Keep Talkin’ Happy Talk
Thank you for giving Jackson Lears enough space to write, so eloquently, about the pursuit of happiness [“Get Happy!!” Nov. 25]. His comparative, historical approach made my mind very happy. Truly.
Thank you for Jackson Lears’s wonderful multi-book review, parsing the slippery concept of “happiness” and exposing the core of our contemporary malaise. Nathaniel Hawthorne opined, “Happiness is a butterfly which when pursued is always just beyond your grasp; but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” About the excesses of imperial Rome, the Stoic Seneca observed, “And now it has come to this, that to want only what is enough is to be considered both boorish and utterly deprived.” Bookends for the stack of books reviewed.
Every now and then I think about letting my Nation subscription lapse. And every now and then there’s a piece like Jackson Lears’s, and I know I never will.
I started to read Jackson Lears’s review but was immediately annoyed by the vagueness of his shot at Steven Pinker as a “propagandist” who had confused science with scientism. Lears does exactly what he accuses Pinker of doing: he conflates science with scientism (“The most problematic applications of scientism have usually arisen in the behavioral sciences”). He goes on to say the behavioral sciences’ data “are alleged to reveal an ‘enduring human nature.’”
Given his artful use of the passive voice, I cannot be sure that Lears believes there is such a thing as “human nature.” I concluded then that I would not trust anything else he had to say. There is such a thing as human nature, and it has been molded in large part by our evolutionary past. Sneerers, even in The Nation, seem so uninterested in facts.
I much appreciate the enthusiasm for my essay, which apparently spoke to many readers directly. It appears there are many as frustrated by the happiness industry as I am, and as eager to restart public discussion of what constitutes the good life. As for Mr. Cliffe, I’m a little perplexed about how to respond to a critic who proudly claims that after skimming the first page he could not trust a word I wrote. So let me quickly address his main concern: I do believe there is something we can call human nature, rooted in the biology common to all human beings. But to invoke human nature as an explanation for why people do the things they do is to leave out all the most interesting variables (history, culture, politics, economics) that shape human motives under particular circumstances. Human nature is only the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it—as most devotees of the phrase seem to assume. Life is more interesting than they realize.