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Myths happily targeted

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THE HAPPINESS MYTH: WHY WHAT WE THINK IS RIGHT IS WRONG, by Jennifer Michael Hecht, HarperSanFrancisco, 355 pages, $24.95

Who is to say what the absolute prescription is for happiness? No one, according to historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, who teaches at New York University.

Hecht looks at happiness as an open question, then writes a history of it as it applies in the various social and cultural aspects of life. Whether or not you agree with her conclusions — or the myths she dashes — you are bound to find the journey compelling and thought-provoking.

The first question she asks is whether women were happier when they were pressured by society into wearing corsets and yards and yards of material, a bustle on the back, all in an effort to form a certain prescribed shape?

On the other hand, is our current system — which argues that all women should be pencil-thin, eat a low-calorie diet to stay that way and work out at the gym to build muscles and keep fat off — the real key to happiness?

Should all women look the same, whether the secret is in clothing or in diet? Hecht says maybe not.

What about people who give advice but cannot control their own desires? Should hypocrites be allowed to give us all the road to happiness when they're going another way?

We're in the habit of condemning all drugs and warning against addiction, yet we take a heavy volume of drugs to try to control what ails us, while we condemn the "high" that drugs may offer.

Is it true that money actually can buy happiness (or at least help us look for it in a lot more places)? Well, that may seem a misplaced value, yet money is necessary for living our lives, and it allows us a semblance of choice.

There are all sorts of recommendations given to us daily about what foods we should never eat and how much damage they will do to our bodies and how much they will cut down on our longevity. Yet there is a certain amount of happiness that is derived from food — some foods more than others.

Exercise, which most people hate, is recommended by physicians and fitness experts as a road to happiness — if we do it regularly. But it is often boring or difficult, and the kinds of exercises that work the best in making us attractive vary at least twice a year.

Of course, everyone has something to say about sex — who should have it or not have it, how often, the dangers thereof, etc. Sex is often seen today as a sign of "youthful vitality," and since youth is what we all crave, that makes sex a good thing. But ideas about sex always get mixed up with religious doctrines and legislative decrees.

Then there are weddings, sports, pop culture and parades, to name just a few of the types of rituals and entertainment we seek. Who is to say which is the right way to do all those things?

Hecht not only stimulates thinking, she is an entertaining, witty writer.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com