boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
CRITIC'S VIEW

Happiness for dummies

It's a cold kind of comfort on the self-help shelves

Back before the Peloponnesian Wars, when I still believed that men were kinder than horses and that other people held the instruction book to life, I had an encounter with the little gods of the self-help genre -- call it an anti-epiphany -- that I now regard as formative. I was in my mid-30s, old enough to be smart but young enough not to bother, and someone had dashed my heart upon the well-worn rocks of betrayal. I was nonetheless pretending to carry on, and so one morning found me sitting in a heap on my living room floor, surrounded by piles of damp tissue and stacks of incoming books from publishers. Usually the self-help review copies went straightaway to my favorite retirement home (where no one needed them any longer) or neighborhood library (where at least the advice would be free). But that day I was an easy mark for fortune-cookie insights. That day I would have believed the UPS guy if he'd been willing to listen -- he wasn't; I tried -- so I opened one up and began.

There was my cad, a mere foot soldier in the war between the sexes! He had many thrilling names and diagnoses: the cruel narcissist, the avoidant male, the emotional predator. So, for that matter, did I, the female lurking in her own little glen of neurosis. I was the intimacy-fearing drama queen, the woman who loved too much or not enough, the perpetrator or victim of myriad offenses: dances of anger, foxtrots of regret, long waltzes of ennui. I gasped in recognition and plowed ahead, burying myself in bad fonts and the kindness of strangers. Years passed, or perhaps 20 minutes. And as my beleaguered cognitive processes struggled to rally, blinking on and off like Tinkerbell, I had my shock of comprehension: Everything I was reading was true.

Well, hey. My tears stopped as abruptly as a park fountain the week after Labor Day. If necessity is the mother of invention, reality is the Grim Reaper for excess sentimentality. What I had glimpsed in my sorry state was the kernel of genius that both fuels the self-help movement and renders it largely useless: that its palliative wisdoms apply to everyone, all of us (at least in the modern bourgeois West) in every possible application of suffering. Late that evening, my chosen library and retirement home each enjoyed an anonymous donation of a couple of boxes of books. And I returned to the age-old poultices for a sprained heart: friends, Kleenex, and time.

My brief descent into and return from self-help hell was more liberating than horrifying, since it saved me eons of energy spent looking for high-gloss answers to crushingly intimate, if ordinary, problems. Still, how sad is that, to be plummeted from universal tragedy to cliche in the blink of an eye? Not only were my wounds decidedly un-special; from what I could tell, they weren't even interesting. History and art tell us that the line between the universal and the banal is often an aesthetic judgment: If ''Hamlet" speaks to the anguished soul within each of us, we don't exactly quiver with empathy before, say, ''How You Can Discover (and Tame!) the Dark Prince Within!" The self-help industry tries both to blur this distinction and to exploit it; because its bargain-basement wisdoms are as old as Methuselah, the shards of truth therein are subliminally consoling even as they sound precise and au courant. Thus are the messages continually recycled and refurbished in search of the zeitgeist. Neither a borrower nor a lender be (How to Achieve Financial Success in 90 Days). Waste not, want not (Living Simply and Simply Living). Parting is such sweet sorrow (Why Emotional Autonomy Can Make You Closer!). And so forth.

The reality, of course, is that some advice books about real suffering will help plenty of the legions who buy them each year: Readers -- mostly women -- turn to them as a way of navigating everything from illness and grief to addiction and spousal violence. But history also tells us that there is always a buck to be made on suffering, and the self-help industry has grown into such a multiheaded beast over the past decade, splintering into a dozen subgenres, that it's difficult to get an accurate number on the thousands of new titles published each season. The lion's share offer shockingly thin panaceas for complex problems, translating the ills of modern society -- loneliness and eating disorders and the inevitable bad news of normal life -- into fables or morality tales of struggle and hope, where the climb may be steep but the payoff great. And no bodice-buster romance novel ever had a more predictably rose-colored outcome.

Can you imagine a self-help book that actually contained the bloody truth? Gentle reader: Things may or may not get better. If your particular condition does improve, there will be more trouble waiting in the wings, so long as you are human and continue to occupy the planet. Oh, there will be pockets of joy, too, but they won't last -- nothing does, neither pain nor pleasure -- and besides, you don't need a book for run-of-the-mill happiness.

Or do you? Happiness how-tos have been popping up on the publishing landscape in the past couple of years like spring mushrooms, diluted versions of several academic studies that seek to locate not just the meaning of happiness, but its etiology. It was only a matter of time, I suppose: If you follow the arc of self-help literature from the past two decades -- from acknowledging suffering to mythologizing it, eventually turning it into a celebrity commodity -- then the deconstruction of happiness takes on the aura of a sort of Advanced Pilates for soul-seekers. We've tried listening to Prozac and Balzac and Gregorian chants; we've realized He's Just Not That Into Us but that Life is still Purpose-Driven and that there's actually an Owner's Manual just for YOU. Where else was there to go, but toward a charting of Everest itself?

A convergence of forces, most of them religious and economic, have made happiness the Oz of America's inner map from the outset, with the nation's Founders going so far as to insist that our pursuit of happiness is a God-given right -- a notion that a lot of other countries find ludicrously entitled. Ever since we smuggled happiness into the Declaration of Independence, our subsequent quest for it over the past two centuries has become a tributary of our own social history. But if the happiness movement has been long and even predictable in coming, its legitimacy as a field of study is a relatively recent phenomenon, traceable to the positive-psychology school and manifest in bestsellers such as Martin Seligman's ''Authentic Happiness." (Some of these can-do types are a straight-line derivative from the humanistic psychologists from three or four decades ago. They also remind me of the transactional analysis folks -- the ''I'm OK -- You're OK" guys who liked comma splices and other forms of juvenilia. But now I am sounding dyspeptic, of which the happiness-movement people would surely disapprove. Or try to change. Of course, being crabby makes some people happy, and I am clearly one of them.)

Leaving aside the absurdity of trying to define happiness -- a philosophical concept and an emotional state, as well as being transient, mutable, and particular -- the new statistics supposedly show that money won't buy you love, Prozac and talk therapy help but so does a short commute, social attachments are important so long as they're beneficial (a good marriage, say, as opposed to a drug-dealer best friend). Oh, and freedom from poverty: very important. It also helps to avoid natural disasters and despots. One finding of the last couple of years, though, manages to be both surprising and persuasive. Several studies suggest that each of us possesses an internal thermostat of well-being: Even when calamity or freakish good fortune strikes, our happiness pendulum eventually settles down and returns to some core point of ''normal."

This little piece of determinism may be a fatalist's delight, but I find it consoling, and it confirms what I've long suspected. I still remember a news item from two decades ago, in The New York Times science section; the headline was something like ''World View Found to Be Hereditary." Quel relief! Whatever I was feeling, it wasn't my fault. I didn't have to snap my wrists with rubber bands, or get my aura balanced, or make chicken soup for the soul. No more must I assume that friends or colleagues were better people than I simply because of the varying brightnesses of our dispositions. Now I could just say to myself, Well, heck, she's got that happy gene, and move on.

And finally, there may be a book on the subject of happiness -- its history, its pathology, its Sisyphean quest -- that speaks to my own heart. In the study ''Happinesss: A History," historian Darrin M. McMahon takes the long view, arguing that the West's obsession with, and assumptions about, happiness were born from the Enlightenment. This is not a happy book, but a rich and intelligent one, and its section ''Tragic Happiness" testifies to the fate of those who spin their wheels in an endless road race toward hedonic pleasures. McMahon won me over slowly, then utterly, by a final chapter on happy endings that begins with Vladimir and Estragon -- those two hapless tragedians who believe, like Sisyphus and Buddha and a host of other heroes through the ages, that the joy is but a sidekick to the struggle.

So: Work and love, my friends. Camus wrote that consciousness is what makes man superior to his fate -- knowledge, not happiness. And from knowledge comes sovereignty; from sovereignty, joy. ''The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory." On, Sisyphus! The rest of us doubtless have less noble plights -- we can't all be a protagonist of universal myth -- but I'm still voting with history: The shadows are what showcase the light.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives