Ah, the Good Life

By Reviewed by Darrin M. McMahon
Sunday, April 29, 2007


Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy

By Jennifer Michael Hecht

HarperSanFrancisco. 355 pp. $24.95

Jennifer Michael Hecht believes that our "basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense" and that arriving at that realization can be "wonderfully therapeutic." The way to achieve the breakthrough, she says, is to study the past, and so she offers her book, subtitled "A History of What Really Makes Us Happy," as a form of personal therapy, history as self-help.

The undertaking is not as glib -- or as outrageously modern -- as it first might seem. Renaissance humanists looked to the past to furnish lessons about how to live. And some, such as the French skeptic Montaigne, were moved to treat history's baffling variety of customs and norms as a tonic against taking one's own too seriously.

Hecht, the author of the provocative Doubt: A History, joyfully follows Montaigne's example. Focusing on topics that have long drawn pursuers of pleasure -- drugs, money, the body and celebration -- she uses the past to poke fingers into the pieties and prejudices of the moment.

Thus Hecht would have us consider that Bayer once produced heroin, so named for its "heroic" success at alleviating coughs, and that the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, famous for his stoic wisdom and equanimity, was a regular user of opium. Such examples suggest the arbitrariness of our distinctions between substances good and bad, legal and illegal. And though Hecht is sensitive to the dangers of addiction and cautions (not entirely convincingly) against breaking the law, her aim is to free us to think more openly and less guiltily about drugs -- whether anti-depressants, narcotics, coffee or tea -- as "potions people use to get a little happy."

Hecht employs a similar method of historical comparison to question current attitudes toward the body. She points out mischievously that modern America compares only to ancient Greece and 20th-century fascist regimes in its obsession with bodily beauty and adds that "in the context of most of human history, our idea that a good life includes a lot of physical exercise is bizarre." Amusing discussions of the happiness philosophy of John Harvey Kellogg, the founder of the Kellogg's cereal company, who believed in the transformative power of sexual abstinence and whole grain, or of the 19th-century craze for fletcherizing (thoroughly chewing one's food), will make you think twice about the wisdom of the Atkins diet and other fads.

Nurturing that sort of skepticism is precisely Hecht's goal. Yet she is also willing to think against the (whole) grain in an effort to locate happiness in contemporary practices that many pundits are quick to condemn. She defends shopping, for example, as a viable route to happiness, a quest for lost community. And she sees the outpourings of emotion at the death of Princess Diana and the return of Utah kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart as attempts to participate in group rituals of mourning and celebration that throughout history have helped cultures sustain themselves.

Certainly Hecht's curiosity ranges widely, and the breadth of her learning is impressive, even if it is sometimes stretched rather thin. References to country music, Harry Potter and James and the Giant Peach come embedded in discussions of Proust, Baudelaire and Susan Sontag. The result can be fresh and daring analysis. But it can also be overwhelming. If life, in Hecht's view, is "another tumble in the kaleidoscope of historical culture," then all those shifting colors may leave you feeling a bit dizzy and confused.

Looking through history's kaleidoscope may be a fine technique for dissolving our cultural certainties, but it is less successful at illuminating the "core, classic wisdom" about happiness that Hecht summarizes in the first 50 pages. The four "magic formulas" she extracts from the whole of human history yield unobjectionable maxims: know yourself, control your desires, take what's yours and remember death. The outlines of such perennial truths, however, break down amid the chatty categorical imperatives -- "Try different things," "Don't overschedule" -- that she scatters throughout her book.

Still, at a time when Americans are bombarded with advice about how to be happy, Hecht's skeptical bent is refreshing. Indeed, she might have pushed it further. With the exception of several passing references, she fails to engage with the much-discussed "science of happiness" recently promoted by some of the world's leading psychologists, economists and social scientists. Given Hecht's academic training (she holds a PhD in the history of science), that is a shame. For not only does she miss an opportunity to wield her skeptical rapier, but she deprives herself of a wealth of insights, many of which cannot be easily dismissed. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows in his wonderfully smart and readable The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, modern science and history have a lot to say to each other. That dialogue is missing here.

So, ironically, is a fully historical appreciation of happiness itself, which Hecht defines simply as "feeling good." Only recently have human beings come to think of happiness exclusively in this way, slowly abandoning the links to God, virtue and justice that long tied happiness to sources beyond the fleeting feelings of the self. "The great meaning of the world," Hecht confidently asserts, "is each individual person getting through life with some happiness." Perhaps. But in this she reveals that, for all her interest in history, she is very much, like the rest of us, bound by the present. ยท

Darrin M. McMahon, a professor of history at Florida State University, is the author of "Happiness: A History."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company