© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Review: The Humanist Approach to Happiness

One of the great benefits of being a secular humanist in the 21st century is easy access to the thoughts and insights of others who share your basic worldview.

Even a generation ago it took some genuine effort to find those voices. And step one was overcoming the natural inertia of not knowing whether there was anything to find. The belief that Madalyn Murray O’Hair and I were the only nonbelievers on the planet kept me from even trying to discover otherwise until I was in my early thirties.

Now it’s all just a Google or Amazon search away.

For many years, virtually all of the books for nontheists had a kind of superhuman quality to them — stratospheric works of science or philosophy that blow your hair back with articulate rigor. I couldn’t read The End of Faith or pretty much anything by Russell or Hitchens without feeling both amazed and a little bit cowed by the intellectual horsepower.

I leave such books grateful for the support they provide my own position. But until recently, there hasn’t been much in the way of personal accounts of everyday folks living a humanist life.

Nica Lalli’s Nothing: Something to Believe In, published less than four years ago, was a welcome departure from the hifalutin’ — a personal account of a life lived without religion. Andrew Park’s Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not) was also a wonderful read — not just because it describes my parenting seminar at Harvard for several pages (heh), but because it’s the voice of someone so damn normal, living a life very much like my own.

The latest entry on the shelf by and for humanist mortals is Jen Hancock’s The Humanist Approach to Happiness, a book that likewise distinguishes itself by the author’s down-to-earth voice and perspective.

Look in vain for arguments against religious belief or ways to deal with the evangelical schoolteacher. To paraphrase the cover tagline, this book is one humanist’s thoughts on personal ethics and how to lead a happier, more productive life.

Jen never tries to speak universally. She speaks for herself, clearly and informally, thinking out loud about decision making, simplicity, honesty, body ethics, sex, vibrators, relationships, addiction, self-image, pooping, death, and more. Her own thoughts are salted with quotes from Bertrand Russell to Britney Spears, including some keepers I hadn’t seen before. The net effect is a conversation about everything with an intelligent, unpretentious friend.

About thirty pages in, I began to recognize something I have seen before: the relaxed assurance of a second-generation humanist. I flipped the book to read the author blurb, and sure enough, Jen is that still-elusive beast — a humanist who was raised by humanists. PBB contributor Emily Rosa, also a second-generation humanist, writes with the same delightfully relaxed style.

Jen makes one point that for all its obvious simplicity is rarely made: that behaving ethically and doing good tends to increase a person’s own happiness. It’s often implied that doing good is an uphill battle, a fight against our sinful nature that requires surrender to a greater power. In fact, doing good is one of the smoother paths to a satisfying life. The rewards, both internal and external, are substantial.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Jen writes a regular humanist column for her local paper, surely one of the few in the country. Her authorial style resembles the personal voice of the columnist — a good thing for this kind of work.

The Humanist Approach to Happiness is a delightful read and a useful resource. Learn more at Jen’s website, or grab it (for under 11 bucks!) at Amazon.



This was written on Friday, 29. October 2010 at 14:05 and was filed under nonbelief and nonbelievers, reviews. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Just the kind of thing I’ve been wanting to read! Will be ordering forthwith! Thanks for the review:))

    (p.s.–if you like spiders, Happy Halloween!)

    Comment: yokohamamama – 29. October 2010 @ 7:06 pm

  2. Thanks for the reference!
    Put it on the kindle.
    Looking forward to this one, and many more like it, as more and more of us speak out.

    Comment: Brad – 30. October 2010 @ 6:13 am

  3. I love it! We need to continuing building a library of accessible books by everyday Humanists “thinking out loud.” This is necessary to make Humanism a viable alternative to religious belief, because the folks who today read Chicken Soup for the Soul aren’t going to be turned on by Hitchens. Thanks for posting this review! I’m looking forward to this read.

    Comment: SerahB – 30. October 2010 @ 11:26 am

  4. I am proud to say I have 3 little people I am raising who will benefit from having the relaxed assurance of a second-generation humanist you speak of. Lucky them. 🙂

    Comment: Faeriefirefly – 30. October 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  5. The Charioteers have a great interview with Ms. Hancock which you can hear here.

    I’m balancing my desire to buy it with my wifes imprecation to buy fewer books until she builds the new bookshelves.

    Comment: blotzphoto – 30. October 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  6. I have the bookshelf problem, too, even though we have a built-in bookcase that fills one wall of our family room. I’ve asked for a Kindle for Christmas and plan to put as many of my books on it as are available. This will be one of the first that I buy! (PS to Dale – Is there a Kindle version of PBB?)

    Comment: codysmom – 31. October 2010 @ 7:17 am

  7. Yes.

    Comment: Brad – 31. October 2010 @ 8:26 am

  8. @codysmom: Raising Freethinkers is in Kindle, but because of the inclusion of four reprints among the essays in PBB, that one can’t easily be put into electronic form. Polish yes, audiobook yes, but no e-book. (There is recent talk at the publisher of an abridged Kindle version, though, sans the reprints. We’ll see.)

    Comment: Dale – 03. November 2010 @ 7:06 am

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