Study Shows Dr. Seuss Makes You Happy

Often, media headlines highlight academic research in order to make fun of it — so that people can say, “look at how these eggheads spend their time!” or “They needed a study to prove that!?”  My title (above) alludes to such media coverage, but my purpose here is to highlight a new article which argues… precisely what the title says.  Aaron Ahuvia, a professor in the College of Business at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, writes:

A felicitator is a person or thing which brings happiness to others. As with most good authors, Dr. Seuss was a felicitator in part through the enjoyment people derived directly from his work. But he was a felicitator in a more profound sense as well, because he has helped teach a particular set of values and outlook on life to hundreds of millions of children. Geisel disliked the heavy-handed moralism which was endemic to the children’s literature of his day, but many of his works nonetheless taught a moral point of view. Like that of many children’s authors, his work emphasized honesty and our responsibility to protect those weaker than ourselves. But somewhat less typically, especially for an author of his generation, his work championed personal creativity while rebuking snobbery, materialism, conformity and prejudice. It is the values that underlie Seuss’s stories, and not just the memorable rhymes and funny illustrations, which gave his work the classic status it has today. And it is these values which form the foundation of my argument that he was a felicitator. Specifically, I argue that his books had a modest but nonetheless real influence on millions of children, encouraging their imaginative creativity and discouraging snobbery, social exclusion and materialism.

The article, titled “Dr. Seuss, felicitator,” appears in the International Journal of Wellbeing, 1.2 (2011), 197-213.  You can download it from the journal’s website for free (it’s open access — just scroll down to the “full text” pdf).  I have no expertise in either business or happiness, but I like the social dimension in Professor Ahuvia’s definition of happiness.  Though I’m skeptical of our ability to track the ways in which literature influences those who read it, I also like both the optimism of his assessment and the fact that it’s qualified: he calls Seuss’s effect “modest,” and, later in this paragraph, adds, “children raised on Dr. Seuss had improved odds of growing up to be happy adults.”  ”Improved odds” is, I think, the best we can hope for.

I share this article because I’m interested in the ways in which Seuss circulates in contemporary culture, from political cartoons to scholarly articles to The Simpsons — I deal with this subject in more detail in Chapter 6 of my Dr. Seuss: American Icon (Continuum, 2004).  Some examples of the range of scholarship: One essay argues (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the little cats in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958) are examples of fractals.  Another finds similarities between apparently fantastic Seussian creatures and the natural world (this one is accurate, as far as I can tell).  Here are the citations, in case you want to look them up:

  • Lakhtakia, Akhlesh. “Fractals and The Cat in the Hat.” Journal of Recreational Mathematics 22.3 (1990): 161-4.
  • Raymo, Chet.   “Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein: Children’s Books and Scientific Imagination.”  The Horn Book Sept.-Oct. 1992.  Repr. Thomas Fensch, ed., Of Sneetches and Whos and the Good Dr. Seuss: Essays on the Life and Writing of Theodor Geisel (McFarland & Company, 1997):  169-75.

At one point, I imagined that I would maintain a bibliography of all new Seuss — both literary criticism and any other posthumously published Seuss books.  This grew out of a desire both to correct omissions in Dr. Seuss: American Icon, and to add works published since then.  As you can see, I’ve fallen behind on updating it.  I’ll add the above article to it, and will make an effort to add others I’ve omitted, such as Kevin Shortsleeve’s smart new piece in Lynne Vallone and Julia Mickenberg‘s Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature (2011), and Charles Cohen’s new collection of Seuss’s Redbook stories (The Bippolo Seed). If you see others (and I’m sure you will), feel free to send them my way.  Thanks!

4 Comments »

  1. Kara Said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 8:12 pm

    Two sort of tangential comments in this post stick out to me: “I’m skeptical of our ability to track the ways in which literature influences those who read it” and

    “”Improved odds” is, I think, the best we can hope for.”

    As I am someone who enjoys studying kids’ lit. yet also skeptical of how we can track its impact, I’d be interested in what your goals or intentions are in studying children’s literature. Also, I’m curious to hear more from you on the latter point in light of the fact that you have written about radical children’s literature, which to me is a label that hopes for more than improved odds on literature impacting children’s happiness as well as positive role in the world.

    I ask because these ideas relate to questions I am trying to answer for myself, not to interrogate you :)

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    August 14, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    I have a partially developed answer to this question — or, at least, the part of the question about why study children’s radical children’s literature — in the blog post Meritocracy in Academia: A Useful Myth? To summarize, we need to act as if our actions will have an effect (even though that effect may be slight or difficult to measure) because (a) it increases the likelihood that they will have an effect and because (b) it’s a more spiritually sound way of living.

    On the final page of my The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (2002), I quote the following comment from Laurie Anderson: “I believe everyone has the choice between being an optimist and a pessimist, no matter what happens to you. You can make terrible ideas out of good things and, of course, vice versa. So, for the sake of convenience and happiness, I choose to be an optimist” (181). She said that in 1996; I don’t know what she would say now. And, there are of course many compelling arguments to be made against optimism — see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009), for instance. Optimism can be an excuse for complacency, but it can also motivate you not to be complacent, and instead to work towards a better future. It’s this latter sort of optimism that I’d endorse.

    There’s much more to be said on children’s literature — a fully developed answer would address ideologies, socialization, and conditions under which both might be resisted or reinforced, etc. So, I acknowledge that I’m only scratching the surface, but this is my (too) brief answer to your good question — a question which deserves a more complete and thoughtful response than it’s receiving at the moment.

  3. buzz Said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    “Improved odds…” leaped out at me, too. What a marvelous turn of phrase!

  4. Kara Said,

    August 17, 2011 @ 8:56 am

    I appreciate the (brief) response to questions that are certainly too involved to answer completely in blog comments. I’ll read the various works you referenced and perhaps come back with more thoughts and questions!

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