-winning poet. She is the author of Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul; the latter won the Phi Beta Kappa Society's 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Hecht's books of poetry include The Next Ancient World and Funny. She earned her Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and teaches at The New School in New York City.
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