The Happiness Scam


Let's just agree it's all Thomas Jefferson's fault. The writer of the Declaration of Independence inscribed "the pursuit of happiness" into the very DNA of America by asserting that such a right was every bit as inalienable as those of life and liberty. It's been downhill ever since, as we desperately strive to get too rich and too thin—all while blaming toxic parents, codependent spouses, abusive bosses, and total strangers for every problem, big and small, in our endlessly tortured and continually disappointing lives.

Or so says Steve Salerno in his immensely entertaining and occasionally overwrought polemic "SHAM" (Crown, 263 pages, $24.95).The title is an acronym for the Self-Help and Actualization Movement, now an $8.56 billion industry. Its stars include such baloney-slinging culprits as Tony Robbins, who got his start teaching people to walk over hot coals at $50 a throw before counseling Bill Clinton and other big-wigs; Tommy Lasorda, the tubby former Los Angeles Dodgers manager and Slim-Fast pitchman who tells banquet audiences "Ya gotta want it!"; Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the tough-love radio host whose insistence on traditional values is belied by her spotty love life and widely circulated nudie shots; and Dr. John Gray, the relationships expert whose book "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" spawned not only innumerable sequels, but also a board game and a Las Vegas musical revue.

What unites these emotional bunco artists, writes Mr. Salerno, is a willingness to exploit our self-doubt and pocketbooks as we desperately seek satori in all the wrong places. He notes that the self-help genre is one of America's longest-lived, starting in 1732 with Ben Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac," which was stuffed with "tips for better living" and taking in such "classics" as Dale Carnegie's "How To Win Friends and Influence People" and Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich." While those books were relatively benign (if banal), he argues that the 1967 publication of Thomas A. Harris's Me Generation blockbuster "I'm OK—You're OK" ushered in a new era of particularly destructive—and financially lucrative—SHAM products.

A seasoned business writer and editor whose work has appeared everywhere from Playboy to Reader's Digest, Mr. Salerno is the perfect guide to the open-air gulag of continuous self-improvement. Whether exposing the shady backgrounds of key players ("Dr." Gray's Ph.D. is from Columbia Pacific University, a notorious diploma mill eventually ordered to shut down by California's attorney general) or casting a cold eye on quack claims (defying all known science, Mr. Robbins insists that foods have different "energy frequencies" that can be measured in megahertz), Mr. Salerno rarely misses an opportunity to stick it to experts whose real genius is for making money, not helping people. Discussing Dr. Phil McGraw's "brand extension" from psychology into dieting, Mr. Salerno notes, "McGraw describes obesity as a 'disease of choice' that 'can't be cured, only managed.' Such reasoning encourages his overweight followers to buy his book, but it also gives him an ironclad excuse should his weight-loss plan fail to deliver the hoped-for results."

Mr. Salerno excels at puncturing the self-aggrandizing rhetoric and foggy logic at the heart of SHAM, but he goes on to argue, not entirely convincingly, that the self-help industry is a motive force in all that is wrong with contemporary America. "It may be impossible to calculate the full cost of [SHAM's influence], taking into account both money actually spent and revenue lost to decreased productivity and other problems," he writes. "But without question, SHAM's overall societal impact resides in the trillions of dollars."

Along the way to this conclusion, he indicts self-help gurus as responsible for everything from increased divorce rates to lowered educational standards to President Bush's hick-style pronunciation of "nuclear" to the continuing electoral success of crack smoking Washington, D.C., pol Marion Barry. Any theory that tries to tie together such disparate phenomena seems every bit as dubious as New Age maven Marianne Williamson's post-September 11 call for "angels to surround the country" and form a "mystical shield" to protect the United States from future terrorist attacks.

More to the point, Mr. Salerno never fully answers a nagging problem he raises throughout the book: "Why America buys in … now that's the question." It's not that 50 million Dr. Phil fans can't be wrong—God help us if they can't be—but Mr. Salerno doesn't seem capable of explaining why we suck up SHAM like so much "Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul" (to quote a recent title from the nauseating best-selling series).

Daniel Nettle supplies at least part of the answer in "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile" (Oxford University Press, 216 pages, $21). Discussing new research in social and evolutionary psychology in a short, dense, and highly accessible account, Mr. Nettle, a lecturer at England's University of Newcastle, fingers nothing less than evolution as the enabler of Dr. Gray, et al.

"Evolution has given us a strong implicit theory of happiness," writes Mr. Nettle. "We come to the world believing that there is such a thing as achievable happiness, that it is desirable and important, and that the things that we desire will bring it about." Alas, he notes, "It is not self-evident that any of these are true." Indeed, that's an understatement. It turns out that our "pleasure system" and our "system of desire" often work at cross-purposes, either leading us to pursue the wrong things or leaving us unsatisfied if we attain them.

While this dynamic serves an evolutionary purpose—in direct and indirect ways, it helps our genes to be fruitful and multiply—it doesn't make our lives one long Tuesday with Morrie. Yet, as Mr. Nettle makes clear, the best research shows that most of us, regardless of circumstance, are more happy than unhappy. What's more, our general level of happiness seems to be set fairly early in life and, with the exception of short periods following both good and bad events, remains relatively stable until we shuffle off our mortal coil. Suckers that we are, most of us do think we'll be happier in the future, which leaves us open to the predations of SHAM.

Although highly skeptical of self-help, Mr. Nettle does offer up his own "design for living." Following William James, John Stuart Mill, and others, he counsels readers not to worry too much about happiness per se. Rather, we should strive to live a productive, interesting life. He ends his book with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."

Leave aside the fact that Hawthorne was a haunted, gloomy sort, wracked by historical guilt, and even more annoyed at "the damned mob of scribbling women" who sold better than he did. His advice about happiness seems right on—and in any case, far cheaper than a $6,995 Life Mastery Seminar from Tony Robbins.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in The New York Sun and can be viewed in that format here.