Friday, February 08, 2008

Happiness is, happiness isn't

Someone at church handed me a book to read called Happiness™ by Will Ferguson (Penguin Books, 2002) . I knew it was meant to be satirical; I didn't know just how much off-colour stuff I was going to have to muck through to get to the heart of it. Hip-waders would be advised.

However, I do like the premise of the book, and it did try to make some good points. It’s a novel about an (imaginary) self-help book called What I Learned On the Mountain that--astonishingly--works. And its impact (mostly negative) on the editor who discovered it and society in general. Some of the initial effects:

“People no longer felt estranged from their bodies. They felt connected. For the first time, possibly ever, Americans began to feel comfortable with who they were. Cosmetics went unsold; department stores stood half-deserted. Expensive perfumes were marked down and sat gathering dust. GQ magazine switched its emphasis from men’s fashion to articles on ‘fostering happiness.’ Dour Calvin Klein models stood on street corners holding up signs: ‘Will pout for food.’” (Happiness™)
Unfortunately, the spreading move of “happiness” not only begins to destroy the economy (the alcohol and tobacco market dries up alongside the cosmetics industry), but it (whatever it is) destroys people's minds and emotions as well. The editor, Edwin, comes to this conclusion:

“[It’s] a world without a soul. A world without laughter. Without real laughter. The kind that makes your heart ache and your eyes go blurry….we need our vices….because life is sad and short and over far too soon.”
One could argue that this version of happiness isn’t happiness at all, but some kind of selfish, mindless seeking after bliss. (bliss n : a state of extreme happiness [syn: blissfulness, cloud nine, seventh heaven, walking on air]) Edwin pleads for what he calls “joy” instead of “happiness.” However, you could also argue with Edwin’s definition of “joy” since it seems to be based only on celebrating the ugliness, pettiness and vices of humanity (accepting and enjoying what makes us human) rather than looking outwards from ourselves (e.g. to a supreme Being).

I hear echoes of Brave New World in this--the Noble Savage "claiming the right to be unhappy." However, Edwin isn't the Noble Savage by any means, or even Brave New World's questioning Bernard; he's a frustrated Gen-Xer who can't stand his wife, or his cat, or his boss, or his job, or the city he lives in. His only redeeming characteristic is that--somehow--he's one of the few people who read What I Learned On the Mountain and aren't taken in by it. This implies that he's worthy of telling the rest of us what supposedly makes life meaningful.

And I suppose he's right, in a general way. Too much seeking after "happiness" is just self-seeking and self-defeating; yes, there's something deeper out there. But I felt reluctant to accept much of his pontificating on how life was meant to be lived, considering the mouth it was coming from. I think you can get a just as good a read on happiness-as-human-experience in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, and without the profanity.

Right as I was finishing Happiness™, I thrift-shopped a copy of John Piper’s book Desiring God (Multnomah Publishers, 2003 edition; the link is to the e-text) . The motto of Piper's ministry: "We take happiness seriously."

Piper, who calls himself a "Christian hedonist" says this:

"I had never in my whole life heard any Christian, let alone a Christian of [C. S.] Lewis's stature, say that all of us not only seek (as Pascal said) but also ought to seek our own happiness. Our mistake lies not in the intensity of our desire for happiness, but in the weakness of it." (Desiring God)
As I posted yesterday, I've also been profoundly touched over the past month by the Mitford novels. Perhaps they're too good to be true. On the other hand, they illustrate two truths about happiness that seem to escape Will Ferguson's theories. One is perhaps a cliché, but it's true anyway: that you create your own happiness around you; if you want a friend, you have to be one. Mitford's mayor wins elections based on slogan "Mitford takes care of its own," and the books constantly repeat this theme of human love and concern. The best that Ferguson's Edwin comes up with is deciding to kill the author of the self-help book (to save the world from Happiness); his concern for others is limited to another editor (his sometime girlfriend) and, eventually, to that same author (probably the most interesting character in the book, and we don't get to meet him until the end). In other words, he doesn't do a whole lot to make his world a better place.

The other is, as I suggested before and as John Piper preaches, that happiness--or joy--or whatever you want to call it--may not be complete until we find it in a relationship with the One who created us. It's all very well for Edwin to celebrate our human weaknesses along with our good; but that doesn't seem to take into account the genuine pain caused by sin and suffering in the world, and our need for an answer that lies outside of humanity altogether. Belief in God doesn't have to be as mindless as Belief in Happiness.

And when I get done with Piper's book, I think I'll pass it on to my friend at church.

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