[The following is from Hannah Betts’s 2009 piece in the Telegraph, ‘The pursuit of happiness is driving me to despair.’ Does Betts have a bad attitude, or is she to be congratulated as one of those people that Alice James (William James’ sister) had in mind when she wrote in her diary in December, 1889, ‘Ah! Those strange people that have the courage to be unhappy! Are they unhappy, by the way?’]
Personally, I have never been happy. I wasn’t happy as a child and I’m not happy now. Until recently, all was well in my mirthless world. I was good with my happiness deficit—happy with it, one might say.
And, then—lamentably—happiness became a panacea. We were solemnly informed that it increases life expectancy, boosts the immune system, encourages our capacity to learn, makes us more successful. It is the thing that makes life worth living, or at the very least cheaper in terms of alcohol consumption. Happiness is the purveyor of kittens, world peace, and Michelle Obama-style group hugs . . . .
Never one to miss out on a bandwagon, I tried—believe me, I tried—to be upbeat. I devoured well-balanced meals. I cultivated a “state of flow” gratification derived from tunnel-visioned absorption in the activity one is pursuing. Finally, shamefully, I kept a happiness diary, after the discovery by Professor Sonia Lyubomirsky that collating one’s daily blessings resulted in Pickwickian good cheer.
And this is where my adventures in happiness stalled, on a day when I consulted my list and read: “Perfect egg yolk. Licked by a dog.” Nothing has ever made me want to open my veins more.
Until relatively recently, the attainment of happiness was expected only in the afterlife. Before shuffling off the mortal coil, one’s ambitions might include being good, better off, or merely that bit less scrofulous. The prevailing ethos could be summarized as: “My marriage will last a year or so until one of us pops our clogs, but at least there should be someone left around to take care of the pig.” Today, the mantra might run: “I deserve to achieve satisfaction via a meaningful career and fulfilling romantic union, producing offspring from which I can derive joy.”
Happiness, in short, is a burden from which we need to be liberated. Instead, we should uphold that great British tradition: ignoring happiness in favour of an insistence that we are “fine.” It is expressive of a state in which, while we know things are pretty rubbish, we’re not actively considering ending it all. Bliss.
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