Oprah vs. Thoreau

From Oprah.com:
A popular greeting card attributes this quote to Henry David Thoreau: "Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder."

With all due respect to the author of Walden, that just isn't so, according to a growing number of psychologists. You can choose to be happy, they say. You can chase down that elusive butterfly and get it to sit on your shoulder. How? In part, by simply making the effort to monitor the workings of your mind.

Research has shown that your talent for happiness is, to a large degree, determined by your genes. Psychology professor David T. Lykken, author of Happiness: Its Nature and Nurture, says that "trying to be happier is like trying to be taller." We each have a "happiness set point," he argues, and move away from it only slightly.

And yet, psychologists who study happiness—including Lykken—believe we can pursue happiness. We can do this by thwarting negative emotions such as pessimism, resentment and anger. And we can foster positive emotions, such as empathy, serenity, and especially gratitude.

But wait--with all due respect to the author of Oprah.com, isn't that what Thoreau is saying--the happiness should be in the pursuing (of happiness)? Isn't Walden a book about fostering all those things especially gratitude? Also, did the author of Walden say the thing about the butterfly? Or was it the author of The Scarlet Letter?
(Photo: Library of Congress here.)


You are not thinking big unless you are thinking local is something you can think when you are thinking about Thoreau. Imagine if a feature writer came upon Thoreau, as Thoreau ran around noting river heights, flower blooming times, the habits of farmers and immigrants. (Think Robert Frost as a village surveyor.) The headline?

Imagine if Thoreau had gotten around the country, as he began to want to, at the end of his life. Imagine if he had to answer questions about his writing, which he probably did at some point. Or in lieu of imagining those things, check out Dan Barry's answers to questions about his writing, which is noticing, of the finest kind, if you ask someone who has spent a little time watching Thoreau. (Barry, above, as photographed by Angel Franco, his partner in national noticing.) Also, did I mention that Thoreau, though he loved to rant about newspapers, also loved newspapers?