Opinion Extra

Beasley: A happy new era?

There has been no shortage of commentary on how lucky we all are to have left the tumultuous first decade of the 21st century behind us. And there are just as many experts ready to tell us how to make the second decade better ... more productive ... happier.

The whole idea of what it takes to be happy has spawned what culture analysts call a booming happiness industry. There are dozens of Web sites offering suggestions about the various roads to comfort and joy, CDs and DVDs to help us get in touch with our inner bliss, positive-thinking gurus who are prepared (for a tidy sum) to lead us down a sure path to nirvana, and, during the past 10 years, more than 100 books, from scholarly treatises to pop culture do-it-yourself guides, analyzing the human search for happiness. Maybe it's because we live in such challenging times, or maybe it's because we want instant and continual gratification that we are bombarded by advice on how to find real happiness.

I listened to commentators on NPR two days after Christmas interviewing a mixed bag of experts: a brain researcher who insisted that the brain that meditates is a happy brain; a former associate of Ghandi who insisted that the secret to happiness was to take life at a slow, walking pace; singer Al Green, who decided that happiness results mainly from romantic love. After hearing about 10 of these happiness gurus discuss the human condition and how we all can find that path to true joy, I was astounded by how much effort is going into happiness.

At the center of this quest is a new work by a British scholar, Richard Schoch, whose book The Secrets of Happiness is on track in defining the elusive nature of true happiness in the 21st century. Schoch postulates that happiness has been debased in our modern culture because we identify being happy with mere pleasurable sensations.

Schoch explains: "More than two thousand years ago, when the ancient Greeks first thought about what the 'good life' means, happiness demanded a lifetime's cultivation. Now it's everybody's birthright.... Deaf to the wisdom of the ages, we have lost the ability to understand the essentially moral nature of happiness. We have settled for mere enjoyment of pleasure, mere avoidance of pain and suffering. Somewhere between Plato and Prozac, happiness stopped being a lofty achievement and became an entitlement."

Darrin McMahon, in his book Happiness: A History, tells us that "In virtually every Indo-European language, the modern word for happiness is cognate with luck, fortune, or fate." In Middle English, "happ" was the word for chance, fortune - what happens in the world. In a time in history when one had to be fully attuned to survival, one did not have the time to formulate an idea of happiness. The earliest concepts of happiness, according to McMahon, came from assessing what happened to you - if more good things than bad occurred, then you were happy. The Greeks refined this, and Socrates seems to have been the first person to think critically about the condition of being happy. He fully equated happiness with an individual leading a moral life - to be happy was to do good.

From a completely different angle, Barbara Ehrenreich offers a contemporary analysis of the quintessential American philosophy of the power of positive thinking. In her new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Ehrenreich explores the downside of positive thinking, and what she calls "the reckless optimism that dominates America's national mindset." She argues that all the boastful optimism that has permeated our contemporary culture and shaped our national policy has contributed to a shallow sort of happiness, and to a lack of realistic perception of problems facing us. According to Ehrenreich, we Americans have become so inclined to be overly positive in our evaluation of ourselves that we fail to see declines in educational status, loss of our edge in science and technology or, most telling, the fact that our country has the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income.

Ehrenreich writes: "I would like to see more smiles ... more happiness, and better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia ... once our basic needs are met, life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it."

I have come to the conclusion, both from events in my own life and from careful reading of the ideas of others, that finding happiness requires a realistic assessment of life's conditions and an understanding of my own place in life's journey. Our forefathers guaranteed us the right to the "pursuit of happiness," not happiness itself. This is an important distinction. As we enter into a new decade, maybe our focus should be on creating a more generous, substantive pursuit.