Monday, March 16, 2009

I don't get the point of this happy blog

The Happiness Project. Wha?

The author, Gretchen Rubin, is very smart and a very well (No, not going to insert joke here.) But really, what are her qualifications to tell you how to be happy? Why does she have a mirrored Slate blog?

I mean, I've read some interesting stuff that came out of the most recent "Happiness and Its Causes" conference in Australia (most of it is the usual stuff from psychologists on your affect and disposition; what affects (heh) your affect and disposition, biochemical realities/social constructs of happiness; how happiness can be measured, etc.). There's currently a call for papers for a conference on "The Pursuit of Happiness," about 19th century constructs of happiness. There's plenty of research out there showing that happiness is largely a biochemical reaction and a social construct. This stuff I get. This stuff is science and history. This stuff is interesting.

Rubin's stuff, however, is remarkably poorly written, shallow, and trivial (the parts that are not quoting from others) and I really distrust her methodology of "test-driving" the principles. It sounds like a gussied up version of "The Secret" or that woman who spent a year following Oprah's advice. Don't believe me? Here's Rubin's "happiness manifesto":

• To be happy, you need to consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, and an atmosphere of growth.
• One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
• The days are long, but the years are short.
• You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.
• Your body matters.
• Happiness is other people.
• Think about yourself so you can forget yourself.
• “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” -- G. K. Chesterton
• What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you, and vice versa.
• Best is good, better is best.
• Outer order contributes to inner calm.
• Happiness comes not from having more, not from having less, but from wanting what you have.
• You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.
• You manage what you measure.
• “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.” -- Robert Louis Stevenson

And here are her "twelve commandments":

And her "secrets of adulthood":

  • By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.
  • People don’t notice your mistakes and flaws as much as you think.
  • It's nice to have plenty of money.
  • Most decisions don't require extensive research.
  • Try not to let yourself get too hungry.
  • Even if you think they are fake holidays, it's nice to celebrate Mother's Day and Father's Day.
  • If you can't find something, clean up.
  • The days are long, but the years are short.
  • Someplace, keep an empty shelf.
  • Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
  • It's okay to ask for help.
  • You can choose what you do; you can't choose what you LIKE to do.
  • Happiness doesn't always make you feel happy.
  • What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.
  • You don't have to be good at everything.
  • Soap and water removes most stains.
  • It's important to be nice to EVERYONE.
  • You know as much as most people.
  • Over-the-counter medicines are very effective.
  • Eat better, eat less, exercise more.
  • What's fun for other people may not be fun for you--and vice versa.
  • People actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry.
  • Houseplants and photo albums are a lot of trouble.
  • If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough.
  • No deposit, no return.

This is stuff you can get in any self-help book or the less judgmental pages of a women's magazine! "It's nice to have plenty of money"?! Truer words never spoken, also none more obvious, also none more borne of privilege. This is totally feel goody, New Agey stuff! I don't even know what she is prescribing with"your body matters"! I know that this is purely self-promotion and book hawking on the part of the author. So why is Slate giving her a venue? The Green Lantern, for however annoyingly moralistic it is, is at least useful if I cared how much energy my blog's bandwidth takes.

No one can tell you how to be happy, or how to get happy. I say this to you as a lapsed Buddhist who grew up learning The Four Noble Truths of Suffering (so if you learn them and act them you suffer less, which is supposed to get you to happier). I have even confessed to you my desire to cut negativity from my life (so much for that, given this critical post). But there's just some sort of huge disconnect between this general "improve your happiness quotient" advice and real life problems that would take more than "activate your inner self" kind of posturing.

If you have specific problems, you can get some advice on those, I think, if the advice/solutions are feasible and you have the wherewithal and means to solve them. You know, like if you are unhappy with your job, your partner, your family dynamic, you can talk to a psychologist and learn behavioral therapy techniques for coping with problems that you can't solve and for acting to improve situations you can change, or at least change your response to them. Obviously, unhappiness stemming from poverty/abuse/trauma/structural conditions are harder to "solve," and all the therapy in the world (if you can afford it) won't make the bills/cancer go away. If you have biochemical bases for not being happy, you can get medication for that if you can afford the health insurance and the pills. But I am rather annoyed at this branch of self-helpism that is more like "suggestions for the mild to moderate life enhancement and amelioration of the delicate concerns of the bourgeoisie." It is true that getting organized makes you feel better. Oh, if only my only concern were the cluttered state of my desk and home, rather than huge debt, fears of being unemployable, being totally behind in work, and how the current economic recession is affecting my most loved ones.

The nail in the coffin: Rubin finds Gwyneth Paltrow insightful.