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The happiness industrial complex

It is not a happy time, as everyone in the sentient world knows. But Happyland is very much on the case.

Lesley Becker/Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

My stance on happiness is well known: I am against it.

Years ago, I was heartened to learn that the late polymath John Perry Barlow — cattle rancher, essayist, and Grateful Dead lyricist — condemned happiness-mongering in his widely circulated “Principles of Adult Behavior”: “Avoid the pursuit of happiness,” he advised himself at age 30. “Seek to define your mission and pursue that.”

I delight in heaping mud on the Happiness Industrial Complex, best exemplified by Harvard’s serial TED-talker and insurance flack Daniel Gilbert. Close behind looms the irrepressibly happy Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and creator of the “Happier” podcast. The pitch: “Gretchen Rubin is HAPPIER and she wants you to be happier, too.”


Rubin has been dispensing pap pop from what The Washington Post calls “her sumptuous Upper East Side triplex” for well over a decade. But now a shadow has fallen over Happyland: the shadow of the coronavirus.

It is not a happy time, as everyone in the sentient world knows. But Happyland is very much on the case. One person’s sadness is another person’s market opportunity, a cynic might say.

For her podcast, Rubin is posting “bonus” COVID-19 content, “How to Stay Happier and Calmer in Difficult Times.” (“Laughing is good . . . this is a terrible time . . . ” blah, blah, blah.) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Rubin and her sister Elizabeth are also broadcasting a daily Instagram Live segment, “Coping with COVID-19.”

Not to be outdone, Yale happiness guru professor Laurie Santos has likewise upped her COVID game. Creator of “the most popular class in the history of Yale" — Psychology and the Good Life — Santos has added several “Coronavirus BONUS” segments to her popular podcast, The Happiness Lab. I listened to a segment in which Ethan Kross, the head of the University of Michigan’s Emotion & Self-Control Lab, offered some tips for navigating these anxious times.


Inter alia, Kross advocated addressing your problems in the third person, as if you were an actor in your own life. For example, “Why does Alex write these grouchy columns about people who just want to make the world a better place?” Good question! Kross also counsels “temporal distancing” to get through these troubling days. “Think of how you are going to feel two years from now,” Kross says. “It heightens the impermanence of what we are experiencing.”

It was the great economist and balletomane John Maynard Keynes who had the final word on temporal distancing: “In the long run, we are all dead.”

Why is Alex thinking these unhappy thoughts? Why isn’t he thinking instead about “little dogs wearing warm sweaters?"

That is indeed the title of a recent episode of “Happiness Spells,” a podcast that has launched a 30-day assault on downbeatism with its “five-minute list of happy things.” Sample “spells” are “dandelions,” “not caring what anyone thinks,” and opening “a fresh pack of. . . .” I was hoping to hear “non-filter Kools,” but instead the insipid, breathy narrator touted the virtues of ". . . brand new socks.”

I’m a John Perry Barlow-ite. Pursuing happiness is the best way not to find it. Right now I’m happy to live in a house large enough so family members can hide from each other all day — social distancing. I’m happy to flout overzealous bans on sitting on park benches on sunny days, and I’m happy that I’ve never read David Hackett Fischer’s definitive history of 17th- century America, “Albion’s Seed,” which has been glowering at me from my bookshelf for over a decade. This could be the moment.


And I’m happy that you and I have an enhanced appreciation of how lucky we are to be alive.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.