Amy Bloom is a terrific writer. Her latest book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, was published last month. Therapist and storyteller, Bloom is in a unique position to write about our peculiar literary relationship to happiness. Her essay in the New York Times Book Review a week ago, The Rap on Happiness, offers an overview of recent books addressing this persistent topic, both positive and negative. She begins by acknowledging what most of us know: “Smart people often talk trash about happiness, and worse than trash about books on happiness, and they have been doing so for centuries — just as long as other people have been pursuing happiness and writing books about it. The fashion is to bemoan happiness studies and positive psychology as being the work not of the Devil (the Devil is kind of cool), but of morons.” And I loved this line: “It is true that ever since Americans began turning away from Calvinism (and who could blame them: long winters, smallpox and eternal hellfire?), the country has been a breeding ground for good news, for the selling of paths to contentment.”
So we read about Barbara Ehrenreich’s lambasting of the positive thinking movement in Bright-Sided and Eric Wilson’s thoughtful questioning in Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. These are countered with more upbeat reports including Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness and Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Sensible and even-handed, Bloom strikes a reasonable middle ground:
We could canvass Gore, Rubin, Gilbert, the Dalai Lama and the many authors on the happier.com Web site and produce the Fundamentally Sound, Sure-Fire Top Five Components of Happiness: (1) Be in possession of the basics — food, shelter, good health, safety. (2) Get enough sleep. (3) Have relationships that matter to you. (4) Take compassionate care of others and of yourself. (5) Have work or an interest that engages you.
I don’t see how even the most high-minded, cynical or curmudgeonly person could argue with that.
The real problem with happiness is neither its pursuers nor their books; it’s happiness itself. Happiness is like beauty: part of its glory lies in its transience. It is deep but often brief (as Frost would have it), and much great prose and poetry make note of this. Frank Kermode wrote, “It seems there is a sort of calamity built into the texture of life.” To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies. No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.
Ah, there’s the rub. Adult understanding? Sometimes I have some of that, and sometimes not so much.
In a somewhat related note: Several people were disturbed by the Heather Bell poem I posted last week (here). “It was so dark!” wrote one reader. Another friend wanted me to reassure him that I was of sound mind and body. My answer to him was, hey, give me some space for my dark little moments. I don’t have a lot of them, but that poem encapsulated something powerful for me. And yes, it is a dark vision but one that is artfully delivered.
Speaking of Bell, I just received the hand made book of her poems that I found online. Titled Nothing Unrequited Here, this chapbook is published by Verve Bath Press.
I liked this brief description of the venture provided on their Facebook page:
verve bath press is a micro-press that publishes an annual zine, chapbooks, all handmade… with the love of the word & the lust of spreading it on the brain.
verve bath is all about poetry…
wild enough to get dressed up
in its finest attire before it
goes out to slay the mind.
Amen to all that.