There is suffering in the well-appointed kitchens and cozy dens of the American middle class. The Myths of Happiness, a new book by Sonja Lyubomirsky, seeks to address the malaise we feel when we’re not married by age 27 or millionaires by 30.
Lyubomirsky does offer good— if familiar—advice. But the tone and focus of the book seem ill-fitted for a world after 9/11 and the Great Recession. The book seems to be written for the most comfortable among us—those who might be driven to despair on discovering “that our neighbor is directing a television pilot or that our former classmate is on the cover of California Lawyer.”
It is difficult to take the unhappiness that comes from such situations seriously. But to a certain extent, that is Lyubomirsky’s point. What you think will make you happy won’t necessarily. Happiness, if you choose, is possible in McMansions or ratty apartments—and so is misery.
Over time, people become disenchanted with the marriages, jobs and living situations we thought would make us happy. The process of becoming accustomed to things is called hedonic adaptation. It incites particular mayhem when it affects our relationships. You cannot stop it, but there are ways to slow it down. Throughout the book, Lyubomirsky doles out familiar advice for happiness in other arenas: count your blessings, adversity builds character and makes you happier with what you’ve got, focus on the good things, don’t be materialistic, spend your money on experiences rather than things, keep solid relationships with family and friends.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this constant striving is a good thing because it means we’re able to adapt to bad situations. But for the average businessman eyeing his boss’s Aeron or a mom counting on marble countertops to bring her happiness, it can briefly lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and general malaise.
These old bits of wisdom are mostly put forth as solutions to some fairly shallow problems. When she does address serious problems—like poverty—she does so in a way that seems somewhat callous, especially at a time when so many people are still licking recession-inflicted wounds. She’s at her best when she’s blowing up myths about happiness: single people (especially women) are not all sad, having kids isn’t necessarily a fount of eternal bliss, you can be happy again after a divorce or life-threatening diagnosis.
It’s good to hear
that from a professor of psychology. We’ve all known people (possibly
ourselves) who are slaves to tyrannical societal expectations and suffer
greatly for it. But many people—see someecards.com—have already
identified these societal benchmarks as absurd.
GO: Sonja Lyubomirsky appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Wednesday, Jan. 30. 7:30 pm. Free.