Friday, October 6, 2017

The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness by Paula Poundstone, 2017

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“Is there a secret to happiness?” asks comedian Paula Poundstone. "I don’t know how or why anyone would keep it a secret. It seems rather cruel, really . . . Where could it be? Is it deceptively simple? Does it melt at a certain temperature? Can you buy it? Must you suffer for it before or after?” In her wildly and wisely observed book, the comedy legend takes on that most inalienable of rights—the pursuit of happiness.

Offering herself up as a human guinea pig in a series of thoroughly unscientific experiments, Poundstone tries out a different get-happy hypothesis in each chapter of her data-driven search. She gets in shape with taekwondo. She drives fast behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. She communes with nature while camping with her daughter, and commits to getting her house organized (twice!). Swing dancing? Meditation? Volunteering? Does any of it bring her happiness? You may be laughing too hard to care.

The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness is both a story of jumping into new experiences with both feet and a surprisingly poignant tale of a single working mother of three children (not to mention dozens of cats, a dog, a bearded dragon lizard, a lop-eared bunny, and one ant left from her ant farm) who is just trying to keep smiling while living a busy life.

The queen of the skepticism-fueled rant, Paula Poundstone stands alone in her talent for bursting bubbles and slaying sacred cows.

Like George Carlin, Steve Martin, and David Sedaris, she is a master of her craft, and her comedic brilliance is served up in abundance in this book. As author and humorist Roy Blount Jr. notes, “Paula Poundstone deserves to be happy. Nobody deserves to be this funny.”

(288 pages)

I don't usually go for self-help books, because the advice they offer isn't really that helpful for me. And I struggle sometimes to get into reading memoirs by comedians because they wind up being way less funny on paper than they are in person.

I took the leap with The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, though, because I didn't know Poundstone's work well enough to be offended if the book didn't live up to it, but I knew that she must be pretty funny since she's a panelist on Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me, and because I loved the idea of watching someone else's journey to seeking happiness rather than having someone lecture me about the "one true way" for me to achieve true happiness.

And let me just say first that Paula Poundstone is absolutely hilarious. Her descriptions of life as a mother to three children are so realistic they're almost painfully funny, and the images she paints of her efforts in her various classes and endeavors had me literally laughing out loud.

I liked the techniques she decided to try, too: exercising, learning to use a computer, cleaning out her house, renting a sports car for a day, spending quality time with her pets and walking around hugging strangers are all good ideas. If I had her resources (or, more accurately, her lack of concern about debt), then I would probably try some of them, too!

Poundstone wrote the book over the course of about seven years, during which time two of her kids went off to college. I loved all the details we got about her kids. What did rub me a little bit the wrong way, though, was Poundstone's complete hate for the use of technology in education and the extreme lengths she wound up going to get her son away from the influence of computers and violent video games. As a homeschool graduate who took ten online AP courses over the four years of high school, I have to say that I really don't agree with Poundstone's determination to vilify all uses of technology when it comes to schooling. It's especially puzzling when she also admits to spending lots of time on Facebook, Twitter and Gmail (while telling her kids they shouldn't be on the computer at all), and when she said she carefully limits her children's screen time. If she was really putting limits on their computer time or checking their video games to make sure they weren't disgusting, then why is her son struggling so much with an addiction to violent video games?

Also, the language in this book is pretty bad. The f-word is scattered in probably a few times every chapter, and Poundstone occasionally makes cracks about her own asexuality or the frequency with which males (including, she assumes, her son) think sexual thoughts. Ew.

Other than that, though, I really did enjoy The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. If you don't mind the language and off-color jokes, and you're interesting in reading about one hilarious single mother's journey to finding human happiness, then this might be the book for you. If you decide to read it, I promise you'll laugh out loud at least once.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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