Poundstone Delivers More Than Balous of Happiness in New Book
If you’re looking for a summer respite from the ever-compounding ugliness in this world, then let the pages of comedienne Paula Poundstone’s The Totally Unscientific Study of The Search for Human Happiness serve as your guide into a minefield of laugh-out-loud humor, witty observations, candor and tremendous depth. This clever book is ultimately an artfully crafted journey told by one of the most creative and humble comedic treasures in America today.
In short, Poundstone is a genius.
The book features a series of unscientific experiments Poundstone conducted in order to answer the universal question, “Is there a secret to happiness?”
Each chapter introduces the topic of experimentation formatted for ‘scientific’ inquiry (conditions, variables, field notes, analysis, etc). While getting fit, wired, earthy, organized (for which there are two parts), driving a Lamborghini for the day, hugging people she encountered – including TSA at the airport, spending quality time with her pets, watching movies all day with her son and two daughters, being positive (or trying to be – even briefly), dancing, meditating and volunteering at a nursing home (which she continues to do after two years), Poundstone infuses her humorous musings and life experiences as a single, working mom with 3 kids, an inordinate number of cats and a couple of dogs, while searching for that which she or others in her life thought would make her happy – not merely being happy in the moment, but sustained happiness.
Included are anecdotes of the frustrations she encounters along the way in dealing with the drudgery of the education system, organizing her home, our nonchalant attitude toward the detachment from one another thanks to the advent of computers, and simply trying to navigate a world where happiness is often elusive. Through it all, Poundstone injects her thoughtful, engaging perceptions with the unique wit and charm that has drawn audiences for nearly four decades.
From the moment my copy of the book arrived in the mail, I was hooked. I love Poundstone’s work and have for well over thirty years; however, when I enjoy and support someone’s work, it also translates into high expectations being built for their next project (a bit of the old, perspicacious teacher still left in me). I am delighted to report the book brought me heaps of heps of happiness, which converts into balous of such. Read the book so you, too, will come to appreciate these terms.
What I did not anticipate, however, was finding myself responding quite strongly with a broad range of emotions while reading. There was certainly the expectation that I would laugh – that was never in question; however, along with the humor, there were also very sweet and moving passages Poundstone shared particularly when it came to her three children, who are now young adults. I couldn’t help but smile when reading on Page 13 that her son, Thomas E, “…gravitates to art.”
I lived in Chicago for several years and once in a while, I would attend Thursday night tapings of ‘Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me’ – a news quiz program centered in The Windy City and featured on NPR. Poundstone is one of the panelists on the show. After one of the tapings in 2005, a handful of us in the audience were talking to Paula. She was getting her things together then pulled out a drawing she said her son placed in her bag before she left for Chicago. I asked her how old he was and if my memory has not completely betrayed me, she responded he was seven. He clearly displayed a natural gift for drawing at such a tender age. At some point in our exchange, I mentioned being an art teacher and before we went our separate ways, she said she appreciated that her son’s talents were acknowledged by someone who knew about art. I was equally appreciative of her kind words to my godson later that year in which she acknowledged him as being “…a bright, witty and mature-humored young man” adding that she bet Saturday Night Live would have him on in a few decades.
There is nothing quite like genuine interaction with other people to build each other up – even if it’s a brief speck of time in which we engage. That brief moment can have a lasting impact – sort of the ripple effect in a pond. That is part of what I gather from Poundstone’s book, especially in her heart-warming and very funny interactions with the elderly she continues to serve long after ‘The Get Over Here And Help Experiment’ was written, and in advocating for more authentic engagement instead of ‘connecting’ through computers.
Though I may respectfully disagree with Ms. Poundstone on some political figures/topics (for my part, I’m an independent-conservative fed up with both major political parties, who professes faith in God), I am 100% in support of her vocal opposition of computers in classrooms. She devotes some of her field notes to the effects of computer addiction within her family and the disconnect caused by our own obsession with technological devices.
Let’s face it: We’re all obsessed to some degree with getting online and being distracted.
Frankly, I’m filled with heps of happiness seeing a public figure take a stand on this timely and important topic. Several times I was audibly expressing the equivalent of a hi-five when reading and all the while firmly acknowledging my own hyper-use of computers, which has bordered on total dependence at times. Where I gather Paula has concerns are the effects on children, who are truly a captive audience in the classroom and encouraged – no, more like forced – into committing every answer, personally identifying piece of information and basically all of their school career online. Just the impact of online exposure on kids in the course of a day should be troubling to everyone – not to mention the disconnect and truly anti-social behavior that results over time with prolonged computer use. Shame on you, Bill Gates.
While you are going to find very much to laugh about in the book, you will also be treated to rather profound insights by the author, which culminate in the last chapter, Final Report on the Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. Here, the outcome is revealed, and it was not what I was expecting. I did not expect to read a book by Paula Poundstone and be moved to tears at times – and not just from laughing.
With such a broad range of topics/experiments, Poundstone expertly ties all the chapters into a relatable and very touching conclusion. Though the book is ultimately her journey, it is also one in which we’re along for the ride and treated as welcome companions – not just passive observers.
And that appears to be a larger point of The Totally Unscientific Study of The Search for Human Happiness: Being engaged, paying attention to and being active participants in life, while serving in the lives of others simply because it’s the right thing to do without the expectation of anything in return. Actually, there is a return, and it’s found in the happiness we bring to those we encounter on this big blue marble.
Ultimately, the book is indeed a treasure trove of laughter, but it is also written with a vulnerability that is as endearing as the author herself.
Check out Paula’s website at paulapoundstone.com, where you can get information on upcoming book signings and tours as well as purchase of her books and cds. She is also featuring a podcast in the weeks ahead called The Poundstone Institute.
Those in the Portland, Oregon area will be able to see her on November 17 at the Aladdin Theater in downtown Portland.
Lisa currently resides in Portland, Oregon with her artwork, a ton of books and her cats.
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