• Tue, Aug 23 2011

Test-Driving Happiness Advice: The New Gimmick?

Is happy is as happy does? What if what happy does is follow all the latest and greatest happiness advice? That’s what filmmakers Hillman Curtis and Stefen Sagmeister set out to do in their feature-length documentary, The Happy Film.

‘Is it possible to train our mind in the same way that we train our bodies?’ and ‘Can we change our behavior to make us happier?’ are the main themes,” Curtis told The Atlantic. It’s not so much about ‘finding happiness’ as trying to ‘become more of the person you want to become.’ [Actually, right now it’s not so much about anything—as the Atlantic article notes, the film is stalled at the moment due to lack of funding.]

So Curtis and Sagmeister try out different personal happiness advice given by ‘serious psychologists,’ even when that advice is pretty inane, like trying to give a flower to a stranger… The whole thing sounds much like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, a memoir in which she documents her year “test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier” (though where Rubin sounds funny and sunny, Sagmeister and Curtis lean toward academic-y jargon). Is this some sort of new genre, the meta-advice story? (See also: Following the advice in Seventeen magazine, a year of following women’s-mag advice.) It’s not just glossy magazines, psychologists and scientists who are getting the meta-advice treatment; there are also books and projects devoted to better living via the wisdom of some public intellectual (like Sarah Bakewell’s book on living the lessons of philosopher/essayist Montaigne), literature (Better Living Through Beowulf), or self-help gurus (Robin Okrant’s Living Oprah).

If the market gets too saturated with these kind of things, they’ll begin to grate on me, like the for-goodness-sakes-how-many-more-can-we get classic literature with monsters novels. But right now, I dig the meta-advice books. There are so many competing (and sometimes conflicting) self-help messages out there, from the serious to the silly, and I think it’s nice to see people trying to actually apply them in real-world settings, or to their own real lives, and in doing so exposing the more ridiculous advice out there for ridicule, and helping us sift through it all, like consumer reports for advice and philosophical meanderings.

If you were going to follow the advice of one writer, publication, philosopher, or public figure for a year, who would you choose?

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