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Book Review – All That Happiness Is

Book Review – All That Happiness Is

(Originally published at NYJB

For a slim book of 62 pages, All That Happiness Is packs a wallop. Full of insights into what this prized state is—and isn’t—Adam Gopnik’s reflections teach us how to free ourselves from the chains of expectations and let happiness find us. A long-time staff writer at The New Yorker, prize-winning essayist, and prolific author, he writes with wit and compassion and parses his theory of happiness down to the nitty gritty.

Gopnik starts out by pondering whether the crux of our nation’s fixation on happiness might be that our Declaration of Independence guarantees only our pursuit of happiness, and not, sadly, its capture. Warning us about the illusion of enjoying ongoing, permanent happiness, he urges us to be satisfied with “bursts of delight” based on the understanding that “the pursuit is the happiness,” which is the theme of this book.

At the age of 12, Gopnik stumbled upon happiness in the form of “matchless thrills” from his determined efforts to learn to play Beatles songs on his $40 guitar—then losing himself to the process. From others’ similar experiences with diverse activities such as dance, origami, sewing, painting, writing, and various pastimes, he realized that happiness derives from a paradox: We find ourselves by losing ourselves in a process, an experience. He maintains that “genuine happiness is always rooted in absorption in something outside us and begins in accomplishment undertaken for its own sake and pursued to its own odd and buzzing ends.”

Happiness, often referred to as flow, may even have an opiate-like (and, therefore, addictive) quality to it. He believes it grows from accomplishment, that is, becoming so totally immersed and absorbed in an activity or experience that we’re flooded with feelings of bliss or fulfillment. Accomplishment, Gopnik argues, is distinct from achievement which he defines as “the completion of a task imposed from outside” that often leads to future and further achievement. Achievement is concrete, externally oriented, and dependent on positive results whereas accomplishment is the frisson of excitation you cannot help but feel from whole-heartedly being in the doing.

Gopnik relates achievement to the concept of Causal Catastrophe, the rightness or wrongness, success or failure attached to outcome from specific action. He warns of chasing goals like best and brightest that reinforce the “tyranny of achievement,” which needs to be regularly repeated for continued emotional reward. The good news is that feelings of accomplishment never disappear and may, in fact, lead to a stronger sense of self and true purpose. Moreover, he contends that accomplishment is more egalitarian than achievement which often involves privilege and resources not available to everyone, noting that accomplishment ironically may be enjoyed more easily by amateurs involved in a secondary passion than by professionals pursuing a professional purpose.

Many readers will find no truth in Gopnik’s assertion that the better we become at something, the less it excites us. However, even if we no longer feel the thrill of early accomplishment, he celebrates the endurance of our memories of it and that there are myriad paths we may wander onto to find new happiness. Wading into a macro level of discussion, he urges us to follow our instincts and passions collectively, to engage and bond with others in order to override our differences, especially, these days, our political ones. He advises us to enjoy the expansive emotional power of sharing what we delight in and are good at through circles of engagement with others, multiplying our chances of finding happiness.

This is a moving book, beautifully written, so captivating and absorbing it can’t help but bring happiness to its readers.