This issue could not be more pressing, as Sherman writes, "given the U.S. Army's expansion of 'stop-loss' orders to keep soldiers from leaving the service and the general malaise of a war in Iraq." Thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer psychic trauma but feel that not toughing it out signals weakness. Others will fear the stigma of seeking help, worrying about dishonorable discharge or the shame of not bearing up.
Sherman argues that toughing it out stoically is both a blessing and a curse. She cautions that in pursuing self-reliance and self-mastery, we must also be aware of the need to fortify and renew ourselves through human fellowship, empathy and respect, while striving to "cultivate humanity." This wisdom, of course, applies just as meaningfully to modern peace as it does to ancient war. --Richard Lipkin
High on Life
Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile
by Daniel Nettle. Oxford University Press, 2005
The right to "the pursuit of happiness" is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and Americans are obviously hot on the trail: they pop pills, go to therapy, and spend millions of dollars on self-help tapes. Daniel Nettle, a British psychologist, tries to explain what happiness is and critiques the methods people are using to achieve it. And although Happiness is far from a how-to book, Nettle does conclude with a bit of advice on finding it.
Nettle begins by defining the kind of happiness that interests him. Joy, the simple pleasure from finding lost money, is too trivial, and the "good life" is too much of a moralization. Instead his work focuses on "subjective well-being" or life satisfaction--which he says is what most people are seeking. Paradoxically, although many of the great European ponderers of the human condition--he quotes Freud, Sartre, Schopenhauer and others--agree with Western religions that life is a somewhat grim journey toward death, opinion surveys consistently show that people everywhere consider themselves fairly happy. They plan to be happier in the future, too. In light of this penchant, Nettle believes evolution has endowed us with a "happiness system" that allows us to feel satisfied with life yet remain convinced that if only we had another child, made more money or lost 10 pounds we would be truly happy.
Not all our pursuits are equally effective, he says. Americans today have far more money than their grandparents did; still, there is no sign they are happier. Having more social connections and good marriages, on the other hand, does promote satisfaction, and Nettle essentially equates happiness with satisfaction. He enlivens this discussion with some odd facts: people believe they can overcome almost any adversity, but living in constantly noisy places reduces happiness. And although most things money can buy quickly fade in value, breast implants seem to create a lasting high.
The book includes one chapter on the interactions of Prozac, opiates, ecstasy, and the serotonin and dopamine systems and how these compounds work in our brains to fight depression or induce feelings of pleasure. Yet Nettle does not consider biochemistry a source of happiness, and he moves on.
He concludes this pleasant, jargon-free book with some advice: total happiness is not attainable, but you can manipulate your mind and life to reduce the impact of negative emotion, increase positive emotion and--most important--stop consciously seeking happiness at all. He quotes an old joke about the Dalai Lama, who is visited by a rich acolyte bearing a huge, gift-wrapped box. The Dalai Lama opens the box to find it empty and exclaims, "Exactly what I've always wanted!" --Jonathan Beard
Losing Nature's Nurture
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
by Richard Louv. Algonquin Books, 2005
Unstructured outdoor play was standard for me as a hyperactive child growing up in the rural Midwest. I fondly recall digging forts, climbing trees and catching frogs without concern for kidnappers or West Nile virus. According to newspaper columnist and child advocate Richard Louv, such carefree days are gone for America's youth.