The Secret to Happiness? Stop Feeling Bad About Being Unhappy
I am going to come out of the closet, and make a shocking, even shameful, admission. I am not a happy person. In fact I am the sort of chap who complete strangers come up to in the street and advise to cheer up, since it might never happen.
I am not, I should emphasise, an unhappy person either. I love to laugh, and some of my novels have been admired as pretty good comedies. I think I am pretty much like most people, with moods that shift and transform. Sometimes I am happy, sometimes sad, most of the time I am pretty much neutral, with my mind elsewhere. Disappointment, fear and loss are as much a part of my life as achievement, hope and joy. It is all of a piece.
However this indeterminate state no longer seems to be socially acceptable. It is required of me, both implicitly and explicitly, that I remain in a state of continual near-explosion – passionate about this, excited about that, looking forward to something else. If not, I am antisocial, a grumpy old man. Worst of all I am a failure, because if I was a success, I would be happy. Neither am I a good person, since happiness has come to be seen as a moral end in itself.
This kind of happiness fascism is a relatively recent import from America. The British, not so long ago, were perfectly at ease with being hacked off. Moaning was once a pleasurable and acceptable pastime. No longer. Everything, as the (ironic) theme song of the Lego Movie insists, is Awesome.
Happiness, we are confidently assured, is the objective of life and it is something we “get” by working hard, shopping, playing and exercising, giving to charitable causes and taking part in the drama of late capitalism. Because capitalism loves the goal of happiness – since it can offer endless products that will promise it. When they fail to do so, it can offer alternative products which make an identical promise. And so on. Commerce thrives on unhappiness. You’d be happy if you were thin enough/fit enough/popular enough/entertained enough. And here’s the product to help you.
I am not an advocate for misery – far from it. Happiness is good for you and for those around you – there is no greater favour you can do for loved ones than show them your happiness. But you mustn’t be ashamed if you can’t.
I wish I were happy all the time – I just don’t think it’s a very realistic possibility. The daily parade of disaster on the news is sobering enough. The fact of my own mortality is a downer. Old age and sickness frighten me. The difficulties of human communication produce as much isolation as connection. The corruption and venality of the powerful are daily reminders of the ubiquitous nature of injustice. The lot of most people in this country who simply work and work harder and harder in order to spend, or simply survive, strikes me as profoundly un-jolly.
And if you doubt any of that, just look at the faces of the people in the bus and train on their way to work – or for that matter the “depressive hedonism” of drunken kids in a kebab shop on a Saturday night. It’s no coincidence that all the greatest works of human drama, from Elektra to Hamlet to A View From the Bridge, are tragedies.
Of course, a lot of these truths should rightly be ignored – humankind, as T.S. Eliot observed, cannot bear too much reality. I just think that it is important to remember that we need Nick Drake as well as Pharrell Williams, and that we have Mozart’s Requiem Mass as well as Mantovani’s Moon River. Once it was respectable to listen Morrissey and Ian Curtis without being thought of as a loser. Lugubrious Tony Hancock and Leonard Rossiter were national heroes. There is no equivalent today.
We can, it is suggested, find happiness through good works. This is also an ideology. I am as likely to be disappointed by “doing the right thing” as I am elevated. That’s why it’s so hard to do. The secret truth is that being unselfish can leave you just as empty as being selfish. Not that I’m advocating selfishness – just pointing out that if “goodness” were easy, it wouldn’t be particularly admirable. It would simply be a form of hedonism.
I am sincerely glad that we have all cheered up since the 1970s and '80s. But there’s a danger that all this positivity is becoming counterproductive. One of the main barriers to satisfaction is the demand that you be happy – for we add another layer of unhappiness to our lives if we feel we are failing in what is deemed to be its primary purpose. The UN now has an International Happiness Day during which we are all instructed to be happy on pain of being branded a sad sack or general all-purpose wet blanket. If I wasn’t grumpy before, I was after this particular injunction, a classic case of happiness bullying. There is plenty of evidence that cheerfulness is not fuelling the zeitgeist quite as much as we suppose. Depressive illness is at record levels. Children are stressed like never before, as are teachers. Suicide is the main cause of death for men under 35.
There is plenty of unhappiness to go around. Why dwell on it? There’s no need, I agree. But we shouldn’t refuse to acknowledge it. TV and the internet disseminate a form of propaganda by insisting on and showcasing shiny, creative, fulfilling lives. It makes me feel inadequate because my life, although creative, and fulfilling and quite well paid, does not send me into paroxysms of ecstasy every day. It is just life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, often a confusing mixture of both.
The ancients took a different line on happiness. As Oliver Burkeman observed in his excellent book The Antidote, the Stoics were particularly keen on being mindful about all the disastrous things that might happen to you – if only to understand that they probably wouldn’t be as bad as you thought. Now instead of Seneca, we have new age gurus who tell us if we think positive thoughts we will float around on a pink cloud and get what we always wanted.
I would not go so far as Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek who, asked what he found most depressing, answered “the happiness of stupid people.” But I know what he meant. Anyone intelligent and sensitive and thoughtful cannot look at the world and themselves without some inkling that everything, although strange and remarkable, is not always awesome. Anyway, the light relies on the dark to exist. If we could acknowledge it, the weight of denial could be lifted. And you know what? We’d all be a lot happier for it.