About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Happiness Myth

After having greatly enjoyed Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht, I’m now reading her The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn’t Working Today. The first book is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in skepticism across time and cultures, including the many -- usually under appreciated -- religious skeptics. Hecht’s second volume should also be on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in happiness, and who on earth isn’t?

There has been a renaissance of writings about happiness lately, from newspaper and magazine articles covering research on the psychology of that human emotion to a number of philosophers mining their more than two millennia of literature to distill advice useful to Westerners at the onset of the 21st century. Hecht’s take, however, is different, and reflects her training as a historian. The basic idea is simple yet powerful: the best antidote to being trapped by cultural fads is to broaden one’s view both in time and in space. Take a look at how people in different historical periods and in diverse cultures approached the “problem” of happiness and you will get a helpful perspective on the idiosyncrasies of our own time and place.

For instance, take drugs. Not literally, but in the sense of considering the issue of drugs. Hecht points out that today we think of certain drugs (say, cocaine) as harmful and we accordingly make them illegal. Other drugs (caffeine) are instead not only allowed, but even studied to highlight their positive effects on our ability to “perform” at work and in life. But of course there was a time when cocaine was perfectly legal and considered as recreational as coffee is today. It is well known that the “coke” in Coca-Cola derives from the fact that one of the original ingredients of the beverage was cocaine, but did you know that one Angelo Mariani had the idea, back in 1863, to market coca-infused wine in Paris? “Vin Mariani,” not surprisingly, became a success and the guy got rich on it. The point isn’t that cocaine does not have harmful effects and should therefore be freely available. Rather, drugs in general do not come with a “bad” or “good” label, because most of them have positive or negative effects, depending on how they are taken (try injecting yourself with pure caffeine), and of course on what society thinks is “good” or “bad.”

Hecht applies the same historical and comparative approach to money (does it make you happy?), our bodies (why do we spend so much of our life dieting and running on a treadmill going nowhere?), and celebrations (why do we get together for weddings and sports events, but don’t run naked in the woods anymore?), making a convincing case that a lot of what we do to increase our happiness has little connection to our actual needs, and may in fact contribute significantly to our sense of un-happiness, or at least of dissatisfaction with our lives.

Hecht sometimes pushes the envelope a bit too far from my perspective as a scientist, suggesting or implying that modern scientific research on issues such as diet and exercise are not really improvements on our past knowledge, but simply contribute to generate more useless or downright destructive fads. I doubt it, though she is of course right that there is often a vast chasm between the best science that we have available and the reason people take up yet another “miracle” diet or exercise regime. (For the record, having read and practiced quite a bit in this area: no special diet is necessary to lose weight, and exercise by itself won’t do it unless you go to the gym at the rate of an olympian athlete. Here is the priceless “secret,” though, for which I will charge you nothing: eat fewer calories than you burn, and the second principle of thermodynamics will do the rest for you.)

Equally interesting is Hecht’s first section of The Happiness Myth, which should probably be re-read by the time one gets to the end of the book. It distinguishes among three types of happiness, which is helpful because often people mean very different things by that simple word. For Hecht there is “good day” happiness, determined by the little things you actually do in your daily routine; then there is “euphoria,” which is intense, long-lasting in your memory, but quite rare; and finally we have “happy life,” which has to do with the broad pursuits in life and requires long-term goals and a lot of work. It is important not to confuse these while at the same time realizing that we need a balance among all three of them (one cannot be happy by simply pursuing good days, or euphoric moments, for instance).

Also important are what Hecht calls the “four doctrines” for happiness, which she distills from the wisdom of millennia of philosophical writings in the east and west: know yourself; control your desires; take what is yours; and remember death. The author devotes one short chapter to each of these doctrines, and they are worth the reading in themselves as well as brief introductions to the thinking of philosophers from Aristotle to Epicurus, writers from Marcus Aurelius to Freud, and mystics from Koheleth to Buddha.

I don’t know whether I’ll be happier after reading this book, but I will certainly have gained a deeper perspective on the whole business of happiness. If knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon famously said, then I will also have gained more power over my own life, and that’s no small achievement to derive from a book.


  1. >"...but don’t run naked in the woods anymore?"

    Some of us do, and I highly recommend it.

  2. She gave DJ Grothe a great interview about this book on Point of Inquiry which I really enjoyed. (Also a good one for Doubt.) If memory serves, she questions the notion of longevity as good...that longevity creates happiness. If I am right in remembering this, I love the notion because too many of us, in our search for extended/eternal life through the emerging technocracy, do not think carefully about what the happy life actually is. Too many of us mistake the bells and whistles of consumable goods or avoidance of the sins of our religions (often tied together inextricably in the U.S.) to be things that will satisfy us and create joy or happiness. Ivan Illich called us homo miserablis. Hecht seems to understand this and her four aphorisms are ace. Without embracing death as a deed we visit upon one another or for us to foster, it would pay well for us to remember it.

  3. Although I also consider Doubt a must read for skeptics and one of my all-time favorite non-fiction reads, I hadn't previously been too interested in reading "The Happiness Myth". I think this review has piqued my interest, although I still plan on making "The End Of the Soul" the next Hecht book I read.

  4. I interviewed Jennifer Michael Hecht for Neuronarrative earlier this month, for those interested: http://neuronarrative.wordpress.com/2008/12/08/the-joy-of-doubt-an-interview-with-jennifer-michael-hecht/

  5. Massimo-

    I've been following Rationally Speaking for a while, thanks for the consistently thoughtful discussion. Hecht's "Doubt" is now on my Amazon wish list and I can't wait to check it out.

    On the issue of happiness, I think it's a very interesting connection to tie the fulfillment of more primal needs to the greatest level of satisfaction and happiness. Especially in light of the fact that, at it's most basic level, modern society seems geared to distancing us from this interaction. Perhaps, our time on the treadmill leads to greater unhappiness because it's only a tease for the fulfillment that once was evading a predator, etc.?


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