Book Reviews

"Happiness Is." by Shawn Christopher Shea, M.D.

"Picked as one of the "Five Titles to Watch" in the Book Publishing Industry! April 2005
(A Philosophy Website where "Happiness Is." was chosen as the Recommended Book of the Month for March 2005)

Reviewed by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

When the author of "Happiness Is." contacted me by e-mail and asked if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his latest book, I felt that I should warn him in advance regarding my views of traditional and contemporary psychiatry, some of which are posted on my website under the heading "The Psychiatric Game." So, to be fair and upfront with Dr. Shawn Christopher Shea, the author of the book, and provide him with full disclosure, I sent a rather lengthy response to him, outlining my philosophical positions about the theory and practice of psychiatry, about the concept of "mental illness" as usually defined, and my personal opinions regarding various "psychotherapies."

Furthermore, I informed him that I was supportive of the ideas promoted by the iconoclastic-psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Szasz, the theories and practices developed by the "Cognitive Therapy" movement, and especially the procedures and programs utilized by the "Reality" therapists as developed by psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser back in the 1970s. I figured my advisory would cause any "normal" psychiatrist or mental health practitioner to take a pass on me and find a more sympathetic reviewer. Well, Dr. Shea is apparently not your "normal" psychiatrist and my warnings didn't bother him a bit; he sent the book, I read it, and here is my brief review of a delightful book that I recommend without any hesitation to anyone interested in improving his or her life and pursuing that sometimes elusive phenomenon we call "happiness."

I know it's hard to believe, but here is a psychiatrist who can write an informative book for the common person in ordinary English, fill it with interesting anecdotes, compelling stories, and engaging personalities (including such diverse figures as the famous "elephant man" John Merrick, Saint Francis of Assisi, the mystical Julian of Norwich, ice skating champion Michelle Kwan, the celebrated Helen Keller, the Dalai Lama, and more), and entertain the reader with a witty style and appropriate humor, all while discussing a serious subject that is probably number one on anybody's list: What is happiness and how can we work toward achieving it? That, I suggest, is quite a feat, and Dr. Shea, in my opinion, pulls it off with flying colors. Even the clever subtitles that he uses throughout the book make their point in such a way that is both entertaining and memorable.

An initial remark about the term "happiness" may be advisable, particularly for those who are within the same philosophical tradition as I am, that is, the Classical Realism of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The term "happiness" as used by the author in his book is not quite the same as it is used, for instance, by Aristotle, who defines happiness as "action in accordance with virtue." Aristotle's definition is primarily an "ethical" definition and perfectly appropriate for the context in which that great philosopher employs that concept.

On the other hand, Dr. Shea's use of the term "happiness" is perfectly appropriate within "philosophical anthropology" or that broad philosophical discipline which thinks about human beings and their activities in the widest sense possible. Many of the principles, for example, that the book's author discusses, have a philosophical foundation but are used in an applied or practical sense. There is no contradiction here between the two uses of the term "happiness" because the term is used in different, yet related, contexts. Dr. Shea's "happiness" is what most of us Classical Realists would refer to as "overall contentment" or, maybe, a "feeling of personal fulfillment." And these are certainly important objectives.

One critic seems to think that "Happiness Is." doesn't contain anything really original. This is probably true in the sense that all the ideas contained within the text have been discussed many times in other works. I submit, however, that the way in which Dr. Shea utilizes these concepts and develops his model of the "human matrix" and applies the strategies suggested by his model to ordinary human situations is unique and, furthermore, probably more valuable to the general reader than the complicated "academic" models which have filled the literature of psychology and psychiatry for generations.

Let's give the good doctor a break here. He makes it quite clear, at least to me, that his book is for the public at large, for the ordinary educated reader, for the common man or woman full of intellectual curiosity and a need for explanation and commonsense guidance, not for that narrow group of professionals whose writings may be sophisticated and "academic," but are largely ignored and dismissed by the general public as chimerical.

The key concept presented in this book is a model which Dr. Shea calls the "human matrix." This matrix is "a set of systems whose ultimate composite functioning creates something new, something completely unique, a distinctive, one time only pattern with each passing second." It consists of five "wings": Biological, Psychological, Interpersonal, Environmental, and Spiritual. Each of these wings, in the ideal state, must be in healthy balance with all the others. There are a few "rules" which apply regarding this situation. For instance, there is the "Interdependence Rule" which states that "All wings of the human matrix intersect and are interdependent upon one another." There are three other rules which follow.

Further on, there are the "principles" and "strategies." For example, the Cast a Wide Net Principle states that "No matter what the apparent cause of the immediate unhappiness, look at all wings of the matrix for contributing problems related to smaller yet still damaging matrix effects." Later, there are the "paradoxes," such as the Paradox of the Multiplicitous Knob which suggests that one "Eagerly change the wings of the matrix yet make changes with caution for every knob you change is two." (You'll have to read the book to see what this means!)

I enthusiastically recommend Dr. Shea's book to all. It is a good "commonsense" read, a pleasant change within the so-called "self-help" genre, and a valuable contribution to practical philosophy and applied psychology. I have reviewed a lot of books over the past few years, but this one has got to be in the top of my "A-List."
(A literature review website. Review appeared in April 2005)

Reviewed by S.V. Swamy

A"Happiness Is." subtitled "Unexpected Answers to Practical Questions in Curious Times" by Dr. Shawn Christopher Shea, M.D., psychiatrist, is not a self-help book in the traditional sense. The correct categorization is Philosophy / Spirituality, and it is a well written exploration of what makes us happy that is fun to read and at places funny, yet manages to address two key philosophical questions - What is the nature of Happiness? and, What is the structure of human nature that determines the extent of that happiness? - in a compelling fashion. Of course, all books that help us understand our true nature are self-help books!

The author adopts a systematic approach to defining the problem, analyses data, picks up bits and pieces of the jig saw puzzle, and then more importantly, validates the various premises with real life data and comes up with a practical workable blueprint.

Dr.Shea's model of human nature - the human matrix - is not really a new concept per se having been part and parcel of eastern philosophy and western mysticism for centuries, but his presentation is refreshing and provocative. He deftly creates a picture of human nature that resonates well with modern sensibilities and science. Dr. Shea describes human beings as constantly evolving moments in time where five interacting systems - our biologies, our psychological perceptions, our interpersonal relationships, environmental conditions, and spiritualities interact to determine a new being with every passing second. I would add that there are, in reality, probably many more elements to the human matrix but these are the five most prominent and they will do for now.

If you are looking for a book that, in a concise language, answers specific practical questions you may be a little disappointed by the storytelling and literary wordiness that distinguishes this book. Dr.Shea is quite clear in his Introduction that this is not meant to be a self-help book "filled with case studies and statistics. I believe in such books, and, indeed, have spent much of my career writing them. But the goal of this book is not proof. It is provocation. It is an invitation to think creatively, to view our existence through a different lens."

Thus "Happiness Is." is one of those few books of applied philosophy - that explore human nature in a compelling way via the use of vivid, sometimes quirky, and often memorable stories of what it is to be a human being in a universe that is at once both magnificent and overwhelming.

The examples chosen by Dr.Shea from his extensive reading (including in his own words, historical mystics such as Julian of Norwich, modern philosophical renegades such as Alan Watts, and contemporary humanitarians such as Paul Farmer the subject of Tracy Kidder's recent bestseller "Mountains Beyond Mountains") are described with a freshness and in contemporary language. Perhaps even more striking are his tales culled from his extensive clinical practice (taking care to protect the patient's privacy as usual) and from his everyday encounters.

The resulting tales are quite appealing and at places powerfully moving. If possible, see page 164, where a watchmaker named Bob finds his life's work of model airplanes all smashed to bits by floodwaters and then looks to his wife Judy whose eyes give him the power to smile through his veil of tears. She smiles back with a quietly intuited understanding of his loss and with unspoken support. It moved me to tears. There are several more examples in the book like that of Nick, the 8-year-old boy troubled by severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and many more equally vivid tales. Dr. Shea is at his best, when he is telling his stories, and has a good knack of weaving the seemingly disparate threads of the stories into a comprehensive, elegant, and useful understanding of the nature of happiness and the structure of human nature itself.

The book is easy to read, but is not to be read at a fast pace like a novel. I would recommend that you read it at your natural pace first. I think you will then find yourself returning again and again to come back for specific solutions, in a fashion characteristic of those books that have moved us deeply.

Perhaps the book would have benefited with an index. It was certainly a bit irritating to have to flip through several chapters to relocate the pages where Bob and Judy's story is told. On the other hand Dr. Shea provides a comprehensive bibliography, whose rich selections, may be useful if you want to go deeper into specific aspects of spirituality or even some of the historical curiosities that fill the pages of the book. The book has a total of 18 Chapters, in the typical eastern tradition!

I couldn't agree with some of the points made by Dr.Shea. He clearly emphasizes the essentially interconnectedness of everything (quantum theory is coming up often in my reading now a days). He also emphasizes this integration through his robust synthesis of Eastern and Western mysticism. But Dr.Shea seems to focus a bit too much on providing prescriptions for the individual to use to help solve the day to day problems of uncovering happiness. Thus he inadvertently slips into an acceptance of the illusion of individual independence. I also think that he would have done better to show in more detail how unhappiness and pain are useful, indeed necessary forces for helping an individual realize his/her true nature, which is Universal, which is beyond space and time. Till then, unhappiness is a good driving force to push the individual along the path that he/she is destined to travel.

Despite these concerns, I liked the book, that overall, is filled with provocative ideas, a fairly fresh definition of happiness, and a masterful use of storytelling to create philosophical intrigue.

The book has a bright blue dust jacket that pulls one into its pages, which are smartly designed and pleasing to read. In short, the book is not only well written, it is well produced, but the editing could certainly have been better. It tended to obscure the flow of ideas at some places and at places, the text tended to verbosity.

Dr. Shea comes across as a refreshingly warm and sincere psychiatrist, who has created a book of philosophy that is both fun to read and hard to forget. The stories of his patients will return to you over and over at times when their wisdom may prove most valuable. I would certainly recommend this book if you are serious about finding happiness. The book, whose ultimate message of compassion is sorely needed in our contemporary times, should appeal to a wide cross section of the reading public.

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