The Conquest of Happiness – a book reivew

conquestofhappinessI came to add Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” to my reading queue in a roundabout way. I’d heard about a popular philosophy book, and when I looked it up online, “Conquest” was included in one of those “other books you’d like” lists in the margin (which also led me to reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”.)

While each chapter is a fairly short read, it took me awhile to complete the book because I felt the need to wait until I was in the mood to properly digest its ideas before I picked it up. I’m glad I purchased this book instead of checking it out from the library. I’ve made all sorts of scribblings and notes in the margins. I had conversations with this book, and made connections to all sorts of situations in the world today and in my life. I’m sure I’ll continue to refer to it in the future.

I’ve already posted on this blog a couple of items that struck me as I was reading: here and here, and I also made a few postings of quotations on social media.

social media posts of quotesI’d certainly recommend the book to anyone thinking about the meaning of life or happiness or work-life balance or politics or parenthood, but with an asterisk.

*Several passages in the book come off as racist or sexist. Not to be apologetic, but it reflects attitudes of Bertrand’s time. Based on the majority of the book, I scoffed at the notion that Bertrand was, in fact, a feminist in his day. Then I came across this sentence:

A woman who has acquired any kind of professional skill ought, both for her own sake and for that of the community, to be free to continue to exercise this skill in spite of motherhood.

Hm.

There is so much I could write and quote about this book, but I’ll cut it down to two items.

1. I bet Bertrand would have been chary about the Internet, social media in particular. It could be argued that social media encourages excessive self-reflection, enables comparison, facilitates public shaming, and serves as a constant distraction from boredom – all of which would drain a person’s happiness, according to what I gleaned from the book. A few quotes to support my thesis:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man . . . too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty. . . . A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young. . . .

The habit of thinking in terms of comparison is a fatal one. . . . In the old days people only envied their neighbors, because they knew little about any one else. Now through education and the press they know much  . . .

When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

If all our happiness is bound up entirely in our personal circumstances it is difficult not to demand of life more than it has to give.

2. You have to work at being happy.

Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances.

A few pointers I interpreted from the book, which sound like quotes from motivational posters:

  • Find a purpose in life.
  • Stop obsessing about yourself – you’re not really that important.
  • Focus on other people, connect with your community.
  • Allow yourself to slow down and be bored.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other people.
  • Face your fears, don’t worry about them.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Find “your people” – friends you can relate to.
  • Develop a hobby. Cultivate broad interests. Have new experiences. Travel.

This quote sums up a lot about why I like to read and travel:

Each of us is in the world for no very long time, and within the few years of his life has to acquire whatever he is to know of this strange planet and its place in the universe. To ignore our opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theater and not listening to the play. The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.

Be happy and enjoy the spectacle, friends.

Still Alice – a book review and personal reflection

SPOILER ALERT: this book review discusses plot points of the book "Still Alice"

SPOILER ALERT: this book review discusses plot points of the book “Still Alice”

I’d been anxious to read “Still Alice” since I learned about it from publicity surrounding the film it inspired. I’d hoped to get some insights from the book, which describes a fictional linguistics professor’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

A member of my family has dementia, you see.

It’s heartbreaking and stomach-churning – both the book and my family’s reality.

Lisa Genova, who earned a doctorate in neuroscience from Harvard and knows intimately the neural processes of which she writes, totally nailed the atmosphere of confusion and frustration and anger and sadness and fear that infuses the lives of people with dementia, and those who care for them.

In many aspects, “Still Alice” was all too familiar: the unpredictable swings between functionality and impairment, the anxiety and repeated questions about dates/times/appointments, the snappishness or withdrawal that happens when social interactions are too fast for a damaged brain to process.

Neurology appointments and diagnosis

I recognized that intense focus Alice put into the neurology exams she was given, the desperate desire to “pass.” I was never present at the neuro exams my family member took, but they would tell me with pride days later in a phone conversation the words they were asked to remember at their appointment. Those random words were a talisman – proof that all was still well.

But it wasn’t.

Those in-office memory tests always seemed to lag behind day-to-day reality. Caretakers were aware of my family member’s cognitive decline well before the formal diagnosis. I wonder if this was in part due to the physicians’ discomfort at making the diagnosis.

I was reminded of a recent piece a doctor wrote for NPR “When A Patient Says ‘Everything’s Fine,’ A Doctor Should Be Wary”:

In retrospect, I realize that my patient was adroit at masking his dementia. He was still capable of small talk. Since I didn’t probe very hard, I wasn’t going to find out the degree of memory loss that he’d already suffered. … Labeling patients with Alzheimer’s can be devastating. It’s telling them that they have an incurable, progressive illness that won’t only destroy their mind but in all likelihood ravage the lives of their caregivers as well.

Loss of independence in health/safety decisions

In the book, Alice’s neurologist is very keen on getting her family’s perspective on how well Alice is functioning in her daily life. Much to her humiliation, the neurologist says, “You may not be the most reliable source of what’s been going on.”

I was not there for most of the doctor appointments, but it seemed like there was a constant tension between my family member and the caretakers who would accompany them to appointments. My family member would say something that was blatantly untrue, and the caretaker would have to correct that statement, in front of them.

My family member was, of course, distressed about all this. It could have been them sitting there, in Alice’s place in a scene in her neurologist’s office, when the doctor says that he wants Alice’s husband to accompany her if she goes out for a run, because the damage to her brain renders her unable to go out safely by herself. Alice feels persecuted by them having conversations about her, in front of her, and by this truncation of her freedom for her safety – “They were ganging up on her.”

This feeling of being “ganged up on” is a huge source of conflict between a person with dementia and the people who care for them. Dementia can utterly destroy a relationship, both because the person with dementia slowly dissolves away from being the “self” they have always been, thus removing the foundations of relationships they have built (the shakier the foundations were to begin with, the faster the relationships collapse), and because of clashes between a person’s desire for independence and the need to put limits on that independence for safety’s sake.

Which is worse – fighting with a person to get them to use a walker when their sense of balance fails and they are unwilling/unable to accept their new “disabled” status, or letting them have the freedom to leave the walker behind and then watching them crash to the ground and bleed profusely from a head wound?

Driving

One beef I have with “Still Alice” is that it sidesteps a hugely important and emotionally-charged issue in the lives of many families dealing with dementia: driving.

Conveniently, Alice lives close to where she works, on a college campus where walking is a well-accepted form of transportation. She is not depicted driving in the book, before or after her diagnosis. When she goes out for a walk by herself, she might be endangering herself, but she is not necessarily putting the lives of other people at risk. Getting behind the wheel of a car changes that calculus.

I was upset when my family member was given a formal diagnosis of dementia without any followups on the practical implications of that diagnosis on daily activities like driving. For months, caregivers had been fighting with my family member over access to car keys. With the unpredictable nature of the cognitive impairment and the frequent inability to focus on more than one task at a time, let alone the increasing physical impairments, driving just did not seem safe. And the family member seemed unable to judge the extent of their impairment from one moment to the next. “I’ve not had an accident,” they said. I always mentally filled in the word “yet.”

Lane positioning was becoming problematic, “curb checks” more frequent. Once, the police were called late at night when the family member failed to return home hours after running an errand – their GPS device had failed, and they had gotten utterly lost. Another time, the family member called caretakers because they were lost, hours away from home, and unable to navigate back even with GPS.

A side note on technology: it can greatly help a person with dementia continue to function independently – until it can’t. In the book, Alice uses her Blackberry to maintain her grip on her sense of time, until she accidentally destroys the device. My family member has been relying on a smartphone to remind them when to take their meds and to navigate to and from home while driving. Unfortunately, as the dementia has progressed, they are losing the ability to use the device. They often wind up completely messing up the medication reminder schedule when, say, trying to change the alarm sound, or they forget how to charge the device, or lose it altogether.

Ultimately, a wrangled appointment with an occupational therapist resulted in a recommendation to revoke driving privileges based on cognitive deficits. My family member says they will appeal this decision. I suspect driving will continue to be a source of anger and frustration for as long as my family member is able to remember the freedom and habit of driving.

Confused thinking, isolation, boredom

“Still Alice” does an exceptional job of describing the confused thinking of a person with dementia. I found my own thinking muddled when I would come up for air while reading this book.

The strange thing about being around a person with dementia is that their skewed perception of reality can rub off on you after awhile. You can begin to doubt your own sanity and need to turn to others for a reality check. A recent post on the Iowa Book Facebook page, inspired by the death of writer Terry Pratchett from Alzheimer’s disease, mentioned this feeling:

Driving over to my dad’s house in western Illinois on Saturday morning, the snow had melted to highlight the branches and twigs littering his front yard, a scandal in his coiffed suburban neighborhood. Inside, my ninety-year-old father greeted me with the news, delivered in an enthusiastic tone, that there were “Too many birds flying in the house.” How many? “Oh, two, maybe three.” A moment later, he added a squirrel. . . . I busied myself before my eldest brother could arrive to rescue me, to verify that what I was hearing was madness, providing a reality check to what seemed to be Wonderland.

A word in the preceding passage – “scandal” – speaks volumes, too. Mental health problems, dementia included, are not well accepted in our society. A very telling passage from “Still Alice”:

And while a bald head and a looped ribbon were seen as badges of courage and hope, her reluctant vocabulary and vanishing memories advertised mental instability and impending insanity. Those with cancer could expect to be supported by their community. Alice expected to be cast out. Even the well-intentioned and educated tended to keep a fearful distance from the mentally ill. She didn’t want to become someone people avoided and feared.

Alice loses her ability to work, and she loses her professional social networks and identity. As her disease progresses, she begins to lose the ability to keep herself occupied. She can no longer read or watch a movie because she can’t follow a plot anymore.

She sat in her living room armchair and tried to think of what to do. Nothing meaningful enough came to her. She tried to imagine tomorrow, next week, the coming winter. Nothing meaningful enough came to her. She felt bored, ignored, and alienated in her living room armchair.

This same thing is happening to my family member. They can no longer keep themselves occupied because they can no longer do the things they used to do. Even watching TV is difficult because they can’t always remember how to work the controls.

They call me because they are bored, but sustaining a phone conversation with them is difficult because they have little they can contribute to a conversation anymore. They often seem to expect caretakers to drop everything to come rescue them from their boredom.

I tried to search online for some solutions for dementia-related boredom, but many of the suggested activities assume the caretaker can be right there, all the time, to assist and suggest and redirect. This hardly seems fair to ask of a person. It’s exhausting, and impossible when the caretaker has other work and family responsibilities to attend to.

Fixing the body, but not the mind

“Still Alice” adroitly walks the reader through dementia’s effects and implications. It’s an important book to read, because the number of people living with dementia will only increase. Modern medicine has gotten really good at patch-fixing the human body to keep it going, but damage to the mind remains unrepairable.

My family member’s health has prompted me to do a lot of reading, in addition to “Still Alice.”

Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Katy Butler describes the author’s experience of dealing with the ends of her parents’ lives, and the thorny issues raised when her father is fitted with a pacemaker that winds up keeping his body going long after his mind has deteriorated.

Being Mortal” by surgeon Atul Gawande outlines the struggles he faces when treating patients with incurable illnesses, and how the American medical system is failing in its focus on technology and treatments over the well-being of the patient as a whole.

These are both excellent, thought-provoking books that came to mind numerous times while I was reading “Still Alice.” There was one passage in particular that reflected a major point from “Being Mortal” –  that patients should be asked what really matters to them when setting health care goals.

Alice evaluates her life, to determine what is most important for her to accomplish in her remaining time. To her surprise, she leaves her career behind entirely. Most of what she wants involves family – holding a grandbaby, seeing a child succeed in a career, seeing another child fall in love, spending a year on sabbatical with her husband.

What bothered me about her goals is that they involved actions by other people. Her definition of happiness could only be fulfilled through others.

A highly emotional scene in the book is one in which Alice and her husband discuss a career opportunity for John, which would derail her plans for a sabbatical to spend time with him.

Alice: “I can’t do this anymore! Please! I can’t keep holding on without you! You can take the year off. If you wanted to, you could. I need you to.”

John: “I don’t think I can do it, Alice. I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can take being home for a whole year, just sitting and watching what this disease is stealing from you. I can’t take watching you not knowing how to get dressed and not knowing how to work the television. If I’m in lab, I don’t have to watch you sticking Post-it notes on all the cabinets and doors. I can’t just stay home and watch you get worse. It kills me.”

I’m afraid of what the future will bring – for my family member, for the caretakers, for me, and for our relationships. I can’t fix this. Can’t make things better. Dementia is a horror in which I see no happy endings.

Pre-vacation reading, Hawaii edition

I’m in the habit of getting to know about a place before I venture there. What’s the purpose of travel, if not to learn?

In celebration of my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary, Bugman and I accompanied them on a trip to Hawaii last month.

I perused recommended reading lists and used bookstore catalogs, and managed to read (or mostly read) the following books before arriving on the islands.

Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport

I greatly appreciated the broad backdrop of Hawaiian history in this book, as well as the nuances of race and identity it presented. I have thought about Shark Dialogues several times in the context of discussions on race relations in the United States.

I found the construction of the book and some of the language awkward, however, so I can’t recommend it without hesitation.

The book begins with an introduction of one chapter for each of its main characters – matriarch Pono and four of her granddaughters. Then it veers into several chapters of ancestral backstory before settling into what I think was the strongest part of the book – telling Pono’s story. Then, abruptly, Pono becomes a secondary character, and the book shifts focus to the granddaughters. I wound up skimming through some of the later chapters as I found myself losing interest.

There are a few distracting flow-of-consciousness episodes in the book that could have been left aside. I rather wish several graphic sex scenes could have been cut from those later chapters as well, as they prevented me from recommending the book to my mother-in-law.

Overall, I’m glad to have read this book before traveling to Hawaii.

Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Liliuokalani

This book, or a summary of this book, should be required reading for anyone who visits Hawaii, as well as for American History students. Hawaii is not just any old state. As numerous histories point out, Hawaii is the only state to encompass a royal palace – Ioloni Palace.

Written in the language of the turn of the 20th century, this book can be trying to read at times, particularly through the many descriptions of social engagements and royal receptions (which I believe Liliuokalani included in the book to contrast against her later treatment). However, her writings clearly illuminate an injustice perpetuated against the Hawaiian people by American citizens and, ultimately, by the United States government.

Want the Cliffs Notes version? Try reading Public Law 103-150, an apology to Native Hawaiians passed 100 years after the overthrow of Liliuokalani’s government in 1893.

A passage that struck me in particular was the following, describing Liliuokalani’s thoughts as she travels through the United States in 1896:

Miles after miles of rich country went by as we gazed from the windows of the moving train, and all this vast extent of territory which we traversed belonged to the United States; and there were many other routes from the Pacific to the Atlantic with an equally boundless panorama. Here were thousands of acres of uncultivated, uninhabited, but rich and fertile lands, soil capable of producing anything which grows, plenty of water, floods of it running to waste, everything needed for pleasant towns and quiet homesteads, except population. . . And yet this great and powerful nation must go across two thousand miles of sea, and take from the poor Hawaiians their little spots in the broad Pacific, must covet our islands of Hawaii Nei, and extinguish the nationality of my poor people, many of whom have now not a foot of land which can be called their own. And for what? In order that another race-problem shall be injected into the social and political perplexities with which the United States in the great experiment of popular government is already struggling? …

Kauai: The Separate Kingdom by Edward Joesting

I managed to get about 3/4 of the way through this book before I ran out of steam. I definitely learned some things, but I found it hard to stay interested in the litany of dates, places, and names, and wound up reading many pages over and over again without absorbing the info.

The first two chapters, before Captain Cook and the whalers showed up, were most interesting to me.

(Wouldn’t “Captain Cook and the Whalers” make a good band name?)

The Happiness Project – a book review

happiness-project-coverI’m in a place right now where I am working to improve my own happiness. I recently left a high-profile job with a lot of responsibility, and am embarking on a period of self-development – namely, doing a lot of reading and writing.

So when “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin happened to pass my eyeballs, I added it to my to-read list.

The book is formatted into chapters by month, where the author describes the different resolutions she made in her research-backed yearlong pursuit of improving her happiness.

Make time. Buy needful things. Go off the path. Work smart. Quit nagging.

This is essentially a self-help book framed within personal anecdotes. Self-help books in general tend to grate on me, but I found this book enjoyable to read because many of the anecdotes are amusing, and because I can relate to many of the author’s foibles (among them, the need to feel “legitimate”).

This is a good “read one chapter a night” kind of book. Much more than that, and it started to feel a bit overwhelming and preachy to me. I was also a bit annoyed with the quantity of quotes the author inserts from people who commented on her blog. To me, the overuse of quotes broke up her voice too much.

As the author repeatedly points out in the book, each person’s happiness project would be different. In fact, when she posted her personal “twelve commandments” that guided development of her resolutions and asked readers of her blog to come up with their own resolutions, she was amused to discover that some of her readers’ commandments contradicted one another. The parts of the book that resonated with me might not strike others the same way.

Below are a few of the things I highlighted in the book. Because of my current life focus, a lot of the quotes are career-related. Someone going through relationship troubles might find other passages worthy of highlighting.

I won’t take up a lot of space analyzing what these phrases mean to the author, or to me. If you are intrigued, I recommend checking out the book.

(Feel free to criticize my over-use of quotes and breaking up my “author’s voice.”)

First Splendid Truth: to be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Work can be a source of many of the elements necessary for a happy life: the atmosphere of growth, social contact, fun, a sense of purpose, self-esteem, recognition.

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. … Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. … Also, a new identity brings you into contact with new people and new experiences, which are also powerful sources of happiness.

… though you may anticipate great happiness in arrival, arriving rarely makes you as happy as you anticipate.

The fun part doesn’t come later, now is the fun part.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go work on my list of commandments . . .

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw