Friday, January 08, 2010

What Color Is Happy Anyway?

There seems to be a happiness conspiracy of sorts out there, and I have to admit that at times I have fallen for it. A couple of my friends have been following the PBS series "This Emotional Life" which concluded with a two hour episode called "Rethinking Happiness" which suggests that people look around in all the wrong places for it or have unrealistic expectations about it.

I'm a bit surprised to realize that I have books I don't fully recall buying with titles such as The Architecture of Happiness and Stumbling onto Happiness. Heck, I'll even admit that I own The Pursuit of Happyness on DVD and a bottle of Clinique's Happy that I have used maybe two times.

So it was a bit fitting of my often conflicted personality that in one week I bought The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Bright-Sided - How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. (The red coloring of that one word is quite intriguing, no?)

I'm generally pretty cynical about pop psychology and self help books, but I have to admit that Lyubomirsky's tome is not bad and more focused on goal setting than the various crack theories that Ehrenreich debunks. She is down on everything from prosperity evangelists, Dale Carnegie, the New Thought Movement and just about any of those suggesting that the "laws of attraction" to lead us out of any misery and to the supposed nirvana of happiness. She grounds it all in her personal experience of going through a support group after being diagnosed with cancer and being asked to see her illness as a "gift" from which she could learn and grow.

At first I had trouble with Ehrenreich's seemingly cranky tone that seemed to embrace being bummed out, but I ultimately agree with her that all this happy talk is leaving people numb from real emotions or even having the sanity to see that things are bad and to fight for their rights. Without anger and disatisfaction around segregation, homophobia, sexism, war and a list of countless ills, there also would not have been the movements and activists to take some steps to right these wrongs that still have a long way to go.

Ehrenreich is one of those writers like Mark Kurlansky that I always enjoy reading, even though I know from the beginning where they are going and what will be some of the their main points. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy the ride with them, even if I don't walk away "happy" at the end.

And, by the way, who said yellow is the color of happiness? I've always found bright yellows and pastels to be sort of depressing and have leaned more towards soothing grays, steely blues and crunchy browns. But then again, many people have told me that my handful of yellow shirts are the most flattering ones that I own.

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At 5:33 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Ehrenreich is one of my favorite writers. And from your description of her book, I'd concur with her theories -- though I guess I should read it before I say that without reservation.

I always thought the "Power of Positive Thinking" theory and all its descendants were a little simplistic -- but I find myself trying to put a positive spin on things all the time. It's like instinct, maybe just from growing up American!

At 8:41 AM, Blogger ArtSparker said...

I think there's more than one thing going on here - the unspoken part of the woo-woo happiness cult is that one is being asked to join something. Women in particular are socialized to join (I'd guess there are probably more women in groups of all kinds, including support groups, than men). Independent thinkers aren't joiners so much.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Steve - Ehrenreich makes the point that she's not promoting negative thinking as a better alternative. She's just against deluding yourself into thinking everything fine and if you're not happy the problem is you not the status quo.

Susan - I agree. I think so many of these groups that claim to be about support and personal growth are about group think or forcing you to buy into their corporate brand. If you ever challenge them or think independently they will say the problem is your negative attitude not that something is off with them.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger Bungy32 said...

Hmmm. Ask Charlotte Perkins Gilman if yellow is the color of happiness. More like the color of creepy and crazy.

Jefferson (well, not alone, but you know) changed Locke's trivium of the pursuit of "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and happiness." I think it is telling in the US that our founding documents make an equivocation (via substitution) of happiness and property. Which is simply to say, our happiness issues are deeply ingrained and extend beyond pop-psychology.


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