Over the past few weeks, many of you may have noticed the sign on the bus stop shelter at Harbord and St George, or the flyers around campus, advertising the Happiness Class. The signs say things like “[m]en fall out of love 4 years after meeting a woman,” and that “[w]omen can only fall in love with a man of equal or higher rank,” along with other claims pertaining to emotions. Seeing these every day piqued my interest: How can someone state these assertions as if they were fact? For this reason, I decided to pay a visit to this so-called Happiness Class. Prior to the class, I looked up the host, Mark Devon, online and saw that he had no background in psychology or anything related. Rather, he was a management consultant. ‘Okay’, I thought, ‘so a corporate businessman without any psychology background is going to tell me about my emotions.’
I realized quickly that these classes were not independent; they were a part of a six-week course, with each week building upon the last. That week’s topic was about envy, revenge, anger, compassion and selfish guilt. Devon began by saying that the origins of his book traced back to an incident when someone had angered him so much that he contemplated homicide. Instead, he broke down and asked himself: what was wrong with him? What made him want to resort to homicide?
Suffice to say that this confession did alarm me a bit.
Next, Devon told us that anger is an intrinsic response when people are hurt. He claimed that people never get over things; they must exact revenge or take it out on others. Apparently, it is for this reason that drivers in this city nearly graze bikers—to deliberately let off some steam.
Devon also outlined the various conditions that would lead one to exact revenge. If one gets harmed without any rule breaking involved, then they won’t feel the need to exact revenge. For example, stealing others’ clientele in the business world is not considered rule breaking, and would not lead to revenge. However, if there is rule breaking and harm does occur, then revenge needs to be exacted. The more harm you apparently feel, the more revenge you want to exact.
As a sociologist, I criticize his statements as grand oversimplifications. He does not take into consideration greater societal implications, power dynamics, and the way that society has shaped both emotions and the way we express them. Many of the things he says are made to feel like they are universal truths. “If someone bumps you on the street, you’re going to feel angry; you’re going to want to get him back even if you don’t end up following through [with that plan]”.
Personally, I don’t get angry if someone bumps me; unless I’m having a bad day, it was likely an accident, and I wouldn’t want to “get them back”.
Concepts of social control and conditioning are real, but he tends to chalk up different behaviour in various countries as “cultural differences”. The best part of this class was when he summed up the conflict in the Middle East, saying that “it’s because someone killed someone’s dad that the other person kills their family, and it goes on, that’s why people are killing each other in the Middle East”. I, for one, am sure the conflict in the entire Middle East can be summed up through father killings.
It was also claimed in this class that the reason why people use harsh swear words is because it makes you show your teeth; that it looks like you’re snarling, thus making you look intimidating. He said that this is true in all languages, though I speak three and let me tell you: this is not the case.
In all, this class was a complete waste of four hours and $10. Although there were some plausible ideas presented, the majority of it was BS. Most everything was an oversimplification, and his attempts to translate psychological theories into a vernacular left his statements, as University of Toronto professor Tania Lee would put it, “rendered technical”. The manner in which concepts were presented was in a way that was legible to those uneducated in certain fields, even targeting and appealing to their lack of understanding. Devon completely ignored the sociological, anthropological and psychological side of his arguments, calling them outdated on his website while simultaneously making grand generalizations. At the end, I was left in shock, wondering why others showed up and spent money on both his classes and books. Who knows, perhaps I’ll interview these classmates for the next issue. Until then, remember: stay in school, learn to think critically, and question everything.