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.