Jennifer Michael Hecht is an accomplished historian, an award-winning poet, and the author of Doubt: A History. In this ambitious work, she takes a hard look at the paths that people take to achieve happiness — money, mood-managing drugs, knowledge, celebration, and our bodies. As a historian, she is fascinated by the ways in which "our society has taken certain age-old advice and blown it far out of proportion while giving short shrift to other advice."

Everyone has their own ideas about happiness and that is what makes the subject so interesting as a moving target. Generally speaking, there are three kinds of happiness — a good day, euphoria, a happy life — but these are often at odds with each other. The author states: "Our 'trances of value' keep us from things that might make us happy; indeed, they make us feel conflicted about the way we negotiate the choices that are left to us." Her exploration of cultural history is designed to be a wake-up call from these trances. She identifies four essentials of happiness found in wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology, and self-help:

• Know yourself
• Control your desires
• Take what's yours.
• Remember death.

Hecht presents controversial ideas on drug use, shopping, exercise, the sexual revolution, carnival, and the evening news. In the end, she opts for a varied menu of personal happiness and finds that a playful approach is often the best one.