Thursday, May 28, 2009

The NYT Gets ... Happy?

How many of you have noticed that there is a new section in the online edition of the venerable old New York Times? It's called "Happy Days." The reference isn't so much to 70s TV but to a decision by the paper's editorial staff to explore the question of happiness during these dark economic times.

Here's the description:

The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed.

Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.

OK I admit it - my first reaction to this was to snicker. The economy takes a little dip, and suddenly these otherwise blinkered, east coast elitists wake up to the fact that money isn't all there is in life? And what will happen when the banks regain their footing? Will everyone trash any thoughts of happiness and just jump back on the hamster wheel and start running after coin once again? I also wondered, cynically, if perhaps this was the newspaper of record attempting to hang on to an audience by any means necessary in light of the meltdown the media industry is experiencing.

I was also just a tad annoyed by the list of writers. Not that I'd heard of most of them, but they were so obviously gleaned from a list of "experts" in the most western sense of the word. Had it escaped the notice of the NYT that there is a 5000 year-old tradition that was built on understanding the question of human happiness? That tradition (or religion, if you like) is called Buddhism, and as it happens one of the greatest thinkers on happiness from that tradition is alive today. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has written a number of (New York Times) bestselling books on this very topic. Now, perhaps they couldn't get him, but perhaps a scholar of his works would be in order? They could've even gone with a solid, New York intellectual such as Robert Thurman, Columbia professor and author.

However, as I read through the posts, I started to melt. These are pretty heartfelt and insightful. Yesterday's, for example, gives a beautiful description of what it felt like for Rousseau as he sank into the moment while rowing a small boat on a lake in Switzerland. In the comments field, many pour out their own stories of what it is like to snatch moments of bliss, joy, contentment and the like.

And under my own cynical reaction, I realized, there is a yearning to see just this kind of thing reflected in our news media. So much of it is caught up in the worst elements of our existence as humans. In fact, the spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle tells us that if we want to understand the kind of damage that the ego wreaks on our society, we need only watch or read the news to find out. And so, with that, I've decided it's not such a silly thing for the New York Times to try something a little bit different--to write about life from the perspective of our highest selves for a change, rather than continually aiming low.

What do you think?

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