Happiness for Scrooges

Review: ‘A Private History of Happiness’ by George Myerson

• July 6, 2014 5:00 am


Happiness has been tackled by the greats—Plato and Aristotle—but also by, and more frequently, the not-so greats—see the self-help section.

If, like me, you're the pessimistic type, any book with a peaceful-looking tree and the word "happiness" on the cover is likely to send you running. But in the case of A Private History of Happiness: Ninety-Nine Moments of Joy from Around the World, don't run just yet. Not all books with "happiness" in the title are trite, and George Myerson's book is here to prove it.

A Private History of Happiness is a collection of excerpts of personal writings taken from a huge array of letters and diaries, from authors of varying notoriety. All are historical or literary figures. One moment you may be reading an ancient Chinese official, the next a young Robert Schumann. You'll find the travel diaries of well-mannered British ladies decorously admiring gardens in Egypt, and the boisterous escapades of boozy authors.

The collection is rife with food for thought on different experiences of happiness. Some tend toward the Epicurean: Robert Burns appears to have been happiest while raging drunk, dancing until three in the morning with wild Scottish women in the Highlands, and ending the evening with an intoxicated sun-worshipping ceremony.

For the more Stoically-inclined, Marcus Aurelius offers his advice on how to get out of a warm bed in the morning: "Were you born then only to please yourself, and not for action, and the exertion of your faculties?"

The wonderful thing about these selections is that many don't explicitly talk about happiness at all. Myerson didn't just do a word-search for "happy" in his library and find every instance of a historical figure opining about joy. The passages are much more subtle and interesting than that.

Myerson draws you in by revealing the quiet, simple moments where happiness often occurs: poet Thomas Gray blissfully writes about the weather. Sir Walter Scott describes the relief of a warm bath after, "deceived by moonlight," he stepped into "a sea mud (honest earth and water, thank God)." The best part of the bath? Scott’s chatty wife was asleep: "Luckily Lady S. had retired when I came home, so I enjoyed my tub of water without either remonstrance or condolences."

Roman poet Horace invites his friend to a modest dinner, "a homely dish, a salad all the treat"—but "Tomorrow Caesar's birthday comes, to give/ Release to cares, and a small time to live./ Then we may sleep 'till Noon and gay delight/ And merry talk prolong the summer's night."

A few centuries later, 405 CE, a Chinese official, Tao Yuanming, who has retired from court and is returning to his home in the country, describes his homecoming: "The place is a wilderness; but there is the old pine tree and my chrysanthemums. I take the little ones by the hand, and pass in. Wine is brought in full bottles, and I pour it out in brimming cups."

For us humbugs of the world, this is a refreshing way to approach the subject of happiness. Here there are no clichéd mantras to swallow, no smug advice from a life coach. Why read Joel Osteen when you can read 23-year-old Leo Tolstoy describing his new infatuation?

"I have fallen in love, or imagine myself to have fallen in love. It happened at an evening party. I quite lost my head. I have bought a horse which I do not need."

The only less-than-stellar part of Myerson's collection: His explanations of each passage can go overboard. The details he offers on the authors' lives and backgrounds, and the context from parts of the memoirs we might be missing, are fantastic. But Myerson also tends to give an in-depth reiteration of what you've just read, which can read at times like an excruciating play-by-play.

Luckily, the book lends itself easily to skimming, and those who would rather not read the full explanations can easily skip them.

"Perhaps," Myerson writes, "happiness is much of a riddle because we usually look for too big an answer." And, he notes, "It is extraordinary how powerful real, remembered happiness is, how deep and true its source." Myerson's passages reflect this belief: they are simple but strikingly authentic. The result is a book about happiness even the occasional Scrooge can enjoy.

Published under: Book reviews