Hector and the Search for Happiness

When dealing with a topic like happiness and a quest to discover how to "achieve" it or to compile a list of lessons that might help others be happy, a sense of whimsy is more than a little appreciated. Thank goodness that Hector and the Search for Happiness has this in spades. Told with a narrative tone befitting a fable for adults, Francois Lelord's novel was originally written in French and is a European best-seller. Now we Americans (who pride ourselves on the whole pursuit of happiness thing, at least in theory) have the ability to learn from Hector and his many lessons as he travels the world to learn what makes us happy.

This is how Gallic Books summarizes this novel:
Hector is a successful young psychiatrist. He’s very good at treating patients in real need of his help. But many people he sees have no health problems: they’re just deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Hector can’t do much for them, and it’s beginning to depress him.

So when a patient tells him he looks in need of a holiday, Hector decides to set off round the world to find out what makes people everywhere happy (and sad), and whether there is such a thing as the secret of true happiness… Narrated with deceptive simplicity, its perceptive observations on happiness offer us the chance to reflect on the contentment we all look for in our own lives.

This is a pretty accurate description of the basic plot, even if it neglects to mention just how amusing things are. I could almost hear Stephen Fry narrating the general story as we went along, that's the kind of tone it struck. Despite Hector's obvious intelligence, he was a little naive as he went along, taking an approach as a child might to studying adults and figuring out what made them tick. I particularly enjoyed an early moment in the book where Hector asks his girlfriend whether she's happy and she starts to cry and asks if he's leaving her. Desperately backpedaling (without any clue as to what he's said wrong), he insists he's simply trying to determine what makes people happy and so he starts keeping a list of truths, most of which actually do apply to just about everyone. The particular amusement that comes with Hector, a successful and intelligent therapist, is the fact that simple facts of life become great truths, and everyone could do well to remember little things when faced with over-complicated situations. He travels from "his own country" to various places, including the country of More (gee, one guess as to what country *this* might be) and notes that people in More aren't any happier because they have more... in fact, they tend to be even less happy than people in other countries where they have less, but might reprioritize their values. It's not that Lelord ever tries to beat us over the head with anything (I imagine that depending upon what each individual reader values, one would notice ample evidence supporting certain things or a lack of focus on others), but instead he seems to phrase these truths about happiness in as abstract a way as possible without being totally inaccessible.

Lelord's small novel will indubitably charm any reader with a sense of humor, as will Hector himself. Genuine and full of a honest openness, Hector and the Search for Happiness will not have you reassessing the things that make you happy, but will probably make you appreciative of the fact that you didn't have to travel all around the world and survive Hector's ordeals to learn his lessons... indeed, you probably know them already, though you may not have distilled them into such simple truths. I might avoid giving this one as a gift to anyone who is trying to figure out just what makes them happy (as Hector comes off as a bit dim and clueless at times, and one would hate to inadvertently imply something to the person on the receiving end, though Hector is always lovable if not always conventionally "moral"), but most literate people will find Hector a charming fellow and well worth the quick read.

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