April 2, 1998
The Editor’s Corner
By Gene Lichtenstein
My problem with Dennis Prager, author, radio host,newsletter writer, is simple: I like the man, but I just can't readhis writing. In person, I find him open, engaging, serious. In print,he comes across to me as narrow-minded, ponderous and self-involved.I usually settle my conflict by shying away from the publicpersona.
But with his new book, "Happiness Is a SeriousProblem," and its appearance on the best-seller list, I thought Imight try again.
Book in hand, I started reading. Almostimmediately, I halted. At the outset, the author confides: "Whilethere is some methodology to the order of the chapters, the chaptersof the book can be read in any order. Each chapter is largely aself-contained unit. However, although the order is not critical,reading all the chapters is."
Setting aside the absence of even a lighteditorial hand (all those "chapters" and "orders" stuffed into threesentences), I found myself somewhat surprised at this approach. Itforces the book into functioning as a compendium of opinions,presented in the form of moral sermons and/or advice columns. Nosingle chapter launches an idea or develops an argument that issustained throughout the 170-plus pages. It is, in my lexicon, anon-book.
As if that were not enough, I soon discovered thatits advice and homilies were also suspect. For example, by Chapter 4,Page 9, I came upon the following:
"I offer no definition of happiness," writes theauthor, who then lists four dictionary meanings, none of which heindicates is relevant to his purpose. The reason? They have little todo with his notion of happiness. Instead, he paraphrases formerSupreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment on obscenity: "Icannot define it, but I know it when I see it." And he tells us thatthe intent of this advice book is probably best grasped by focusingon unhappiness. The gist of his sentiment seems to be that if welearn to avoid unhappiness, its opposite, happiness, will morereadily be ours.
But, of course, that is not necessarily true. Weknow that there are people in therapy who learn to recognize theyoften create situations which make them unhappy. With some help, theycan, at times, take measures to avoid, or at least blunt, thisrepetitive behavior. But, in so doing, they are not necessarily madehappy. More frequently, we simply encounter people who neitheridentify themselves as happy or unhappy. They function differently.Is there a word other than happiness that perhaps better defines whatPrager is trying to tell us?
My problem with Dennis Prager became clearermidway through the book, in the titillating chapter called "TheOpposite Sex." Prager claims that men, by nature, are libidinouscreatures who lust after an endless series of women. It makes littledifference if they love one woman or are married. All they can do isrein in their natural tendencies and try to stay faithful. They willbe happier for it, he offers, comfortingly (but not convincingly, Ithought). Women, on the other hand, have no such natural urge, hesays. Their drive is for emotional intimacy.
In a sort of EST-like way, these pronouncementsmust be reassuring to Prager's readers. They reinforce a stereotypeabout gender and sex roles that many men find soothing. We men may befantasizing about the woman with the great legs sitting on the couchacross the way, but our wife or girlfriend harbors no such thoughtsabout the lean, handsome, young man who just entered the room. Onedifficulty is that there is no evidence to support these beliefs: nohistorical references (which, in my readings of French and Englishsocial history, would seem to contradict the author), no biologicalor scientific studies. Just assertions by Dennis Prager, which, onclose inspection, turn out to be opinions, backed by otherassertion-opinions, with personal or "common-sense" anecdotes offeredby way of evidence.
In fact, recent data would suggest that women tendto be just as libidinous as men. (Prager says that if this were thecase, "the world would self-destruct.") Equal opportunity in themarketplace, birth-control pills and the legalization of abortion mayall have contributed to this change in behavior. It might be viewedas a change for the better, or as a setback to a more civilized (andperhaps male-dominated) world, depending on your values and the kindof order you want. It is an interesting subject for discussion, butthere are no discussions in these chapters -- only opinions passedoff with the certitude of a sermonizer.
On reflection, I see now that it is not arroganceon Prager's part that sends me running from his written sermons onwhat is essentially a common theme: How to Be A Better Person. It is,rather, his naiveté. In this book, Prager's advice essentiallyboils down to a set of precepts: 1) Fulfillment in love and work willmake you a happier person; 2) if you look at the doughnut and not thehole, you will be happier and people will prefer to be in yourcompany; and 3) if you want to be happy, it requires hard work, justlike losing weight.
Who could argue with such prescriptions? With suchgeneralizations?
But the author's path to this "philosophy" lacksany sense of history or any awareness of psychology. We know fromstudies of weight loss, that, hard work notwithstanding, about 90percent of us soon regain the weight. We also know that years intherapy often bring insight but do not always (or even usually)result in character change. Just standing on a platform and layingdown steps to follow does not seem a likely way to gainresults.
In short, through hard work, you may learn to stopwhining; but it doesn't necessarily follow that happiness will beyours.