On The Edge: The Happiness Craze

Happiness isn’t a new concept—Aristotle wrote about the topic more than 2,300 years ago and Thomas Jefferson included the "pursuit of happiness" as an unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence—but authors have been flocking to the subject in recent years, unleashing numerous prescriptions for well-being and joy that readers have eagerly purchased.

Why has happiness, or rather the promise of happiness, become such a hot commodity? Even with the downturn in the real estate market and the credit industry, aren’t we already better off than any of our ancestors?

In fact, our financial success has proved to be a mixed blessing, says Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out. "We aren’t splitting logs for a living any more," she says, "so we have more freedom to explore the topic of happiness. We set numerous goals for ourselves along the lines of ‘I’ll be happy when I find a new job or a new husband or lose 20 pounds.’ Then people achieve the goals that they wanted and still find that something is missing. After a while, you realize you can’t continue to think that the next thing you obtain will finally make you happy."

Gretchen Rubin, whose book The Happiness Project will be published in 2009, came to the same conclusion after realizing she’d been focusing on everything but the topic at hand. "I was riding in a cab and had a moment of reflection, thinking about what I really wanted out of life. It occurred to me that my top priority was to be happy, but I had never given any thought to what I could do to be happier."

Finding your happy place

Just as happiness means different things to different people, the authors writing about happiness have approached the topic from multiple points of view. Rubin, for example, is taking the transformative approach of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically—she’s documenting a year of her life spent searching for happiness through every recorded method she can find. "I’m not going to move to India or Walden," she says, "but I did want to go about it in some systematic way."

Rubin, the author of four books and a former lawyer who clerked under U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, started reading scientific writings about happiness, pop culture texts and thinkers of the ages. Once her agent suggested a blog, she moved The Happiness Project online (Happiness-Project.com) and has been posting almost every weekday since March 2006.

"I had just wanted to see whether I could get it up and running, (but) then it became successful," Rubin says. "Now I have an identity and am connecting with new people. By writing about happiness every day, I see the nuances that I had missed. It’s made my thoughts deeper and richer." Most importantly for the future success of her book, she gets feedback from the blog’s readers about which aspects of her research and writing they find to be most important.

One of those researchers whose scientific findings have fueled Rubin’s personal experiments is Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. "I’ve been doing research on happiness since I was a grad student 18 years ago," Lyubomirsky says. "Even five years into it, people said that I should write a book because it seemed like a marketable topic."

Given her academic frame of mind, Lyubomirsky held off on pitching anything for years. "Most research compared people who were happy to those who weren’t as a window into what happiness is," she says. "Happy people don’t compare themselves with others, for example, or dwell on things. The media would ask, ‘What does this mean for our readers?’ and I would say, ‘I can’t tell you.’ I wasn’t interested in the question."

Over time, though, she found that a "happiness set point" determined 50 percent of a person’s happiness, and external circumstances (job, family, etc.) accounted for another 10 percent; her research shifted to explore whether and how people can change their happiness levels within that final 40 percent. After appearing in Time magazine in 2005 and being approached by agents, Lyubomirsky spent a year compiling notes before signing with Richard Pine, a literary agent and founding partner of InkWell Management. Says Pine, "I love top-tier psychology, and when someone with as sterling a background in terms of education and research as Sonja comes by, you listen."

20,000 Chicken Soup servings later

Pine has also represented psychologist Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology and the author of Authentic Happiness. Positive psychology flips the traditional practice of psychology—the study of human neurosis—on its head to examine positive characteristics of humanity that make people better.

Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, a licensed psychologist, wrote The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy in 1997 when the movement was just beginning. "That book was an instructional book for therapists and their clients to help create the paradigm shift necessary for positive psychology to be practiced in the treatment room," she says. "I’m interested in how you teach someone to use their mind to retrieve a memory to create happiness in the present and future."

In addition to teaching the topic, Holstein has been a student of happiness, following the many paths experts are taking to reach readers. "The people coming out of these different fields love humanity and are trying to help others by simplifying their work in order to be understood and be of use to the public," she says, mentioning spiritual-based writers such as Marianne Williamson (The Age of Miracles), Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) and the Dalai Lama (The Art of Happiness); other psychologists like Dan Baker (What Happy People Know) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness); and more traditional self-help-style motivational authors like Alexandra Stoddard (Happiness for Two) and Jack Canfield (Chicken Soup for the Soul).

Shimoff, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul and five other Chicken Soup books, considers herself part of the motivational/inspirational camp. "People are starving for inspiration and hope," she says. "Chicken Soup gave them that, but it didn’t give them any specific things to do in their lives. I read over 20,000 stories while writing these books, so I know the power of the story. I wanted to give inspiration as well as tools to make their lives better."

Dominick V. Anfuso, vice president and editorial director at Free Press, says his company wasn’t looking for another happiness title—its current line-up includes Seligman’s Authentic Happiness and Marcus Buckingham’s Strengths series—but Shimoff’s approach for Happy for No Reason was ideal. "I looked at it like the seven habits of happiness," he says, referring to bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. "Marci’s book was a direct seven-step, science-based plan that would go beyond an academic audience to be the everyman and everywoman book on happiness."

Happiness = sadness?

Although happiness might seem like an overworked field, editors will still be attracted to proposals that offer something different than what’s already been published. Gail Winston, executive editor at HarperCollins, says her interests are in psychology—not necessarily happiness—but Rubin’s pitch for The Happiness Project won her over. "This felt like something original," she says. "She’s a beautiful writer with a strong voice and a lot of personality on the page, and that’s what drew me to the material.

"There’s always room for a new take," Winston adds. "Life is complicated, and we’re constantly being deluged with too much information and bad news. People aren’t as happy as they thought they would be, and that dissonance creates a need for new ways to think about happiness."

When it comes to pitching your own happiness tome, says Lyubomirsky, "you want to draw on your strengths. If you don’t have a background in research, then you’ll have something else." Those strengths will be a selling point to editors and the audience, which needs to be educated on an author’s background so that they know how to approach an author’s work. For example, editors (and readers) need to know whether to expect a memoir or self-help angle.

Another approach to the happiness trend can be to go against the grain. Eric G. Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, found his own take on the topic by writing Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. "It was partially in response to the trend, but also from my own life, my own experience," he says. "I’ve always been of a melancholic turn and have felt great pressure to be happy. I wanted to explore the possibility that my melancholy isn’t a bad thing."

The 19th century British romantics that Wilson studies mined their melancholy for ideas and inspiration, he says, and an agent helped shape his somewhat academic proposal into a more commercial form. "If you’re going to write an against-the-grain type of book, it’s important to be attuned to the trend," says Wilson, who researched positive psychology and self-help books. "Figure out what points you want to attack, but don’t just come with an argument because it runs counter to the trend. If you’re lucky, your concerns will have cultural significance and you can write the book you want to write."

You are what you write

Shimoff’s take on happiness runs opposite to Wilson’s, but she shares his belief that dedication and sincerity are essential to writing a worthwhile book. "I wrote the book that I would most want to read," she says. "When you’re writing on a topic, you’re married to it, so you have to write something you have a passion for. You’re going to be talking about it for months, for years to come."

Writing about happiness can make you—guess what—happy. If you’re true to your topic, that passion will run both ways; the author will add passion to the research, but the research will also affect the author in positive ways. "Even though I know the research and have been thinking about this for 20 years, writing about it did have an impact," Lyubomirsky says. "If you spend hours and hours thinking about gratitude or living in the present moment, it rubs off on you in daily life. I felt myself using the strategies that I talk about, looking at my priorities and considering what I’m good at."

In addition to learning how to live in the moment, Lyubomirsky says writing a trade book might have spoiled her. "It’s much more fun than academic, scientific writing, which is very rigid with rules to follow," she says. "In some ways, having the rules makes it easier to write, but I really enjoyed the freedom. This was my first time, so I’m sure I have more to learn." She’s already developing a second book on happiness, one that will explore how people become accustomed to positive experiences. If she needs source material, all she needs to do is look in the mirror—and to her fellow happiness authors—to see how they’ve adapted to success.

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