We’ll finish Bright-sided today in SOL, beginning with a closer look at Martin Seligman’s version of Positive Psychology. He comes off here looking like a self-important pseudo-scientific sham, a huckster with a PhD and a disingenuous surface commitment to optimism and happiness, a disloyal backstabber blaming his collaborator Ed Diener for the “smiley face” patina of +Psych. He and his peers in the Professoriat reject the Law of Attraction, but their science continues nonetheless to trail their publicity machine. He’s a wizard, writes Ehrenreich, but not of the Hogwarts variety. His new book, Flourish, is on our short list of candidates for November. We’ll be voting soon. [Guardian review… Happiness Institute review…nyt review]
“Disingenuous”? Maybe, but I do have to concur with his judgment that grouchiness is the default mindset of too many academics. True, our administrators, “regents,” and legislative purse-holders give us plenty to be grouchy about. If we’ve learned to be helpless, it’s because they’ve taught us too well.
In response, I’m still “trying hard to put more positive emotion into my life.” Call me kitschy, call me a Happy Pragmatist. Just don’t call me Calvin. I don’t insist on putting happiness to work as a character-builder, though I do think James rightly observed that
The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly.
Unhappiness fastens and perpetuates the trouble that occasioned it and increases the total evil of the situation.
In other words, it doesn’t work.
Ehrenreich distinguishes pessimism about the future of the race from personal pessimism. Good distinction, often neglected by PP people.
The Templeton foundation has poured millions into seeking “common ground” between science and religion. Not an inherently bad project, by any means, but Templeton Sr. clearly was a Peale-style magical thinker. Scientists should blush to take their money. Philosophers too. But maybe they should take his money and run, anyway. Funding is funding, right?
Oprah! What do we think of her? (Or her fictional alter ego Oona?) And what about the explosion across the land of Happiness 101 courses? (For the record, we don’t write “gratitude letters” in my classes. But why shouldn’t we?) “What makes us happy?”
Chapter 7 is all about how the economic bubble burst because of too much positivity. Is a happy disposition too good for business? Is the Chris Gardner phenomenon, as depicted in Pursuit of Happyness, part of the problem? Does megalomania + narcissism + solipsism = a good (self-hypnotized) sales force and a rotten society?
Our author’s last word, before we get ours, on this book:
Happiness is not, of course, guaranteed…
The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the “first responders”! We will not succeed at all these things… but– if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness– we can have a good time trying.
If she’s a grump, I guess I’m one too. She calls herself a realist. But I’m enlisting her in my new army of Happy Pragmatists. Oliver’s Army are on their way…
And so is Matthieu Ricard, whose Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Importrant Skill we’ll commence on Thursday. Does Buddhism hold “the secret” we seek?
Or does genetics, and biotech?
I’ve added a fiction title to our list of candidate texts for November: the novel Generosity by Richard Powers. It’s about what happens to a young woman and everyone around her when it is discovered that she possesses a rare “happiness gene.” It’s a terrific read & would give us a great look into the questionable (but increasingly popular) notion that genetic engineering holds the secret of (future) life. Again, we’ll vote on this in a couple of weeks. Any other nominations?