Monday, May 15, 2017

The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, by Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone is a stand-up comedian who I know from her appearances on NPR's Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! quiz show.  For several years, she conducted her own investigation into happiness.  She developed an informal measure of happiness.  A "small amount of happiness could be a 'hep.' . . . If you're lucky enough to amass four of those, you've got yourself a whole 'balou' of happiness."  (These measures are named after her cats.)

In The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, she experiments with a variety of activities to test the level of happiness she can achieve.  Her adventures and foibles are, as you might expect, more entertaining than particularly insightful.  She tries exercise: "While doing push-ups I don't worry much about the state of the world so much.  It's hard to be concerned about war in the Middle East while you can't breathe."  She tries computers: "Someday science will prove that a phone call is about a hundred times more efficient for a back-and-forth exchange than e-mail."  She tries social media: "Leave it to computers to destroy the meaning of one of the most valuable words in the human language." (This refers, of course, to "friendship" on social media.")

Getting her house in order, taking dance classes, renting a Lamborghini, volunteering, going to a meditation class, making it a practice to hug people she meets and other experiences contribute to her research.  Most of her stories gave me a hep or two of happiness, but, to be honest, the whole thing got a little tiresome.  Maybe I just don't fully appreciate her humor.  Maybe I just need to take her in small doses.

Woven throughout the book are stories of her life with her children.  She is an adoptive single mom, so there is plenty of craziness and busy-ness in their house.  For parents of children with disabilities, the sections on dealing with teachers, ARD meetings, and transitioning out of the home are particularly instructive and insightful.

I especially appreciated what ended up being one of her conclusive thoughts.  "I've long been familiar with the idea that true happiness is found in helping others, and I've always meant to get around to it."  By volunteering at a nursing home, she found that serving others selflessly produces plenty of "heps" of happiness.  She writes, "People need each other.  Our well-being is tightly tethered to the well-being of people we do not know, most of whom look nothing like ourselves.  Happiness . . . requires engagement."

The Totally Unscientific Study was intermittently funny, seemingly over-long, and occasionally insightful.  But I found no argument with Poundstone's conclusions and her attitude.  It's worth a read for a few heps of happiness.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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