Better Living

By Mark Kingwell

Happiness has always been an impossible concept to pin down. For Mark Kingwell it is “eudaimonistic” (he is a philosophy professor), involving the “rational satisfaction” of a virtuous life. How he comes to this conclusion is the subject of this new book.

When it works, Better Living is a quick-reading piece of what has become known as cultural criticism – full of odds and ends ranging from a discussion of our obsession with obesity to the now de rigeur analyses of Star Trek and The Simpsons. It is organized around Kingwell’s own semi-satiric pursuit of happiness, and looks at current trends through a wide (but shallow) historical lens. Along the way the author discusses pop psychology bestsellers with titles like Become Happy in Eight Minutes, puts himself on Prozac, and even attends a special happiness “clinic” in Massachusetts.

Easy game perhaps, but it is the best part of the book.

In terms of style Kingwell displays a knack for making any platitude seem as exciting as the formula for cold fusion. Thus (are you ready?) “we must confront the possibility” that religion is the opium of the masses and that Star Trekis itself a form of soma” (i.e., television is a drug – emphasis in the original!). Another revelation is that the concept of “cool” has been largely manufactured by advertising agencies.

Really? I’d always wondered.

Better Living is also a very personal book. Most of the time this is a good thing. Kingwell does seem like a decent sort of fellow. But he is also a tortured soul. He is critical of the media, but is a TV junky and media personality himself; he hates the game of academic advancement, but remains a committed player; he rails against materialism and consumerism, but for some reason wants us to know that he owns two Armani suits.

Candor without self-awareness is an unexpected quality in someone who extols the importance of an examined life.

What blindness, for example, leads Kingwell to condemn the kitschy rubber doll facsimiles of Munch’s “Scream” as a “debasement of the artistic image,” then shell out to buy, not one, but two? At first he tries to rationalize his purchase (“I bought them to illustrate a lecture”), but then confesses that he now has them decorating his office! A very “cool” office indeed, I should think.

There is an important point to be made here. The tone of most cultural criticism is detached irony, a way of presenting oneself as in the world but not of it. Fair enough, but one has to temper one’s contempt for the uncritical masses with some belief in a shared humanity, a sense that we are all in this together.

A particularly telling moment occurs when Kingwell visits the CNE. The Exhibition strikes him as a depressing theatre of consumption, full of trashy goods and trashy people (who are described, quite frankly, as pigs wallowing in their slop). While he waits for his wife to buy something he notices a little boy in a “filthy” coat, kneeling in the “dirt.” The “grubby” wretch has mustard and ketchup smeared all over his face and is chewing a hot dog with his mouth open. And there he squats, beneath our gaze: “The entirely contented consumer.”

Offensive stuff, make no mistake. All too often Better Living reminded me of the attacks on the unwashed herd made by Modernist writers in the ’20s and ’30s. And to what end?

Ultimately Better Living is precisely what it seeks to deny – a self-help manual on happiness for high-brows. Call it Chicken Soup for the Academic Soul. There are, for example, “Eight Myths of Happiness” that can be read in Eight Minutes. And finally the whole thing collapses into Adspeak as we are exhorted to make sense of our lives through narratives and “become who we are.” (Yes! That’s it!)

As a diversion some of this may satisfy. But as a guide to better living it is better left alone.

Review first published April 18, 1998.


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