Book Review: What If This Were Enough?
At a time when we are relentlessly urged to do better, be better, improve ourselves, be happy, and display our happiness for all to see, what a relief it would be to take seriously the message of Heather Havrilesky’s new book: Maybe what we already have and who we already are — flaws included — is enough.
In What If This Were Enough?, a series of 19 loosely connected essays, Havrilesky explores the products, gurus, and experiences that promise to deliver to us the happiness and success that we crave.
Ultimately, though, even if we accomplish what we wished for, it is not enough. We still feel anxious and unhappy. “Many of us learn to construct a clear and precise vision of what we want,” Havrilesky notes, “but we’re never taught how to enjoy what we actually have.” She urges us to savor our everyday life “without looking ahead to what we’ll post on Facebook about it.”
In What If This Were Enough?, refreshing insights are intermixed with observations that, while true enough, sound like a rehash of points we have already heard many times before. Among the latter: There is too much pressure to be happy, or at least act that way. (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided already nailed that.)
Even when they are enjoying unprecedented levels of wealth and resources, Americans can be quite anxious (so we’ve heard). We’re too obsessed with numbers (number of likes, number of retweets) when we should care more about real interactions with other people. Foodies are full of themselves, and in the big picture, the food revolution is not nearly as virtuous as it claims. Disneyland is supposed to be “the happiest place on earth,” but visitors are often miserable. Conversations with adults who have a wealth of fascinating life experiences can be boring.
Maybe, though, one of the reasons these kinds of arguments sound familiar is that Havrilesky has made them so. Some of the essays are revised versions of articles that were previously published as far back as 2010.
Heather Havrilesky wrote the “Ask Polly” advice column for New York Magazine for several years, and among the most engaging sections of the book are her discussions of the kinds of struggles readers wrote about most often. Her previous book, How to Be a Person in the World, a collection of some of her columns, was riveting.
Some of Havrilesky’s observations seem to tell part of the story of our time, while missing out on other relevant pieces. For example, she notes that the young people who wrote “Dear Polly” letters to her have “learned that no one should ever publicly reveal one’s doubts, anxieties, and ambivalence.”
At the same time, though, the current media landscape is teeming with personal essays; doubts, anxieties, and ambivalence are at the very heart of most of them. Similarly, she notes that we experience our anger as a personal failing. Though undoubtedly true for many, the claim sounds more like a half-truth at a time when several books about the transformative power of anger are selling briskly.
Havrilesky was the TV critic for Salon for seven years. Her brilliance as a cultural critic shines through on page after page of What If This Were Enough?. Whether the topic is “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos,” “Billions,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Girls,” or “The Pioneer Woman,” Havrilesky has something smart to offer. Consider, for instance, what she has to say about how bright, competent women with personal deficiencies are portrayed (on shows such as “Homeland,” “Nurse Jackie,” and “Veep”), compared to similar men: “Their personality flaws or mental health issues were something they needed to be cured of or freed from — unlike, say, Monk, whose psychological tics were always portrayed as the adorable kernel of his genius.”
Another example of her wisdom is her take on Marie Kondo’s, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “The question isn’t whether or not your stuff sparks joy,” Havrilesky notes. “The question is: ‘Can you spark joy all by yourself?’” About the fitness craze, she says, “The ‘extreme’ version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original, rather than a perverse amplification of it.”
Heather Havrilesky is old enough to have experienced one of the most jolting before-and-after cultural experiences of recent history. Before the internet and iPhones and the whole panoply of communication technologies and new media, everyday life was dramatically different than it is now. In What If This Were Enough?, Havrilesky joins a whole cadre of similarly-situated authors and thinkers who are all trying to figure out what it all means. What is on offer to us in our lives sometimes seems infinite. In asking whether what we already have is enough, Havrilesky has taken on a profoundly important part of the puzzle. We need What If This Were Enough? and much more.
What if This Were Enough?
Doubleday, October 2018
Hardcover, 240 pages