The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote To What Isn’t Working Today

I sneak up on this book and take little sips, hoping to prolong my pleasure. Hecht’s method is “happiness by historical perspective” and she looks at four issues as topics seen through the lens of history: drugs, money, bodies, celebration. There are three distinct kinds of happiness, not unrelated but not in harmony with each other:

A Good Day: filled with lots of mild pleasures, repeatable, forgettable, a tiny bit of rewarding effort

Euphoria: intense, memorable, involves risk or vulnerability

A Happy Life: lots of difficult work (studying, striving, nurturing, maintaining, negotiating, mourning) sometimes seriously cutting into time for a good day or euphoria.

Taking thousands of years of writing and thinking on the subject, there are four things in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology, and self-help:

  • Know yourself.
  • Control your desires.
  • Take what’s yours.
  • Remember death.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero more accurately translated as “Pluck the day, never trust the next.”

Everyone is forgotten. Hecht uses a brutal example, asking readers to list the names of your grandparents’ mothers. From her quick survey only a tiny minority could name even two of their four great-grandmothers.

Everything has to be learned twice. “In childhood we have ignorant happiness, and we must lose this happiness if we are ever to get beyond it. Repression is not the same as transcendence. Between these states of calm ignorance and calm knowing, there has to be some half-wise screaming. Some few people actually grow wise by acting wise, but most grow wise by acting foolish, by accruing a variety of experiences, by taking chances, and by making errors.”

Your worst barrier against happiness is you: “You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death and terrified of it.” If you master these issues, you can be happy, but it’s not easy; it must be constantly worked at and never completely works.

Car culture makes us prize clearheadedness. “What makes opium a bad drug and Zoloft a good one has a lot to do with fogginess.” The degree of gauzelike inebriation is the difference between a bad drug and a good one. Car culture is also bananas because “if we rejected cars, we would have to walk, and our exercise problem would be over” (along with our fuel problem and pollution problem).

Drugs like cocaine and opium were actually useful in the 19th century for their medicinal properties. “While cocaine is great for allergies and toothaches, opium has a more important medicinal punch: it stops coughs and diarrhea.” Which in the era of epidemics of tuberculosis and dysentery was a blessing: heath AND happiness in a bottle.

Happiness maintenance work is “creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.”

Money has stolen away our sense of community, “consumerism has become the central opportunity for public performance; for being someone; and for eating and feeding, rather than being eaten.” We shop to have good interactions and get stuff, we watch TV to bond with others.

Exercise is something that we’ve invented because machines have made life easy. “The only labor available is purposeless.” And also a drain on resources because you have to plug that treadmill in. When we fill our town centers with gyms, we’re combining 2 American traditions: the pride of the upper class not having to do work so doing sport instead, and religious identity distinguishing virtue through self-limitation. Hecht says we’d be better off if we only did unproductive exercise for pleasure…. walk somewhere you have to go anyway, take the stairs, chop some wood. “Forget the gym unless you love it or need a change of habit.”

She recommends creating a list of things we do that contribute to all 3 prongs of happiness: Good-Day Happiness (what makes a good day for you?), Euphoria (How do you get euphoria), A Happy Life (What do you need to have or be working toward, in order to like your life)