Three Recent Books About Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy, but few people seem to be happy. Even people who are, and have every reason to be happy, still want to be even happier. There is an infinite desire for happiness, and, not coincidently, there is a huge industry in telling people how to be happy. Religions have served this market for millennia. Nowadays, there are apps for it, too.

I thought I would sample some of the recent offerings.

OK, I admit it. I was motivated by the release of Paula Poundstone’s entry in the genre, which I really wanted to read. In the spirit of her “unscientific study”, and the eternal maternal principle that you have to eat your vegetables before you get dessert, I tackled two other recent books on the topic, the sublime, the ridiculous, and the real.

So I (tried to) read all these:

  1. The Book of Joy (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (The Sublime)
  2. Solve For Happy (2017) by Mo Gawdat (The Ridiculous)
  3. The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness (2017) by Paula Poundstone (The Real)

Each of these books tackles similar questions (“what can I do to be happy?”), and actually advocate the same array of techniques (e.g., getting a grip on negative thinking, focusing on others, not focusing on “more stuff”). The differences lie in how they tell the story, and especially, how they seek to inspire you, the reader.

These differences are important, both abstractly (are they correct?) and pragmatically, because even the same story told differently captures different readers.

Inevitably, I found myself arguing with the authors, especially where they make claims about science. I cant say that criticizing books about how to be happy made me especially happy, but its what I do.


The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (hereinafter abbreviated, DL&DT)

Let’s start with the sublime.

This book is a unique artifact, written from a historic 2015 visit by Desmond Tutu to Dharasala, the home of the Dalai Lama. Old friends, fellow Nobel Peace Laureates, and world famous moral leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop hung out together and talked about Joy. Even ignoring the teaching, the account of the meeting is worth reading. These two giants rarely meet in person, and neither will live much longer.

Overall, this book is kind of preachy. But these two old preachers are really, really good at the preaching game, so its not so bad. And in any case, they each have cred out the wazoo, so it would be stupid not to pay attention to what they have to say.

The general thrust of the book is: that “happiness” is not the same thing as “joy”. Joy is long lasting and not free of pain or loss. These two guys are avatars of this kind of joy—living through trouble, loss, and pain, but retaining their humanity and a good attitude.

Part of the point, too, is how much common ground these two guys have. Each represents a deep historical religious traditions, with long, complex cultural contexts. Yet their teachings come out pretty much the same, and not in a shallow Kumbaya way, but in deep understanding of human psychology.

This is a good enough book that I’ll touch briefly on some of their points.

Acceptance

One of the trickiest concepts in the book is that of “acceptance”. Only a fool thinks the world is or should be perfect. Bad things happen.

You accept the inevitable frustrations and hardships as part of the warp and weft of life. The question is, he had said, is not: How do we escape it? The question is: How can we use this as something positive?” ([2], p. 224 (quoting Tutu))

Acceptance-whether we believe in God or not—allows us to move into the fullness of joy. It allows us to engage with life on its own terms rather than rail against the fact that life is not as we would wish.”  ([2], p. 225 (quoting DL)))

It’s Not About You

If there is one key to being happy, it is to take care of others. This will make you happy. (See also, Sensei Claire: sharing makes people happy.)  These two great Senseis teach love, compassion, and generosity. These are all forms of getting over yourself, and caring for and helping others.

Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering.” ([2], p. 250 (quoting DL))

Be Grateful

Much of the book is about perspective, the need to be grateful for good and move to acceptance of hardship.

Events should not make you unhappy. If you can’t fix it, then how would being unhappy help? And if you can fix it, then be happy you know what to do.

But above all, be grateful for the good things you have and experience.

Laughter Helps

The book also notes the important role of humor and laughter, which makes you feel good and makes it easy to get along. Sensei Paula illustrates this point in spades (see below).

Solve For Happy by Mo Gawdat

The subtitle of this book is “Engineering Your Path to Joy”, and Identifies Gowdat as a Google guy. The same topic as DL&DT above, but a weirdly different way of talking about it, no?

If he’s a Googler and he says there is an algorithm, then it must be real, and it must really work, no?

Well, no.

Disclosure: I could not finish this book. It rubs me the wrong way so badly that I couldn’t even read the parts that I agree with, let along the huge swaths of bogosity.

Problem 1: The entire conceit that there is a single magic algorithm for happiness or joy is bogus. And I’ve learned in my life that anyone telling you that there is a magic formula is usually selling something.

Problem 2. The pseudo technical presentation of “equations” and “charts” is offensive to me. This is cargo cult science from someone who ought to know better.

Problem 3. The thing that he is selling, as per Problem 1, turns out to be some kind of deism which includes preposterous “scientific” arguments for intelligent design. The bogosity is so thick I ran out of energy to even attempt to debunk it.

Skimming over the book, it is clear that Gowdat covers much the same ground as DL&DT. Reframing both thoughts and situations, getting over yourself, not worrying about having “stuff”.

But the way he tells it is so, so different.

What I found here was an amalgam of pop psychology and old ideas, packaged up with the enthusiasm and style of a Google executive. Some of the material is plausible, though he mixes in shallow analogies, misstatements of scientific finding, non sequiturs, and general misinformation, to give us his own new-agey happy talk.

Whatever this is, it ain’t “engineering”.

I’ll grit my teach sketch his basic pitch from Chapter 1 (which I did read, for my sins).

Let’s start with the interesting concept that happiness is the “default state” for human beings. He argues that infants are happy, which shows that people start happy and can always be happy. Huh. The model for happiness is a completely dependent and helpless infant, who knows nothing and does nothing. Sigh.

Pursuing his “engineering” theme, the chapter is infused with analogies to mobile apps which would be a lot more persuasive if I didn’t know anything about software. For example, he suggests that the default “you” is messed up by often unintended settings to the “preferences” for the app that is you. These settings overwrite the “original programming” which is a happy you.  This might be how Google’s apps work, but it ain’t how people work.

The real you, the happy you is “buried under a pile of rocks made up of illusions, social pressures, and false beliefs. To reach happiness, you need to remove those rocks one by one starting with some of your most fundamental beliefs.” ([1]. p. 20) (!?)

A lot of the points are similar to the advice from others. He reiterates a refutation of the “success narratives”, a la Martin’s “the new better off”, not to mention DL&DT above. He advocates gratitude and a personal happy list.

The “engineering” kicks off with Equation 1,

Eq1: Happiness >= events – expectations

This faux equation makes the simple point that if events do not live up to expectations, you will be unhappy, no matter what the events might actually be.  That’s a fair point, though the “equation” is pure BS.

This leads to him to the new age-y, blame-the-victim concept that “It’s the thought, not the actual event that are making you unhappy.” (p. 28) And he defines suffering as obcessive negative thoughts which magnify and extend painful events, with the main point being that you can choose not to suffer in this way. DL&DT say similar things, but with a much more nuanced sense of what suffering really feels like.

Mowdat talks about fun, happiness, and joy. Good news, everybody! He’s got all the answers, and they are all in your own head!

Skipping many details, I’ll mention his view that happiness is achieved by his version of acceptance:

Think positive thoughts and agree with the events of life and you’ll reach the state of happiness.

That’s right. Happiness is “right thought”, that “aligns with reality”. Phew! I can’t even begin to list the things wrong with this Orwellian definition! Or maybe it is Pollyanna-ish.

When you see the truth of your unfolding life and compare it to realistic expectations of how life actually unfolds, you will remove reasons to be unhappy and realize, more often than not, that everything’s fine, and so you will feel happy.” ([1], p. 41)

Ahem.

This may be true for super wealthy Google executives, but for most of us, the “truth” is that life is “unfolding” in ways that realistically are extremely bad for us—often because of the actions of stupid and wicked people who are actively harming me and the people I love for their own ends. Accepting this truth will never make me happy.

(But see DL&DT on the very, very difficult topic of forgiving those who have done you wrong.)

Joy is different from happiness, and Joy is the apex of his hierarchy of “states”.  He considers “joy” to be essentially the same or very close to “flow”, which isn’t quite what DL&DT are saying.

Finally, Mowdat finds comfort in the understanding that this is the best of all possible worlds, that there is “a plan” and everything that happens is part of the plan.   (And here here is, of course, Candide-ian)  Yes, this is basically deism, and he really believes it. That’s fine. I understand the comforts of hoping that there is a plan, and that maybe everything is OK.

What’s not OK is suggesting that this view is consistent with the current findings of science, or is even logically coherent. Pretty much everything he says is on this topic is just false .

I simply haven’t got the energy to debunk this junk “science”.

I don’t mind people believing is divine design or other supernatural causation, but please don’t try to prove it with science. It’s an insult to science, and insult to my intelligence, and undermines the whole point of faith, which is beyond reasoning.

I’d best let this rest here.  I can’t recommend this book.


The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness by Paula Poundstone

And now for dessert!

OK, I admit that I read through the other two books to have an excuse to read PP’s latest. Eat your vegetables before you get dessert. From the sublime to the ridiculous, and now …Mom’s version?

As expected, this is the most enjoyable of the lot. For one thing, it made me laugh, which is definitely a good way to be happy and healthy. (See DL&DT above.)

Sensei Poundstone is much, much more down to Earth than either the Nobel Laureates or the Google Nabob. She’s a working mom, fer goodness sake. That’s as real as real gets.

Of course, she’s also a strong thinker, who has some things to say.  We’ll start with the introduction, which starts a disarminingly brilliant observation:

Is there a secret to happiness? I don’t know how or why anyone would keep it a secret. It seems rather cruel, really.” ([3], p. 1)

Quite.

The book is heavily autobiographical (as are her stand up routines). It is organizes as a set of faux “experiments”, that purport to try out various formulas for happiness. Each “experiment” is an intervention into her life, which must fit around chores, kids, cats, and work. The execution is so peculiarly Poundstonian that no one could possibly replicate them. But the lessons are clear and universal.

A quick summary of the “results”:

What worked: helping others, dancing, and spending time with her kids and cats.

What didn’t work: a fancy car, getting organized, getting on line, getting fit, and positive verbalization

Surprise result: meditation had surprisingly profound effects, though possibly not exactly as expected.

These are scarcely surprising results in themselves. I think the fact that she could achieve any success at all in her rather ordinary life is, I think, inspirational in ways that the big guns above can’t quite match.

In the end, Sensei Paula concludes that achieving happiness is difficult, and that trying to be happy all the time makes little sense any way,

For me, I’ll feel successful if happiness can be the backbeat to the emotional score of my biography.” ([2], p. 285)

As I have said, this is maerial  heavily auto biographical. It’s not about happiness in general or people in general, but her own (somewhat goofy) exploration of how to seek happiness in her own pedestrian life. The joke is, of course, that she scarcely needs these silly “experiments”, because she is already leading a good life.

Poundstone made me laugh, which I appreciate. But mostly  what I saw is  how she loves her kids, with a deep, fiery, glow that we can see and feel from way out here. Raising a family as a single working mom is not “fun”, nor is it without trouble and pain. But there is a deep, deep joy here. Who needs that other crud?


Discussion

The analysis and advice is actually pretty much the same across these three sources, as well as many others.

For example:

Care for others

Don’t worry about “stuff”

Learn to control expectations and negative thoughts

Practice gratitude every day

DL&DT are very interesting guys, arguably two of the most interesting people alive today. They have tons and tons of cred, and have come through the furnace without becoming bitter. They know a lot, but are humble.

This book is worth reading if only because is was a historic meeting.

Mowdat is not especially humble, a humble man does not pretend to be able to “engineer” happiness. He tells the story in the new age-y language of Google engineers. I didn’t find him credible.

Poundstone writes as “everywoman”, with considerable humbleness–though she should be proud of herself and her kids. She makes us laugh, which probably did more to make people happy that the other two books combined. And, by the way, she satirizes the “scientific formula”, like Mowdat proposes.

In the end,you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

Who are you going to model your life after? A Nobel Laureate? A millionaire Google executive? Or a working single mom?

You know my own answer.


  1. Mo Gawdat, Solve For Happy: Engineer Your Path To Joy, New York, North Atar Way, 2017.
  2. Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasing Happiness in a Changing World, New York, Penguin, 2016.
  3. Paula Poundstone, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, New York, Algonquin Books, 2017.

 

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