Maureen Dowd: Happy Dr. Gloom

Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Published: March 25, 2006

It doesn’t take much to make Dick Cheney happy. According to a list of his travel perks, printed by the Smoking Gun Web site, all he needs is a few cans of caffeine-free Diet Sprite, a big bed, a pot of decaf. (And global hegemony, of course.) Dr. Gloom, who once dismissed conservation as a “personal virtue,” likes all the lights blazing before he gets to a hotel suite and all the TV’s beaming Fox News.

Sometimes happiness means being protected from news about other people’s unhappiness.

Washington may be gripped by a malaise over the miasma in Iraq. But elsewhere, in business, books and academia, there is a scavenger hunt under way to root out the scientific, economic and emotional reasons for joy.

When I was in college, in the Vietnam-Watergate era, sullen mugs trumped smiley faces.

“Happiness was very uncool,” my friend Michael Kinsley recalls of his Harvard days. “There was a huge premium on being depressed.”

Leon Wieseltier, who graduated from Columbia about the same time, agrees that “happiness was considered embarrassing, a mark of shallowness.” He still calls joie de vivre “a sign that you’re not paying attention.”

But in the Ivy League now, students are eager to embrace the group therapy of positive thinking. As Carey Goldberg wrote in The Boston Globe, the most popular Harvard course is one taught by Tal Ben-Shahar about how to shed pathologies.

You’d think just being lucky enough to get that Harvard edge would cause elation. But Ms. Goldberg reported that more than 800 students left smiling and cheering after hearing Dr. Ben-Shahar offer self-help formulas like these: “Learn to fail or fail to learn”; don’t think, “It happened for the best,” but rather, “How can I make the best of what happened?”

He meditated with the students, telling them to “give yourself permission to just be.” A gut on trusting your gut.

If there’s post-traumatic stress disorder, he told me, there can be “post-peak experience order” spurred by music or giving birth. Or making love — but “not all the time, unfortunately,” he said, laughing.

Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who popularized positive psychology, says the field is growing because there are ways to measure it. He adds: “The epidemic of depression seems to be completely democratic. It hits the Harvard kids and the rich people and the poor people at about an equal rate.”

Dr. Seligman developed the theory of “learned helplessness.” He found that dogs who were given shocks for anything they did would become passive, accepting shocks they could escape if they tried. Humans, he says, should try to escape the culture of victimology, the self-absorption of “a huge I and a small we,” and shortcuts like drugs and shopping.

In his class, he offers “positive emotion” exercises. One is writing down three things that went well during the day. Another is taking someone on a “strength date,” encouraging the person to show off a skill or talent. Another is writing a “forgiveness letter.” (I’m Irish, so I won’t be doing that.)

One of his teaching assistants once told his students they’d all get A’s, in the spirit of positive emotions. But we don’t need to worry about a placid Stepford universe. The guru of good vibes, as Dr. Seligman is called, warns that people can increase their happiness only within a “set range.”

“It’s like a waistline,” he says. “Everyone can’t be happier in the pleasure sense. Maybe people can be happier in the engagement sense” — for example, taking a job where you use your strengths every day — “and in the sense of more meaning in life.”

Studies show the happiest people are the most resilient. (And probably regard positive-psych classes as demented psychobabble?) Since they didn’t have to learn to be resilient in the Depression and World War II, yuppies and their offspring succumbed to narcissism and materialism.

They say money can’t buy happiness, but maybe it can buy some. In 2004, two economists declared that money seemed to buy greater happiness but, surprisingly, not more sex. (Explain Ron Perelman.) David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England calculated that if you increased your sexual activity from once a month to once a week, you’d be as happy as if you had an extra $50,000 a year.

But is the converse true? For $50,000 more, you’re just as happy as if you’d quadrupled your sex? Along these lines, how much will it cost us to get rid of Dick Cheney and end his trillion-dollar war, because that would buy us happiness?

The Discussion: 5 Comments

I don’t know about Maureen Dowd. I recal her once writing columns that were interesting however these days they seem spiteful to the point of just being plain stupid.

Recently it just seems to be a bit of this, that and the other…followed by a negative statement on Dick of George, which really has no relationship to the rest of the disjointed column.

March 25, 2006 @ 10:40 am | Comment

I agree, Time. Only I don’t recall ever finding her columns very interesting.

She reminds me of Molly Ivins.

March 25, 2006 @ 6:14 pm | Comment

She reminds you of Molly Ivins?! Yikes. Other than the fact that they, um, both have breasts and are liberal in their politics, I can’t see the similarities.

March 25, 2006 @ 6:43 pm | Comment

And I’m going to now disagree with myself – even politically, I’d say they’re pretty different. Ivins is more of a progressive and actually articulates political positions. Dowd is way more into politics as psychodrama. Sometimes she’s good and incisive, sometimes she’s just mediocre, IMO.

March 25, 2006 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

Dowd can be worse trhan mediocre, she can be downright dreadful – because she tries to be too cute, and her faux-cuteness grates. However, when she’s on-target, no one is better. Too bad she sop often opts for cuteness.

There is no reasonable comparison between her and Ivins, whom I love. Ivins backs up her claims and is hard to refute. Dowd leaves herself open for charges of sloppiness and even dishonesty, unfortunately. But no one can call Dowd a screaming liberal; she’s not. No one was more brutal on the Clenis than she was, and her politics are strictly middle of the road, establishment, slightly to the left but not predictable.

March 25, 2006 @ 10:02 pm | Comment

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