By Brad Stetson
Special to The Orange County Register
February 22, 1998
Dennis Prager is a man of paradoxes. His public persona is that of a talk radio host, yet he is also an erudite Jewish theologian. With callers to his show (noon - 3 PM weekdays on KABC/790 AM) he has a genial and unassuming demeanor, but his opinions are carefully stated and skillfully defended. His voice is heard free in Southern California for three hours daily, even though he is a polished, internationally sought-after lecturer.
This penchant for irony is on display in Prager's newest book, "Happiness Is a Serious Problem." Though the book is seemingly about everything, it's short and easy to read. Though Prager's purpose is to help human beings be happier, he asserts that it is human nature itself - its insatiability - that is the greatest obstacle to happiness. Additionally, though Prager sees happiness as a universal human desire, he says people cannot acquire it by direct pursuit.
In his view, it can only be gained by cultivating other values that must be held to be more important than happiness itself. Examples of such values would be depth of personality, wisdom, clear self understanding and goodness.
The book's structure starts with Prager's premises about happiness, which include his basic contention that happiness is nothing less than a moral obligation. This is so because if we're happy, we are mere likely to be enjoyable company for our family and friends.
In addition, happy people will generally treat others more decently than will those who are plagued by unhappiness and personal discontent, Prager contends.
As he later explains, "Happiness is important to doing good. Unhappy people are usually less capable than happy people of doing good. For one thing, they are usually too preoccupied with themselves and their unhappiness to do much good for others, their unhappiness can easily cloud their judgment. And finally, when unhappy people try to help others by founding or joining social movements, they often do more harm than good. There are good reasons to fear social movements made up of unhappy people who want to bring about social change."
The book's second part is an extended discussion of impediments to happiness and how to deal with them. From constantly comparing ourselves to others, to equating happiness with professional success, to seeing oneself as a victim, to habitually focusing on what we don't have rather than being grateful for what we do, Prager holds that the barriers to happiness can virtually always be overcome by understanding one's life to have meaning and purpose.
In his concluding section, Prager presents the attitudes and behaviors he sees as essential to happiness. Beyond the nurturing of belief in the meaning and purpose of one's life - best accomplished, Prager suggests, through religion - the prescriptions he offers center on the development of personal maturity.
Accepting the inevitability of tension in life, practicing self-control, carefully selecting and maintaining friendships, demonstrating true gratitude and consistently seeking to do good in the world are among the intellectual and moral equipment need by everyone for the journey to authentic and enduring happiness.
Brad Stetson directs The David Institute, a social research group in Tustin. His latest book is "Human dignity and Contemporary Liberalism," just released by Praeger Publishers.
THE JEWISH JOURNAL APRIL 3, 1998 7 NISAN, 5758
The Editor's Corner
By Gene Lichtenstein
My Dennis Prager Problem
My problem with Dennis Prager, author, radio host, newsletter writer, is simple: I like the man, but I just can't read his writing. In person, I find him open, engaging, serious. In print, he comes across to me as narrow-minded, ponderous and self-involved. I usually settle my conflict by shying away from the public persona.
But with his new book, "Happiness Is a Serious Problem," and its appearance on the best-seller list, I thought I might try again.
Book in hand, I started reading. Almost immediately, I halted. At the outset, the author confides: "While there is some methodology to the order of the chapters, the chapters of the book can be read in any order. Each chapter is largely a self-contained unit. However, although the order is not critical, reading all the chapters is."
Setting aside the absence of even a light editorial hand (all those "chapters" and "orders" stuffed into three sentences), I found myself somewhat surprised at this approach. It forces the book into functioning as a compendium of opinions, presented in the form of moral sermons and/or advice columns. No single chapter launches an idea or develops an argument that is sustained throughout the 170-plus pages. It is, in my lexicon, a non-book.
As if that were not enough, I soon discovered that its advice and homilies were also suspect. For example, by Chapter 4, Page 9, I came upon the following:
"I offer no definition of happiness," writes the author, who then lists four dictionary meanings, none of which he indicates is relevant to his purpose. The reason? They have little to do with his notion of happiness. Instead, he paraphrases former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment on obscenity: "I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it." And he tells us that the intent of this advice book is probably best grasped by focusing on unhappiness. The gist of his sentiment seems to be that if we learn to avoid unhappiness, its opposite, happiness, will more readily be ours.
But, of course, that is not necessarily true. We know that there are people in therapy who learn to recognize they often create situations which make them unhappy. With some help, they can, at times, take measures to avoid, or at least blunt, this repetitive behavior. But, in so doing, they are not necessarily made happy. More frequently, we simply encounter people who neither identify themselves as happy or unhappy. They function differently. Is there a word other than happiness that perhaps better defines what Prager is trying to tell us?
My problem with Dennis Prager became clearer midway through the book, in the titillating chapter called "The Opposite Sex." Prager claims that men, by nature, are libidinous creatures who lust after an endless series of women. It makes little difference if they love one woman or are married. All they can do is rein in their natural tendencies and try to stay faithful. They will be happier for it, he offers, comfortingly (but not convincingly, I thought). Women, on the other hand, have no such natural urge, he says. Their drive is for emotional intimacy.
In a sort of EST-like way, these pronouncements must be reassuring to Prager's readers. They reinforce a stereotype about gender and sex roles that many men find soothing. We men may be fantasizing about the woman with the great legs sitting on the couch across the way, but our wife or girlfriend harbors no such thoughts about the lean, handsome, young man who just entered the room. One difficulty is that there is no evidence to support these beliefs: no historical references (which, in my readings of French and English social history, would seem to contradict the author), no biological or scientific studies. Just assertions by Dennis Prager, which, on close inspection, turn out to be opinions, backed by other assertion-opinions, with personal or "common-sense" anecdotes offered by way of evidence.
In fact, recent data would suggest that women tend to be just as libidinous as men. (Prager says that if this were the case, "the world would self-destruct.") Equal opportunity in the marketplace, birth-control pills and the legalization of abortion may all have contributed to this change in behavior. It might be viewed as a change for the better, or as a setback to a more civilized (and perhaps male-dominated) world, depending on your values and the kind of order you want. It is an interesting subject for discussion, but there are no discussions in these chapters -- only opinions passed off with the certitude of a sermonizer.
On reflection, I see now that it is not arrogance on Prager's part that sends me running from his written sermons on what is essentially a common theme: How to Be A Better Person. It is, rather, his naiveté. In this book, Prager's advice essentially boils down to a set of precepts: 1) Fulfillment in love and work will make you a happier person; 2) if you look at the doughnut and not the hole, you will be happier and people will prefer to be in your company; and 3) if you want to be happy, it requires hard work, just like losing weight.
Who could argue with such prescriptions? With such generalizations?
But the author's path to this "philosophy" lacks any sense of history or any awareness of psychology. We know from studies of weight loss, that, hard work notwithstanding, about 90 percent of us soon regain the weight. We also know that years in therapy often bring insight but do not always (or even usually) result in character change. Just standing on a platform and laying down steps to follow does not seem a likely way to gain results.
In short, through hard work, you may learn to stop whining; but it doesn't necessarily follow that happiness will be yours.
Gene's column attracted a flurry of letters to the Jewish Journal, pro and con. An "avid Jewish Journal reader and committed Jew" wrote in the 4-17-98 edition: "My Gene Lichtenstein problem: Who is he and what does he stand for?
"Unlike Dennis Prager, who has the courage to publish, teach, sermonize, and openly invite dialogue on a daily basis, you choose to hide behind criticism.
"I am unable to find a book, article (outside of the Jewish Journal), a synagogue pulpit, or a college course attributed to you. All you publicly offer is your disdain for Dennis Prager's writings, opinions and ideas.
"I am tired of the Jewish Journal pumping up its weekly read by capitalizing on Dennis Prager's opinions about life."
The rabbi and cantor of the Conservative synagogue in Santa Monica, Kehilat Ma'arav, Rabbi Michael Gotlieb and Hazzan Keith Miller, wrote:
"Eight weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published David Klinghoffer's review of Dennis Prager's latest book, "Happiness Is A Serious Problem." Klinghoffer's review, unlike Gene Lichtenstein's, was balanced and insightful. Sadly, the readers of the Jewish Journal must reference a non-Jewish newspaper for a fair synopsis of Prager's latest work.
"Mr. Lichtenstein dislikes Dennis Prager witha vengeance. That is his right. He has expressed his disdain for him on more than one occasion, using the Jewish Journal as his own self-selected arena.
"What pains me, however, is that the editor of L.A.'s most popular Jewish newspaper can write such a mean-spirited column entitled "My Dennis Prager Problem." Fitting for a high school student perhaps, not at all fitting for the editor of our community's most widely read Jewish weekly. Lichtenstein's review is as unprofessional as it is un-Jewish.
"We Jews are a sophisticated, accomplished people; we deserve, and ought to demand better. I would be less troubled by the editor's piece had it appeared in a newspaper simply entitled "Journal." Writing with such a desire to destroy a good man's reputation runs contrary to the moral wisdom of our tradition. The Jewish notion of being a light unto the nations is a lofty one. The editor of The Jewish Journal would benefit by shining some of that light onto his own publication."
Gene Lichtenstein replied: "My criticism of Dennis Prager was restricted entirely to his book. There were no personal comments, except to say I found him engaging and serious in person. It would be nice if our readers would do the same in their letters. Have they read the book? It's not apparent in their remarks."