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Happiness kills

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / October 14, 2011

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There is a category of people I can’t abide: the happiness mongers. First, I want to revile them as a group. Then I want to dump on each one individually.

You might think this would make them unhappy. But you are wrong. They thrive on attention. I’ll derive a small amount of satisfaction from unloading on them, but at the end of the day they’re plugging their books, their inane “apps’’ and “happiness compasses’’ in the central press and with the syndicated sob sisters of the airwaves, and I’m not.

The happiness mongers are the 21st-century inheritors of the late-20th-century virtue mongers, an equally stomach-turning crew of opportunists. (Yes, gambling-addicted former US secretary of education Bill Bennett, I’m talking about you.) The virtue formula that launched many a Wall Street Journal op-ed was to extol the Judeo-Christian ethic - wasn’t Adolf Hitler a nominal Christian? - and then invoke a few quotations from a masterwork that has been cruelly supplanted in the canon by an anthology of rap music.

“The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’’ suits this purpose admirably. Virtue scribbler to lowly worms: I am the kind of person who reads Marcus Aurelius, and you’re not.

Who is happiness monger number one? That would have to be Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, author of the best-selling book “Stumbling on Happiness,’’ inexplicably not puffed on the cover by Dr. Oz. A creature of the moment, Gilbert offers a Track Your Happiness iPhone app on his website. I’m happy enough not owning an iPhone, so my friend David Weinstein agreed to fire up this geegaw for me.

“I was not happy to find out that it was going to ask me three times a day to fill out a survey about what I am doing at any point in time and how happy I felt doing it,’’ Weinstein told me.

Comes now “internationally recognized researcher and explorer Dan Buettner’’ with his just-released paperback, “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way.’’ (“A must-read for living happier!’’ - Dr. Oz.) Buettner reports that people are really happy in Denmark, Mexico, San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Singapore. Singapore? It’s like Disneyland. The streets are clean, but God forbid you should say something untoward about Mickey, or, in this case, the father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, subject of some full-frontal Buettner idolatry.

Got apps? You bet! Buettner is peddling “the best happiness test on the Internet,’’ the True Happiness compass. I got a B. “You aren’t quite sure of your place or purpose in life, but that’s OK,’’ the algorithm informed me. “You don’t require a lot of validation from other people to feel good about yourself, and have the beginnings of a thriving lifestyle.’’

To Buettner’s credit, he did mutter a few condescending words about Gretchen Rubin’s mindless “Happiness Project,’’ which brought her plenty of happiness when her book of the same name topped The New York Times’s “Emotional Crutches for People With Low Self-Esteem’’ bestseller list. “Facile synthesis’’ was what Buettner called it, and how could it be otherwise? Rubin is a well-to-do Upper East Side matron and daughter-in-law of former Goldman Sachs co-chairman and Bill Clinton crony Robert Rubin.

She “had an epiphany on the crosstown bus’’ that her perfect life - did I mention that she was a US Supreme Court clerk? - could be even more perfect, blah blah blah. Rubin naturally hawks an online thingamajig, the Happiness Challenge, and uses her website to pump her book and a $13 daily happiness calendar.

It’s not all facile synthesis. I am grateful to her for posting this delightful quotation from Gustave Flaubert: “To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.’’

Isn’t foraging for happiness setting the bar pretty low? And hasn’t 21st-century happiness, as relentlessly marketed by the above-mentioned worthies, morphed into a visible virtue, like weight loss? Look at me, I’m happy! Look at me, I lost five pounds!

I’m happy enough. Last week’s big hedonic event was stumbling upon the perfect bike lock. Admittedly, my wife found this a bit odd. I vividly remember the last time I was ecstatic. Three years ago, an intern at Newton-Wellesley Hospital injected me with a painkiller for a kidney stone. “You can’t get this in pharmacies,’’ she whispered as the needle went in.

An hour later, I called my mother and my wife, screaming into the cellphone: “I’ve never felt this good!’’ The drug was propofol, which probably ended Michael Jackson’s life.

Happiness kills. What a great book title. I’m working on the Internet app right now.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is