|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,
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
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
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
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
"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,
"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
"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
"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."