Happiness, once again

Jenny Diski is one of my favorite nonfiction writers (I’m scared to read her fiction in case I hate it), and as far as nonfiction goes, I like pretty much whatever she writes. That includes this essay in The London Review of Books, a review of Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. Those of you who have read Diski will not be surprised to find that she did not like The Happiness Project, is suspicious of the whole notion of happiness, and prefers not to use the word, as well as the words “love” and “feeling.” They are all just too vague.

Here’s a taste of her style (lengthy, but every bit of the paragraph is worth it):

Back to the Twelve Personal Commandments. The first, it has to be said, is difficult: ‘Be Gretchen’. I can see the sense in that as things stand, but being Gretchen is beyond me. Apparently, it isn’t even easy for Gretchen, since she has to remind herself to be her. Still being Gretchen is the first step on the road to happiness. OK, she means: ‘Be yourself’. But like many purveyors of such advice, she gives no guidelines, and I could more easily be Gretchen than fathom how to ‘Be Jenny’. If I thought I knew that, I probably wouldn’t have the doubt-space in my head to enable me to consider myself unhappy in the first place. Some of her commandments are more clear-cut than others, but that’s true too of the more modest ten that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. ‘Be polite and fair,’ like ‘Do not commit murder,’ may not be easy but you can see how it might save you trouble in the long run. Walk into a shop and call the proprietor a capitalist, thieving cunt, and you are likely to leave less happy than when you went in, though I can imagine circumstances in which another kind of contentment might override the social benefits of hypocrisy and self-control. There are contradictions, too: isn’t ‘Identify the problem’ cancelled out by ‘No calculation’? And ‘Act the way I want to feel’ doesn’t chime well with ‘Do what ought to be done.’ But what of the gnomic ‘Spend out’? Gretchen helps us with this and explains: ‘by spending out, I mean to stop hoarding, to trust in abundance. I find myself saving things, even when it makes no sense. Right now I’m forcing myself to spend out by wearing my new underwear.’ This does at least makes sense of the ‘Be Gretchen’ commandment, because surely anyone who wasn’t Gretchen who heard themselves say that or read it back after they’d written it would immediately head to the nearest tall building and throw themselves off.

The entire essay is a treat. And I think this even though I read books about happiness and like them. The Lovingkindness book I’m reading now is subtitled The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, and I praised the book Positivity earlier this year, which makes a point of not being about happiness, exactly, since happiness is a much narrower term than positivity, but can still be said to be about happiness anyway, in a loose sense of the word.

I don’t think I’m being entirely contradictory here. I agree with a lot of what Diski says. Unhappiness is a part of life, and there isn’t much to be done about it — it’s just the way things are. There isn’t much to be done about it, but there is something. I have found books about happiness, or positivity or lovingkindness or whatever, to offer realistic ways of responding to unhappiness. The ones I’ve read don’t argue you can get rid of unhappiness entirely, but that there are things you can do to really experience the happiness that does come to you and to encourage it to happen more. They also show how to experience and then move on from the sad moments in life — not to reject them and not to wallow in them, but to respect them and then to recover.

It seems to me that people who complain about self-help books and books about happiness tend to conflate them all into one category of badness, when the truth is there are good examples and bad examples, just as there are of any genre. I’d probably hate The Happiness Project too, but I don’t want to dismiss books that might offer genuine wisdom.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Happiness, once again

  1. We Europeans tend to cling tenaciously to a deep, dark melancholy that arose with Romanticism and never really went away. We think it makes us interesting and individual – happiness looks much the same for everyone, but suffering is inevitably full of unique difference. Don’t make us give it up! 😉


  2. The Poet

    I don’t think you’d be disappointed if you read the fiction. It’s even better than the non-fiction.


  3. All right, I really must read Diski sooner rather than later. This quote is wonderful. Meanwhile, I agree about self help books. A lot of “self help” is pure trash (and so easy to dismiss, bringing to mind visions of old SNL skits), but I have found some books to be very useful. These are usually those that are grounded in original experimental research that builds on previous research and provides case studies as examples of what the author means, not one or two case studies around which a whole theory is based (in other words, the sort of research and thinking any good psychologist should do).


  4. I love that quote and must try and read that article, it sounds really interesting. Everything you’ve written about Diski makes me want to read her and I even have a couple 0f her nonfiction books on hand–not sure what I’m waiting for!


  5. I read the article last week and thought of you! it was the first time I had read Diski. I loved her sort of snarky voice. Is she always like that? If she is I am so going to love her longer work!


  6. How interesting! I need to read the full essay that’s for sure. I haven’t read The Happiness Project and haven’t heard that many good reviews about it actually so don’t know if I’ll ever get to it. But, we were talking about happiness in yoga class and how life is not about happiness all the time and to think that yoga will provide that is not realistic. Rather than striving for “happiness” it’s more about finding a balance and knowing how to roll with the hard times. Easier said than done of course but well that’s what practice is for.


  7. musingsfromthesofa

    There is no way I could bring myself to read a book called The Happiness Project; but based on that extract, I could certainly read Diski!


  8. Litlove — oh, okay, if you insist 🙂 I do understand the deep, dark melancholy and wouldn’t want to give up some of my own negativity. I don’t think anyone would call me perky or chipper! But certain forms of unhappiness I wouldn’t mind doing without. God save me from being obnoxiously happy though!

    The Poet — okay, then. I’ll take your word for it.

    Emily B. — indeed, you must. I agree with you about self-help. Give me scientific studies and research and don’t talk down to me, and I’ll take your self-help ideas a little more seriously.

    Danielle — I think you would like her! There are so many people to get around to reading, though. The quote does give you a good indication of what her writing style is like.

    Stefanie — yes, she is always/often like that — funny and snarky but intensely serious and insightful. I think you will like her. I’d recommend starting with Strangers on a Train.

    Iliana — I agree with you about yoga. It’s not about finding happiness, although it might increase the number of happy moments you experience. It’s more about balance, as you say, and learning how to respond to whatever happens in the best way, whether it’s good or bad.

    Musings — I think you would like her. Do read her book Strangers on a Train, which is her take on America. A snarky Brit touring America — what’s not to like?


  9. I’m late here, but I wanted to say I’m still on the hunt for a Diski book at the Book Barn. She has a dark sense of humor that I like.

    I agree that some self-help (really: psychology) books are better than others, along the lines of what Emily said. Reading about how the brain works, coupled with our environments and individual personalities, can be fascinating reading, or, at least, explain a lot. I have “Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life” by John B. Arden, Ph.D., on my bedside table, which I cannot wait to dive into. It goes into parts of the brain and what is responsible for what, and how we can use that information to change the thinking patterns.

    There are actually happiness groups out there, and I’m not so sure I trust them, but I do think that the idea of counting your blessings — gratitude — contributes a great deal to our happiness. I’ve been seeing this concept a lot lately in books and articles, and I’m trying to be more grateful myself. It’s a work in progress. 🙂


  10. verbivore

    I like Litlove’s comment – and I had a similar reaction when I read Diski’s essay. She’s so damn funny, isn’t she? But I couldn’t help thinking there was a bit of America vs Europe in her criticism of Rubin’s work…but maybe I’m just sensitive since I live here and, as much as I often agree with it, some criticism of the US can get annoying. In any case, I haven’t read The Happiness Project, it isn’t at all my kind of book, so I can’t judge for myself. I’d like to read Diski’s Strangers on a Train, I think I would love it.


  11. Debby — I hope you find some Diski! She’s just not as widely read here in America, it seems, which is too bad. You are absolutely right about self-help books with a scientific basis. Studying the brain is fascinating, and there is so much still to figure out about it. Dismissing scientific research that can lead to greater happiness or contentment strikes me as silly. I’d love to know more about “Rewire your Brain” when you read it.

    Verbivore — I think you would enjoy Strangers on a Train — her tone there is wonderful, very similar to that in the article. She spends a lot of time analyzing America in that book, but I don’t remember being bothered by a feeling that she wasn’t fair to Americans. I agree that there’s some criticism of America in the article, but I suppose it’s criticizing a part of the culture I don’t like much (not so much those who write about happiness, but those who do so in a simplistic way).


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