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Best-Selling Author in Denial to Social Realities, Pumps the Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin's book flogs American enthusiasm for positive thinking, despite facts to the contrary; just the sort of denial that prompted the economic meltdown.
 
 
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With the end of the noughties -- naughties? -- it looked like 2009 would be remembered as the year rational thinkers did battle with magical thinkers and finally won. That was until Gretchen Rubin's creepy ode to social control, The Happiness Project, debuted in the waning days of December.

Earlier last year, Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America arrived with Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion, and it seemed North Americans might wake up and smelled the con job.

Now the battle seems to have heated up again, and the outcome will be measured in book sales. As Rubin's tour takes her across the country from New York to Seattle, it's doubtful book buyers will resist the pleasant navel-gazing, endorsed by Oprah's list of 10 must-read books. Especially not when the previous tomes by two of the U.S.'s most respected journalists, offer only insightful research and uncomfortable ideas.

They both make the persuasive argument that American enthusiasm for positive thinking, despite facts to the contrary, is just the sort of denial that prompted the economic meltdown. It's not a happy thought. Still, reading this trio simultaneously offers a glimpse of what it really means to be American.

Ehrenreich and Hedges both argue that faith in the magic of irrational positive thinking leaves millions of Americans passively wishing the universe would give them a better future (as per directions in another Oprah-endorsed book, The Secret). Or they're learning to be happy about the loss of their jobs and their life's savings. They can get an attitude adjustment inspired by The University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman, who comes in for particular cheers and jeers from these authors. The positive psychology coach and author of Authentic Happiness, credits himself as the founder of this field, which seeks to make followers "feel more satisfiedregardless of one's circumstances." (One can only imagine what advice he might have had for American slaves?)

Hedges and Ehrenreich both report that in the business world positive thinking is a tool for keeping (even high-ranking) employees from challenging institutional incompetence or criminal behavior. No accountant-who-does-the-math criticizes a bank's dodgy lending practices, for example, at the risk of appearing "negative," which is often a firing offence.

Ehrenreich found the technique used in healthcare where she was exhorted to put on a cheerful mask or risk dying from her breast cancer. With a PhD in biology, she knew better than to believe that nonsense. Instead she got angry and went after her health insurance company when it tried to deny her claim for a tumor biopsy, which they argued was medically unnecessary. (She healed nicely, despite her negative views on the greedy insurer.) Ironically, evening the score with that company (and their kind) seems to have given her the will to live.

By contrast, The Happiness Project, which is based on Rubin's website of the same name, appears breathtakingly cynical. Judging by her childlike writing, it would be easy to assume that Rubin is a well-meaning naif. But she's a Yale law grad who clerked for Sandra O'Day Connor.

"A few years ago, I had an epiphany on the cross-town bus," Rubin writes, making me wonder if the Ivy League grad with the posh connections has ever ridden a bus anywhere. "I asked myself, "What do I want from life, anyway?" and I thought, "I want to be happy"?but I never spent any time thinking about happiness. "I should do a happiness project!" I realized. And so I have."

With four books to her credit, she's experienced enough to know that adding the word "happiness" to any book title multiplies sales. It's impossible to ignore the fact that Rubin's previous work includes a satire of self-help books Money, Power, Fame, Sex: A User's Guide in which she analyzes the genre. Equally hard to overlook is the fact that she's no stranger to the power-elite that the other two authors say benefit from this oppressive - or would that be Oprah-ssive? - form of thought control. Wikipedia notes that she's the daughter-in-law of Robert Rubin, a former Secretary of the Treasury (under Clinton) who also worked in the risk arbitrage department of Goldman Sachs.

Rubin's project is like a roadmap to everything Hedges and Ehrenreich have identified as undermining the quality of life for average Americans. For example, Hedges (a Harvard grad) credits celeb-watching as one of the illusions distracting Americans from protecting their own interests. But Rubin is all for joining that cult. Her December 20, 2009 post gives a shout-out to photographer Philippe Halsman's famous jump shots for Life that caught celebrities from Marilyn Monroe to Richard Nixon in mid-leap.

"I think I need more jumping in my life," Rubin writes about the photos. "One of the most important things I've learned is to act the way I want to feel. If I'm jumping and skipping, I'm going to feel more energetic and light-hearted.

Is that a sly joke or has she really missed the irony that her idols are celebrated symbols of corruption? Is she really inspired by the drugged-up actress who met an untimely end as a Hollywood cautionary tale? Does she really see light-hearted energy in that photo of the engineer of Watergate, a man renowned as America's most disgraced president? Forgive me if I suspect dissembling when she enthuses about the happy leap of that famous adulteress and Hitler-crony the Duchess of Windsor. (But on the bright-side, Wallis was one stylish gal.)

Since Rubin invites emails from readers, I asked what she thought of the other two authors, whose books condemn most of what she enthuses about in her narcissistic project.

"I have to confess I haven't read either of those books yet -- though I do know I should. I write about what I've learned for myself, what works in my own life," Rubin (or someone signing herself Gretchen) responded, promptly.

So I guess that's another tried-and-true tip for her kind of happiness: ignorance is bliss.

That said, you'll probably find yourself very unhappy if you read Rubin's book without the other two to explain what it all really means.

 
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