Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On "The Happiness Myth" by Jennifer Michael Hecht ****

In this book, Hecht sets out to discuss what makes us happy and to denote how some of our ideas about what makes for a happy life may be wrong--or at least are culturally determined by the particular place and time in which we live. Once basic living needs are met, happiness generally does not go up or down depending on how much one has. Happiness can't be said to have grown over the millennia as technology has gotten more sophisticated and given us more of what we want. It is a constant. So wherein does happiness reside?

For the answer to this, she begins by looking at four philosophical perspectives--that happiness resides in finding yourself, that happiness resides in ridding yourself of desire, that happiness resides in indulging your desires, and finally that happiness resides in seizing the day (bearing in mind always that death lies just down the road).

Next she turns to four items she says can bring happiness but that our society often claims do not: drugs, money, body, and parties. Actually, society says all these things can bring happiness, but how these things are configured in that happiness quotient depend on the culture and time in which we exist--and that is closer to what Hecht appears to be claiming.

The chapters on drugs were particularly enlightening, as Hecht takes a historical perspective on the usage and nonusage of banned substances. Cocaine, for example, is banned in our own day, but into the early 1900s had been used as an elixir for those needing a bit of a pick-me-up, even among pregnant women. The coca leaf is, of course, still used among peoples in South America, chewed to make life a little sweeter. Its overuse and concentration led it to be considered dangerous--and eventually got it banned. Opium experiences a similar descent. But today, we have other drugs--prescription drugs--that can relieve our depression, no more safe if misused than some of the banned substances. Our culture in part determines what is okay and what is not. Of particular note here is a religion (I can't recall now the particular faith--perhaps Mormons) who banned alcohol and tea but who allowed the usage of a particular herb in a drink that later turned out to be a much more dangerous predecessor to our contemporary amphetamines. Likewise, she draws on an interesting study that connects religion and drug usage--showing that those who experience "highs" and transcendent experiences on a drug during a religious experience are more likely to remain devoted to that religion (the problem is that most druggies lack the discipline demanded of religion, and most faiths look down on drug usage).

The section on bodies was probably the next most interesting to me. In it, Hecht shows how various diet and exercise fads have come and gone and how certain things we see as healthful today were seen as just the opposite a century ago. Exercise, for instance, is now seen as so good that we go to gyms to work out because we don't get enough of it in our work; in the 1800s, exercise would have been seen as expending energy were are better off conserving if we wish to live long. In the end, it seems that moderation in all things is most likely to breed healthful, happy living.

I found the sections on money and parties less intriguing. The section on money largely focuses on what materialism gives and fails to give us. And the section on festivals seemed a bit dubious to me to begin with, as parties, to me, seem the essence of happy moments. That is why they are thrown. Hecht focuses on ancient Greek festivities and shows how they might be related to our human need to occasionally leave off our traditional roles.

I enjoyed this book as an historical account of how humans have viewed various fads and various ideas about how we can best be healthy and happy. It is when focusing on these details that Hecht is at her best.

No comments: