Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Seventeen years of Treehouse talk

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

From the archives: Happiness is, happiness isn't (book review)

Edited from a post of February, 2008

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 spread 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 quality 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...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.

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