A lot of happy talk


You know the conventional wisdom that says if you think you’re crazy, you’re probably not? Surely a similar adage applies to happiness: If you say you’re happy, you’re probably miserable.

Happiness: In Meghan Daum’s March 11 column on books about happiness, author Gretchen Rubin’s husband was identified as a hedge-fund manager. He is a partner in a private equity firm. —

I don’t mean fleeting moments of happiness, the kind that can waft by as you dance at your wedding or watch your child lead his soccer team to victory. I’m talking about people who are always announcing how happy they are: The friend who meets you for lunch once a year and spends the whole time evangelizing about her constant self-actualized joy. The person on Facebook who reports on the bliss rendered by his most recent meal of wood-fired flatbread and organic litchis. These people are exactly what Gertrude meant when she said to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Well, almost exactly.

So what to make of the latest crop of happiness books? For example, “The Nine Rooms of Happiness” by Lucy Danziger and Catherine Birndorf, which helps you “clean up your emotional architecture,” or Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling “The Happiness Project,” which chronicles her pursuit of certain philosophical, psychological and organizational precepts in order to be happier. Chief among her findings: Make your bed every morning.

Despite -- or more likely because of -- the commercial success of “The Happiness Project,” Rubin has received some trouncing in the media. The wife of a hedge-fund manager, she lives in a three-story Manhattan town house and employs a baby-sitter and a housekeeper. With luxuries like that, it’s not entirely clear why anyone would need to sing in the morning (one of the precepts) in order to raise her serotonin levels.

In fairness, happiness books tend not to be penned by folks living on minimum wage. It’s easy to chide authors of this particular genre (which leans more toward self-help than scholarship) for wearing their sense of entitlement on their fine linen sleeves, for assuming that fulfillment can be a matter of “me time” rather than, say, full-time child care or the ability to shop at Whole Foods without checking every price (though Rubin does allow that money can buy happiness, depending on how you spend it).

But guess what? A new study suggests that money’s not the only avenue to feeling satisfied with your life. Analyzing data from 79 men and women who wore inconspicuous devices that recorded some of their conversations over the course of four days, researchers from Washington University and the University of Arizona found a correlation between feelings of well-being and the amount of time spent talking every day. Moreover, the more substantive your conversations, the happier you’re likely to be. In other words, heart-to-hearts trump small talk.

It’s long been conjectured that women speak more words per day than men, though no set ratio has emerged from various studies. Estimates vary from 7,000 (women) versus 2,000 (men) to 20,000 versus 7,000. (At least one study, it should be said, found no discernible difference.) However, after testing personality and well-being, the Arizona/Washington research did suggest that women were happier than men, if less because of the quantity of their words than because they tended to open up more freely about their feelings (which, presumably, counts for more than idle sports chat).

Which brings us to the question of happiness lit. The latest of these books are written by women and, judging by their emphasis on classic female unhappiness triggers like feeling fat or anger at husbands for not doing housework, are mostly aimed at women. That’s understandable: Women buy more books than men (when they’re not talking, they’re reading). But they apparently need the advice less than men. What gives?

Maybe it’s that these books aren’t all that dissimilar from the friend who rhapsodizes about her personal fulfillment or the Facebook-poster who won’t shut up about his meals. Maybe it’s that, like junk food, they simultaneously satisfy our cravings while creating more of them. They’re the literary equivalent of small talk -- unavoidable (crowding bestseller lists, popping up on morning shows) yet ultimately part of the problem. No wonder we keep thinking we need more of them.

That said, I’m pretty sure making your bed can indeed make you happier -- especially if someone else does it for you.