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Get Happy!! | The Nation

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Get Happy!!

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All of this changed with the Depression and the war, when dominant definitions of the pursuit of happiness—at least as produced by major media—shifted emphases from the individual to the collective. A desire to immerse oneself in a larger identity—the People, the Nation, the American Way of Life—pervaded the culture of the 1930s. In a time of deep emotional as well as economic insecurity, happiness became a matter of being accepted, of fitting in (How to Win Friends and Influence People, as Dale Carnegie advised in 1936). On this issue, we have direct testimony from unemployed workers, interviewed by sociologists at the time and by Studs Terkel later: when people were out of work, or in danger of being put out of work, they felt fear and shame—feelings that provoked a yearning for acceptance, a longing to belong. This desire led people in various directions, from the Popular Front to populist cultural nationalism to fascism. World War II offered the fulfillment of those longings—a national crusade (an opportunity to belong) that ended with the United States poised to become the richest nation in the world.

The Mansion of Happiness.
A History of Life and Death.
By Jill Lepore.
Buy this book

Pursuing the Good Life
100 Reflections on Positive Psychology.
By Christopher Peterson.
Buy this book

The Myths of Happiness
What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t. What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does.
By Sonja Lyubomirsky.
Buy this book

The Happiness of Pursuit
What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
By Shimon Edelman.
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The Antidote
Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
By Oliver Burkeman.
Buy this book

How Much Is Enough?
Money and the Good Life.
By Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.
Buy this book

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears teaches American history at Rutgers University. He is the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the...

Also by the Author

Keep talkin' happy talk… till the fat lady sings…

Republic or empire?

The broad middle-class prosperity of the postwar decades (however uneven), the “two-dimensional Levittown” of Bradley’s 1960 Game of Life, may well have realized some of the deepest longings of the Depression years. For many observers, the postwar United States was also the closest thing yet to a fulfillment of Bentham’s utilitarian vision—a well-fed, complacent suburban society where “Nobody Is Mad at Nobody,” as the title of a Life magazine feature put it in 1955, and knobby-kneed husbands flipped backyard burgers nightly.

The problem was that, for some Americans at least, those Depression longings were satisfied too completely. Almost as soon as the paint was dry on the first houses in Levittown, critics of the dominant managerial culture (including many managers themselves) began to worry about the conformist ethos—what, in The Organization Man, William Whyte called “the social ethic”—that lingered over American life during the Eisenhower years, long after the anti-communist witch hunts had spent themselves and their ringleader, Senator Joseph McCarthy, had been censured. The discourse of vitalism, the dream of happiness constantly renewed through peak experience, survived on the outskirts of the collectivist chorus. It turned out one could fit in all too well.

Happiness began to be refigured, at least in mass culture, as an escape from oppressive Others. A host of bad-boy heroes, from James Dean to Jack Kerouac to Steve McQueen, confirmed the popularity of this anti-conformist stance that was initially defined by males but eventually by women as well. In The Feminine Mystique, two of Betty Friedan’s main targets were the cult of domestic ”togetherness” that women’s magazines prescribed for familial well-being, and the functionalist sociology that defined conventional gender roles as the key to a smoothly operating “social system.” This was a straw in the wind: left politics were becoming as much a quest for personal fulfillment as for social or economic equality. The feminist movement, the black freedom struggle, the antiwar counterculture and the gay rights movement all balanced collectivist and individualist definitions of happiness. As the postwar consensus fragmented during the last third of the twentieth century, the balance tipped from social justice to liberated selfhood. Partisans of identity politics celebrated a fragmented, pluralistic and constantly renewable notion of personal happiness; Michel Foucault’s notion of “heterotopia” captured it nicely.

The cultural individualism of the left mirrored the economic individualism of the right. At their extremes, both perspectives shared a common asocial (or antisocial) vision worthy of Thatcher herself. The emerging neoliberal discourse was characterized by the disappearance of “society”—not merely as a reified entity with its own needs and interests (a notion we could bid good riddance), but as a setting for discussing the ends and aims of policy, what once had been called the “public good.” This was the impoverished intellectual atmosphere that prepared the ground for the return of ahistorical and apolitical explanations for human conduct: sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, neoclassical economics, pop neuroscience. This was science for dilettantes and dogmatists: in other words, scientism—a necessary instrument of ideologues who aimed to deny history by returning to nineteenth-century fantasies of “natural law” economics. Scientism, in short, has become the handmaiden of neoliberalism. And nowhere is scientism more flagrant than in the contemporary science of happiness.

It is easy to be snide about this brave new science—the vacuity of its view of human motives, the predictability of its findings, the banality of its prescriptions. But it is important to acknowledge the likelihood that its practitioners (most of them, anyway) are decent people responding to genuine longings in the populace. Their advice is almost always humane and no doubt at least occasionally helpful to their students and readers. The problem is that they oversimplify, overreach and, more often, ignore such a wide swath of human experience (politics, economics, culture, society) that it is difficult to see how their therapeutic advice can be adequate or their empirical claims justified—or if they are justifiable, how they can be significant.

Consider the late Christopher Peterson’s Pursuing the Good Life, a series of one- to two-page reflections culled from the clinical psychologist’s blog. Despite its title, there is nothing in this book about the “good life” in any traditional sense: a way of life that is publicly affirmed and shared with others. Instead, the good life is a series of pleasurable internal states that can be maximized by the right choices. Peterson’s reflections range from the terminally bland (go ahead and act on that idea you had in the shower this morning) to the mildly interesting (lists of objective criteria for happiness are plagued by problems of relativism and idiosyncrasy). But when he looks for examples of these problems, Peterson always lunges for low-hanging fruit: a long commute, he writes, might be on the list of criteria for happiness depending on what you like to do during the commute. It might be your big chance, for example, to learn Spanish or listen to lectures on the rise of the West. Self-improvement is always a part of the happiness agenda. Indeed, Peterson writes, Benjamin Franklin became “America’s first positivist psychologist” when he made a list of virtues and vowed to cultivate them systematically. 

The notion of Franklin as positive psychologist is apt and revealing. It evokes D.H. Lawrence’s riposte to Franklin’s moral bookkeeping: “The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it. Think of Benjamin fencing it off! He made himself a list of virtues, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock.” One does not need to worship at Lawrence’s vitalist shrine, nor take Franklin’s prescriptions literally, to understand Lawrence’s point. The contemporary science of happiness is content to skate, like Franklin, on the surface of emotional and moral life. 

The overwhelming tone of the happiness manuals is one of professional confidence and calm, even glib self-satisfaction. The authors are economically secure academics, upper-class professionals. They like to reveal their own expertise, en passant, with respect to opera, chamber music or jazz—not to mention blockbuster art exhibits, exotic travel destinations and arcane cuisines. Reading their work is like being at a dull dinner party in a college town or corporate suburb. But the problems run deeper than dullness. The atmosphere of suffocating complacency has methodological consequences. These are people used to making their own choices, and they project that ability onto their audience. Their professional and class blinders are set firmly in place. 

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