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The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today Paperback – Bargain Price, February 5, 2008

3.9 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

History teaches us, contrary to popular belief, that money can buy happiness, drugs are mostly good, low-fat diets may not prevent cancer or heart disease. For Hecht, the assumptions about happiness that guide our actions are distorted by myths, fantasies and "nonsensical" cultural biases. Taking a tour of historical and contemporary ideas of happiness, Hecht (Doubt: A History) demonstrates that women's clothes shopping is a celebratory act of freedom from the long nights their ancestors spent spinning, and that the shopping mall gives us back some of the social intimacy of group activity that consumerism wiped out of our lives. In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham encouraged Americans to identify whole-grain, home-baked bread with happiness, a notion still embodied today in myriad message-carrying birthday and anniversary cakes. Our love of sports and exercise stems from Southern slaveholders' need to distance themselves from heavy labor and its connotation of slavery, and from the Protestant equation of happiness with aggressive self-control and self-denial. American ambivalence about drugs reflects our fears about unproductive happiness and palliatives that numb us into complacency. Although the erudite Hecht (Doubt: A History) sometimes loses her audience in verbose, philosophical dissections, her energetic romp through the arbitrariness of history's ideas about happiness is eclectic and entertaining, providing ample perspective on the rituals that make us human. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Adding to the recent spate of happiness books, Hecht, author of Doubt: A History (2003), proves a beguiling writer blessed with a most agile mind. She skillfully confronts modern assumptions about what it means to be happy, investigating four factors frequently involved in happiness--drugs, money, bodies, and celebration--historically in sections on the wisdom of happiness through the ages, "good" and "bad" drugs and telling the difference, the relationship of money and happiness, the physicality of the body, and the ritual of celebration. There are three kinds of happiness, she maintains, those roused by a good day, by euphoria, and by a happy life. Not only different, they are often at odds. Her conclusions are often blunt (surprise! Money can buy happiness) and also practical. She offers suggestions that can conceivably help make a happier life, but her good judgment, common sense, and insightful commentary make the book a pleasure not only to read but also to ponder. June Sawyers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne (February 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060859504
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,026,131 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Historian, poet and philosopher, Jennifer Michael Hecht has written expansively on the history of doubt and examined atheism in the context of anthropology in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. This skeptical theme continues with "The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong", as Hecht takes a long view of the subject to show that "the basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense."

What are those assumptions? In the chapter on drugs, Hecht reminds us of the widespread use of opiates to treat even the most common of maladies and asks us reconsider the benefits of mood-altering drugs, cautioning, of course, against debilitating addiction. Money, though not a guarantor of happiness, nonetheless stimulates shopping and the gathering of shoppers into malls so that it becomes the "central public pleasure" where we "communicate with each other in the symbolic associational meanings of our ever shifting wardrobes and possessions." Our "cult of the body" Hecht dismisses by observing that "in the context of most of human history, our idea that a good life includes a lot of physical exercise is bizarre." Some people might dismiss the public fascination with dead or missing females such as Princess Diana or Elizabeth Smart as obscene or exploitative, but Hecht, harkening back to the Demeter myth in ancient Greek festivals, counters that because of the lack of regular, public displays of mourning, "People show their mutual grief because they have mutual grief; they show it in these eruptions when there are insufficient ways to show it scheduled into the regular calendar.
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Format: Hardcover
On the good side, Hecht is an excellent writer and has an entertaining way of mixing "high" and "low" culture. She has interesting - and for this reader, novel - things to say on several of the subjects. In particular, for me, her section on drugs was very interesting.

So why only 2 stars?
Frankly, I found this book very painful in various ways. There are many ways of approaching the subject of happiness. Instead of examining any one of the ways of looking at this question in depth, Hecht skims the surface.

This is particularly evident in the way that she handles the modern scientific studies of happiness. It's fine to criticize these studies and it's fine to ignore them (depending on context). Instead, Hecht just "sort of" engages with the studies. In the chapter on Money, she references the large body of work indicating that past a certain point, more money does not equal more happiness. Then, she argues that this is wrong. OK, I'm with her... but she just launches some cheap, small attacks on a small number of the studies. Then she uses "common sense" arguments to imply that the studies are wrong.

Well, the "big deal" with these studies is that our commonsense ideas about happiness are wrong. But Hecht doesn't seem to want to really grapple with these studies - she wants to mention them and just then dismiss them. It's not real intellectual argumentation.

Similarly, she bizarrely writes at length about how the links between diet and cancer now seem very weak. Well, what about heart disease (the leading killer in the USA of men)? Here, the links seem much, much stronger. So maybe diet matters... but wait a minute, how did we get to discussing this instead of the larger idea of how health and happiness are linked (to what extent, in what ways...)?
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Format: Hardcover
Upon a superficial, incomplete, or dogmatic reading of this book, it's easy to dismiss it as yet another issuance of the NY-chattering class. Indeed, its colloquial style, the quick traversals from end-to-end of various facets concepts related the happiness, and the brief pondering of the center (read: moderation) from the left on several issues concerning happiness, make for as many reasons to discount this book.

However, should you look for a concise history of our take on happiness, and in effect how happiness is often a rather socially constructed path to whatever ends, then you'll be drawn into reading this book with great interest. Jennifer Michael Hecht (JMH) lines up many a view on happiness round concepts such a s wisdom, drugs, money, bodies, and celebration, from the ancient times to contemporaneity. Along the book, JMF hints only briefly at what might be viewed as her views/position on the above concepts. Some of the post-modern tools (e.g. irony) may even get in the way of any constructivist path to happiness, but this is just a sign of the times and intellectual debts of the author. Be patient though for the [C]onclusion chapter, titled "The Triumph of Experience" shows JMF's share of wisdom about happiness, which I dare summarize as moderation in experience. At a different level, the author seems to indicate that happiness and truth go hand in hand, and even though we may not learn the truth we should definitely be skeptical about the abounding lies that make some happy for a while. In other words, enduring happiness is rather the effect of wisdom.
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