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Happiness Is a Serious Problem by Dennis Prager

Happiness Is a Serious Problem is for the self-satisfied. Like other "experts," Dennis Prager assures us there are no good definitions of happiness. He writes an entire chapter dedicated to that opinion. (It mercifully ends after two half pages.)

Though he refuses to define happiness, Prager does have an equation for unhappiness. Those unfamiliar with three-dimensional wave equations brace yourselves: U=I-R. U is unhappiness, I is images, and R represents reality.

[Combining this insight with the discoveries of the Canon Corporation (image is everything), and Eastern religions (reality is nothing), we find unhappiness is everything minus nothing, therefore everything. The much larger, and more profitable, Coca Cola Corporation, however, reports that “Image is nothing,” (They demand you “Obey your thirst.”) so unhappiness is nothing minus nothing, which equals nothing. Whew. Problem solved.]

Prager’s formula for unhappiness has something to do with avoiding struggle and cognitive dissonance, but I am developing a headache from all this difficult math and must move forward.

What is happiness? Happiness is rice cakes dipped in potassium cyanide, a life free from non-Pickwickian social critics. (Oops, straw person version.)

Prager's claims resemble some claims of Schopenhauer: The satisfaction of desires leads to new desires, some causing misery and some never satisfied. Therefore, you should engage in a general scale back of desires. Of course, You do not have to be a wanton in the matter, a point that this book fails to emphasize.

Another issue this book fails to deal with properly: A general scale back of desires causes problems--boredom, apathy, cynicism, isolation, neurosis, asceticism. Prager fails to enlighten on properly targeting desires.

Prager argues a curious Seinfeldian flaw detector dominates our lives, "the missing tile" syndrome. When we see a beautiful tiled surface with one tile missing, we notice the missing tile more than the beauty. This detector is preoccupied with finding tiny flaws in things wonderful. For example: A beautiful woman with six fingers. (Perhaps this syndrome is why Prager fails to note the flaws in neoconservatism. neoconservatism is an unwonderful warehouse of moral flaws. It is missing most of the tiles. Or to put it another way: Why bother noticing the scratches when the car is wrapped around a tree.)

My "missing tile" detector must itself be flawed. When I see a tiny flaw in a beautiful woman, I don't think about how bad the flaw is. I think the flaw is cute and humanizing. But apparently I have failed in following the "moderate" road to becoming nitpicking. I thought Seinfeld was funny because it was grotesquely shallow, but maybe others admire the Seinfeld quartet for being like themselves.

The better points here are obvious: Stop comparing yourself to others is something some may not have heard before. In fact if you buy a large quote book filled with positive quotations you will find Prager’s better points uttered far more concisely by others born hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

Other points made by the author include: Accept the things you can not change, accept the things you can change, accept the things you should change because, internal contradictions aside, society is weakened by “reforming it excessively and unjustly.” (Reform is synonymous beneficial. Maybe he meant changing it unjustly.)

And why should we avoid reform? Perhaps we would screw up the reform job because we spend so much time being misinformed by mistaken media folks on the radio. (Societies that rarely reform themselves have no suffering, perhaps because they no longer exist.)

What should we strive for in life? “As in every other aspect of life, the middle road is the road to happiness[,]” also known as the long, slow moderate road to hell or hedonism minus the drugs. Prager’s middle road should not be confused with Aristotle’s.

Prager argues that happiness is a duty because lack of happiness leads to negative affective states such as anxiety, which supposedly leads to evil. Then again, maybe blind happiness leads to worse evils. Suicide bombers might be happy. Prager offers mostly foregone conclusions and little evidence for his theory of happiness. Don't bother looking for research evidence in this book. Prager thinks scientists believe whatever they want to believe, therefore it would be useless for him to include research evidence.

Prager warns that "expectations," meaning hope plus certainty, wreck happiness. (This does not apply to fiction. Fictional characters who have their hopes devastated to such an extent that their spirits drain onto sidewalks are object of pathos or amusement, in which case the audience is made happier or at least temporarily amused. Happy, that is, until an audience member suffers a terrifically disfiguring accident on the drive home and ruminates about the expected utility of 30-mile-drives to theatres. But this unhappiness converts to happiness when he calculates the expected utility of suing someone for injuries. It reverts to unhappiness while he suffers the disutility of idle riches, which becomes happiness when he joins a yogi cult of platitudes, personality, certainty, and no hopes.)

Prager’s website reveals Prager's idea of a moral hero: The knuckleheaded aesthetic "protagonist" from the film Life Is Beautiful because he “devotes his life to protecting his young son's innocence” and optimism. Put on a happy face, empty your head and evil melts away. Geez, did it ever occur to Prager that the protagonist’s moral duty was to protect and save lives, not optimism and innocence?

Some might call this bourgeois morality, but bourgeois morality is much better than this. Prager's work is closer to a self-satisfied, self-absorbed, neoconservative version of yogi morality.

But all is not bad. Prager musters some decent ideas from elsewhere: Self-pity is habit forming, I can control my reactions more than I can control outside forces, be friendly to the wait staff.

I give this work a good, hearty, happy rating of not recommended.

Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009.

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