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There is a bit of a backlash against David Cameron’s desire to measure the nation’s happiness. Not that you can’t measure some of the things that often make us happy, or some of the signs that indicate we have reached a certain level of happiness. Just that the contemporary obsession with seeking happiness might actually be making us more unhappy!

Tim Lott wrote about this in the Times yesterday (2:4-5; paywall).

In this country we seem to take our cue from the American Constitution and believe in the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right. In this formulation of human fulfilment, happiness is like an elusive animal that has to be tracked down mercilessly, until we finally capture, then cage it.

This world view is misconceived. In his recent book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, the writer Edward G. Wilson called America ‘a land of crazed and compulsive hopefulness’ and deplored the idea that unhappiness had become something to be ashamed of.

Much the same argument was put forward in Barbara Ehrenreich’s counterblast against the ‘positive thinking’ culture, Smile or Die, in which she complained that during her experience of breast cancer it was distressing constantly to be told that she had to ‘stay positive’.

Both Ehrenreich and Wilson are correct – the pursuit of happiness, as we currently imagine it, is counterproductive. The thing about happiness is, the more you seek it, the more it eludes you. As the novelist C. P. Snow wrote, ‘The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you pursue happiness you’ll never find it.’ But we continue as if we took the fairytales literally, hoping to find a way of living ‘happily ever after’. We can’t; and neither should we want to.

Because there’s no such thing as happiness – at least as it is confected by marketers and advertisers. There is a whole commercial world, quite apart from that other imaginary world of fairytales, that is invested in telling us not only that something called happiness is achievable, but that you are a failure if you don’t have it.

This flies in the face of every fact of human nature. It is the most normal, natural and everyday occurrence in life to feel unhappy. The rejections, slights, embarrassments, petty failures, snubs, stresses and disappointments of life are simply not avoidable… Unhappiness is not some dreaded malignancy to be avoided at all costs, but a proper and inevitable part of the warp and weft of life.

Then he comes back to his central point:

…that the pursuit of happiness is actually what leads to unhappiness. Rather than spending our lives indulging in this hopeless quest, we should seek acceptance of what is humanly inevitable – the alteration of happiness and unhappiness. Recognition of this unpredictable process has the great virtue of avoiding an extra layer of unhappiness, that is, the disappointment of unrealistic hopes.

So we have normal happiness, and normal unhappiness, without the extra level of unhappiness that comes from being unhappy that we are unhappy. Easy!

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Orange marmelade by Simon Götz.

"Happiness is a fine marmalade but contentment is a citrus grove"

Which would you prefer: Intense but unreliable bursts of happiness, or a calm, underlying sense of contentment with life? I just came across a piece by Guy Browning about the quiet benefits of being content. It’s pithy and provocative, and short enough to quote in full:

Contentment is nature’s Prozac. It keeps you going through the bad times and the good without making too much fuss of either. Happiness is a fine marmalade but contentment is a citrus grove. Children are naturally content because they don’t know any different. It’s the knowledge of difference that breeds discontent and it’s when you finally realise that difference makes no difference that you can reclaim contentment.

It may sound dull, but being content is a profoundly radical position. It means you have no outstanding needs that other people, events or corporations can satisfy. You can’t be manipulated, corrupted, conned, heartbroken or sold unnecessary insurance policies. Contentment is the real peace of mind insurance policies claim to sell. Its definition varies between people but generally includes someone to love, somewhere to live and something to eat. And, almost always, one item of sentimental value.

The path to contentment is well signposted but generally points in the opposite direction to where we want to travel. Instead we rush off getting everything we want and then realise we don’t need any of it. A quicker way to contentment is to realise you don’t need any of the things you think you want before spending 40 years trying to acquire them.

Being happy with your lot seems to be the essence of contentment. If you are one of life’s good-looking millionaires, you just have to accept your fate and not continually struggle against it. Being unhappy with your lot is perfectly understandable when the one you’ve been given is absolute rubbish. Sadly there is no cosmic car boot sale where you can get rid of the lot you’re not happy with. All you can do is look at other people’s car boots and be happy with the junk you’ve got in your own.

Restless discontent is often held up as the great wellspring of personal and artistic progress. This is the ants-in-the-pants theory of progress and works well if you think progress consists of substituting one state of unhappiness with another. That said, contentment can be dangerously close to the squishy sofas of smugness and complacency. It’s worth remembering your lot can quite easily be an epic struggle against overwhelming odds but, even if it is, you can still be content with it.

I like the core idea: That we can waste our whole life trying to get what we don’t yet have, when in fact there is a peace to be found in accepting one’s situation, and making the most of it. But I’m worried about the edges of the argument, for two opposite reasons (both of which, to be fair, are half-addressed in the article).

First, it’s good that we are sometimes frustrated and exasperated and striving for more. This motivates us. It makes us seek answers, or fight for justice, or simply tighten things up a bit.

Second, I think there is a kind of contentment that can be found even if the ordinary elements of a ‘content life’ seem to be missing. It’s easy to say this when I have food in my belly; and perhaps I can only do so in the light of my Christian faith. Here, Christ himself, and all the saints, show us an inner peace and joy that can be found in God even when the ordinary expectations of life seem to be frustrated. This doesn’t mean that Christianity is a religion of passivity or despair. It simply means that the peace of God is a gift more powerful than any worldly setback, and a necessary foundation for any slight progress or major revolution that might eventually take place.

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