On Happiness And Fame

Last week, I penned a rather tongue-in-cheek essay on How to become a cable news pundit. This included some sincere advice for those who aspire to punditry, but it also suggested the urge might be best left unconsummated.

“TV has a way of making you crazy,” I noted. “I’ve seen well-adjusted people become incredibly insecure when they stop getting called by bookers. And that’s particularly unnerving when you factor in the sheer unpredictability of getting booked.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with appearing on television to talk about politics, of course. It only becomes a soul-crushing experience when one’s identity is defined by it. When your self-worth becomes contingent on garnering the requisite air time, this is a recipe for unhappiness.

After writing my column, I was reminded of the ubiquity of this sad condition a few days later, when Arthur Brooks’ excellent essay, Love People, Not Pleasure, appeared in the New York Times:

This is one of the cruelest ironies in life. I work in Washington, right in the middle of intensely public political battles. Bar none, the unhappiest people I have ever met are those most dedicated to their own self-aggrandizement — the pundits, the TV loudmouths, the media know-it-alls. They build themselves up and promote their images, but feel awful most of the time.

That’s the paradox of fame. Just like drugs and alcohol, once you become addicted, you can’t live without it. But you can’t live with it, either. Celebrities have described fame like being “an animal in a cage; a toy in a shop window; a Barbie doll; a public facade; a clay figure; or, that guy on TV,” according to research by the psychologist Donna Rockwell. Yet they can’t give it up.

It’s funny that Brooks compares this to “drugs and alcohol,” because that’s precisely the point Bill Scher and I made earlier this week on Bloggingheads, when we noted that the term cable TV “hit” (short for a cable TV interview) was appropriately named:

For those working in the political commentary biz, the answer is not to quit working, but to do it for the right reasons. This is easier said than done. Even those who start with the purest motives must constantly struggle to preserve them, lest they be slowly seduced by superficial lure of one more hit.