📚 What to Read Next (No. 226): Happy
Happy Friday, readers!
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which has given me a good excuse to dive into that theme.
The books I’m featuring today both explore the idea of happiness.
Unfortunately, that idea — or pursuit, according to our nation’s founders — has been co-opted by capitalism. The happiness industry has tricked you into thinking that various apps or products or life hacks will make you happier, when science has shown again and again that it mostly comes down to relationships.
The first book, a novel, is about a Big Tech company that’s in the process of making a happiness app. The second book is the true story of a tormented CEO. Both get to some core questions about happiness: What is happiness? Can it be measured? How does happiness equate to fulfillment or life satisfaction? What happens when we pursue it too aggressively?
But first, a fun diversion.
Let’s do it.
12 Books That Have Stuck With Me 10 Years Later
This week I took a look at my reading log from 2012. It was a really good year of reading. Here are some of the highlights and books that have stuck with me since then:
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — one of the great YA novels of our time; this one is already a classic of the genre for a reason
Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern — the whimsy and magic of this circusy novel are bound to stay with you
The Stand by Stephen King — when I read The Stand earlier this year, I didn’t realize it had been exactly 10 years since my first reading; it held up and then some, which is saying something for an 1,100-page book
World War Z by Max Brooks — another book that’s now a classic of its genre; so fun and so good that I remember a number of specific scenes, even 10 years later
Gold by Chris Cleave — every book that Cleave writes is, well, pure gold (couldn’t resist); this Olympics-themed story is no exception
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — another 2022 re-read that I had no idea I first read 10 years ago; one of THE great American novels, period
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson — less memorable for the business lessons (which bros love) and more for the examination about the costs of ambition
Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston — some of the scenes in this book are literally unforgettable
Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides — my introduction to Sides, who is now among my favorite authors (which means I was thrilled to be able to interview him a while back)
The Last Season by Eric Blehm — a mysterious disappearance and an ode to the beauty and danger of the Great Outdoors; my kind of book, to say the least
Drift by Rachel Maddow — an eye-opening examination of how US military spending came to surpass the budgets of the next 9 biggest military spenders combined (including China and Russia)
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand — an all-time great story of war and resilience
Happy For You by Claire Stanford
The protagonist of our novel, Evelyn, is a philosopher by training. She’s just accepted a job with the “third largest internet company” — albeit begrudgingly. She’s a Big Tech skeptic, but takes the job, partially for the sake of making change from the inside, and also because of the paycheck and benefits (sort of like Delaney in The Every and sort of like Anna in Uncanny Valley).
This unnamed company is building a happiness app. It’ll measure your happiness, tell you when you aren’t happy enough, and give you tips for increasing your happiness score.
Of course, the employees are recruited to test out the app before it goes live to the public. Evelyn isn’t thrilled at this prospect, but goes along with it. When the app spits out lower-than-expected scores, she questions not only her life choices, but her work too.
Though the story is structured around Big Tech’s encroaching tentacles, it’s really about a woman’s search for happiness — and if that search is even the right thing to be spending energy on.
I love novels that ask big questions. Happy For You does that in spades. I didn’t love every part of the story, but it’s a premise I can’t resist and I did like it quite a bit.
Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh by Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre
In late 2020, the business world was rocked by the too-early death of Zappos.com CEO and customer happiness legend Tony Hsieh (pronounced “shay”). At first, the simple story was that it a tragic accident that couldn’t have been prevented.
Eventually, the truth came out.
Tony had been in the midst of a years-long battle with alcohol, drugs, and a variety of mental health conditions; on top of that, he was being taken advantage of by “friends” who were siphoning away his billion-dollar fortune.
The sad, ironic heart of the story is that Tony’s life mission was to bring happiness to the world. But he couldn’t do it in his own life, ever seeking the next high — be it metaphorical or literal.
The authors not only dig into the story of Tony’s tough final years, but also the immense pressure that comes with being a highly visible CEO — especially in the tech world. To admit that he was struggling with addiction would’ve meant a disastrous tumbling of the company’s stock price. It’s a no-win job, really.
Though I expected the book to cover more of his history building up Zappos.com, the bulk of the narrative was the authors’ reporting of Hseih’s steep mental and emotional decline. I didn’t love the structure of the story, but that wasn’t much of a hindrance for me, given its readability and subject matter. Overall, Happy at Any Cost is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book.
That’s all for me this week. Thanks so much for reading; I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.