Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness

Ariel Gore is not the first person one might expect to write a book on happiness. As a “grumpy Goth” teen, the child of “low-income intellectuals,” she believed that happiness was “uncool.” She writes: “At best, happiness meant you were shallow and disconnected. More likely, it meant you were dumb.”

And yet Gore was intrigued when she heard, a few years back, that “happiness studies” — a.k.a. positive psychology, a field largely pioneered by Martin Seligman — had become the most popular course with Harvard undergraduates. Back in the late ’60s, Seligman became famous for his experiments in “learned helplessness; by the ’90s, he was studying the opposite: if we could “learn” helplessness, might it be possible to learn optimism and resilience?

Intrigued, Gore looked up the syllabus and decided to read along with the kids. But almost immediately, she noticed a problem: “Everyone in this strange and smiley land, it seemed, was a guy….It was like the Bohemia Club of Academia.” Things became even weirder when she ran into a study first published in 2006 that claimed contemporary women in “traditional” marriages — breadwinner dad, stay-at-home mom — were happier than married women with feminist values and that women today were less happy than they were a generation ago.

That study alone was enough to launch a dozen editorial page responses when it was freshly — and rather tardily — unearthed this past spring and fall. But by that time, Gore had long since written the book on women and happiness. Bluebird — named after a tiny glass bird bequeathed to Gore by her wealthy maternal grandmother, who claimed she asked too many questions — blends memoir, interviews (with Gore’s “council of experts” — a group of “artists, mothers, service workers, scholars, psychologists and health care providers”) with a cultural history of the art and science of happiness, the latter taking a number of illuminating byways, such as the development of psychiatric drugs in the middle of the last century. Seen as a whole, the book is an attempt to understand the trouble women have separating true happiness from false cheerfulness (“a pretty girl is one with a smile on her face!”).

In her previous work, Gore, a former teenage mother, author of six books, and founder of the magazine and Web site Hip Mama, has interrogated the politics and privileges that go into our conventional notions of parenting. Not surprisingly, her most distinctive, and much needed, contribution to the admittedly hoary question of what women want is a sharp and canny understanding of the way politics and privilege shape our ideas of who is even granted the luxury of desiring a good enough life in the first place. She skewers the magical thinking that can allow us to tangle up virtue with good fortune: “If we are to believe that we all create our own realities, we’d…have to take a look at the hierarchy of the world and assume, too, that white people are better visualizers than people of color, and that men are more astute when it comes to manifesting their dream jobs than women.” When she finally concludes that even those who have a hard time getting the groceries at the end of the month might still wish for fulfillment, and that we can choose happiness as “an act of will,” it has the ring of hard-earned truth — no sugar-coating, saccharine, or trust fund required.