Happiness and Other Lies: The Pitfalls in the Pursuit of Pleasure
by Mary Massaro
Published by Diogenes Publishing
199 pages, 2000
Buy it online
The Reason For Our Discontent
Reviewed by Monica Stark
I'm happy. Really. Oh, most of the time I don't go around skipping and I don't always sing. When I do sing, it's seldom anything ever performed by Julie Andrews. When people ask: How's it going? I answer: Good. And I mean it. Let me do an inventory: I have a relationship that is warm and rewarding. A healthy and beautiful child. A roof that is not only warm, it's in the location I desire. I have a good car and it's paid for. I love my work and I have friends whose company I enjoy. I'm happy.
At least, I thought I was happy, until I read Happiness and Other Lies by Mary Massaro. It's not a happy little book, nor does it breed anything that looks like happiness. Massaro's teen-like angst is etched on nearly every page, including the very first line of the introduction:
This is a book about happiness, more accurately, a book that explains why so few of us ever reach this emotional summit.
And therein lies Happiness' main flaw: Massaro herself seems not to have vaguest grasp of the very nature of the topic on which she writes: happiness itself. Can you even imagine a world where happiness equaled a constant euphoria? A mountaintop of euphoria -- there's that "summit" word in there, after all. Constant euphoria would be as emotionally exhausting as constant depression. We're not, I don't think, intended to be constantly anything.
Later -- early in chapter one -- Massaro restates her position:
In order to achieve a jovial status, one has to have an edge, a situational advantage that makes his or her life more comfortable than the average problem-ridden life. Even in an entire lifetime, no one is promoted from despondency to ecstasy, and those who now are truly happy have been so all their lives.
In other words, to get a start on happy, your life has to be "better" than other people's. ("Situational advantage.") And if you're not naturally happy (Which, I guess, I must be, right?) you may as well give it up because the happy boat has already sailed without you.
Happiness and Other Lies reads like a well-researched but not especially brilliant master's thesis. There are some good ideas here, but they're the sort of ideas that will make any adult who has paid the least attention to philosophy roll their eyes.
More offensive, however, are some of the crass contradictions Massaro makes in the attempt to make her case. While she rails against those who would surgically alter their bodies for fashion:
Despite repeated warnings from the Food and Drug Administration about silicone leakage, women still line up to have their breasts inflated to surreal proportions. With the assumption that a larger bra size generates a host of opportunities, these ladies showcase their prized pumpkins as though they are newborn twins.
A scant 30 pages earlier, Massaro has already told us that small and aging breasts are undesirable when she said:
... most phone sex operators look like poster children for the pro-choice movement, underneath the deceptive padding of most bras lie breasts so pitiful that one wants to broadcast a telethon for them...
So which is it to be? Pumpkins or mosquito bites? Because you can't have it both ways. At least, not in the same book. Go ahead and pick your reason to be offended -- there are several possibilities just in the material quoted above -- but the main blast here is to Massaro's own credibility.
Much of Massaro's reasoning in Happiness falls flat: quite often steamrollered in the other direction in a different section. In most cases this is edged with a youthful naivety that might be charming if it weren't masquerading as a sort of hip, politically incorrect self-help manual.
Massaro's humor also mostly falls flat. The humor is described as "incisive" on the book's jacket and she tries to keep things light with various digs and jibes but it often reads like the ill-timed punchline of a badly told joke. When describing three people who think they're happy but -- in the author's opinion -- can't possibly be, Massaro writes: "Please note that the names have been changed to protect their idiocy." Or, later: "By now we should be fatigued by all the accusations of down-and-out losers who derive some kind of therapeutic respite from revealing to the world the mistreatment they endured as children..." Yikes.
For all of these shortcomings, Mary Massaro writes quite skillfully: a fact that is wasted in Happiness and Other Lies, a book so half-baked it's not ready for prime-time. It would be interesting to see this writer turn her talent to a novel rather than a "self-help" book. Interesting, as well, to see a character or three dealing with the challenges she invokes in Happiness and Other Lies. Should that novel appear, I'll read it with relish. In the meantime, Happiness and Other Lies is definitely a miss. | September 2000
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.