Bring me sunshine . . .

happy

Charles Darwin once questioned an almost four year old child what she thought happiness was; “it is laughing, talking and kissing,” she replied. Obviously Victorian infants were much more philosophically savvy than our modern day kids, who seem much more familiar with Iggle Piggle than Plato. Still, as Darwin says, “it would be difficult to give a truer and more practical definition.”

What’s fascinating is that the kid doesn’t hang around waiting to be made happy, like she’s entitled to expect to be spoonfed good spirits. She’s totally involved in the merriment and an active, equal partner in the production of her own, and no doubt her parents, happiness. This is a very appealing view. It’s playful and dynamic, immediate and this-worldly, completely the opposite of the mealy-mouthed New Age mysticism which sees happiness as some kind of eternal repose on pink and fluffy candy floss clouds, or the dreary self-help moralism that shifts happiness to the far horizon as the reward for the trudge through the daily treacle.

If she was like most four year olds she knew that you don’t always get your own way – smiling gets you further than stropping, and the people who have a major impact in your life are unreasonable, tyrannical, wrong, and often plain stupid – but that’s not an excuse not to be happy. You can laugh with them (and sometimes at them, because let’s face it other people are bloody hilarious.) They are fun to talk to too. And this is one very deep and striking insight. We can’t imagine happiness without the constant interruption, argument, banter and commentary from the ones who have the most say in our lives. As that dreadful song has it, when “we don’t talk any more,” we know there’s only resentments and bitterness and the coldest of shoulders left between people.

Kisses are easy to come by when you’re four, but once the hormones kick in they become less dependable as a source of happiness. And when the hormones start to dwindle and deplete their absence can become positively upsetting.

Perhaps what’s missing for me in the childish view of happiness is drinking (how could a kid appreciate the delights of intoxication!) partying (and I mean any grown up social encounter with art/culture/music/food) and the unmentionable thing that occasionally happens after the laughter, talk, alcohol, partying, and kisses, if you get lucky (and only a freaky Freudian four year old could contemplate that). Altogether these things don’t seem too much to ask. So it leads me to wonder why it is that happiness is such a scarce commodity, eluding the majority of people ever since Adam and Eve decided to try something different for dessert. Presumably there’s so much talking and theorizing because most of us, most of the time, have never possessed enough of it

I’m getting all deep and meaningful because of the Bring the Happy project that’s setting up shop in Leeds from next week. They are asking us to divulge our happiest memory that took place anywhere in Leeds. This will then be mapped in the hope that it will be “the perfect antidote to the recession, the concept of broken Britain, and the idea that everything is closing down, including ourselves.”

Without any doubt, hesitation or the slightest sliver of a quibble I can accurately locate my most happy memory in Leeds (anywhere in fact) to a small table in a pokey kitchen in a one-bedroomed flat on Kirkstall Avenue, at precisely 8:23pm, Saturday August 24, 2002. I was so happy I was indeed transported, elated, delirious with joy, in rapture . . . and my whole world changed because of it. I was absolutely and perfectly happy at that precise moment. Nothing could possibly compare. But the laughter didn’t survive the year. And my drinking got worse. The talking never relented, becoming strictly in the imperative mood from her side (oh those 4am dissections of my various faults, foibles, failings and fuck-ups were such fun!) whilst I just whined and wheedled and wanted her to shut the fuck up.

The kissing . . . well, that was always good but steadily the sweetness turned to poison and in the end we just made each other sick. So for the next seven years we tried to make each other happy, and for seven long years only succeeded in tormenting, traumatising, aggravating, aggrieving, bullying and belittling, all because we were happy for that one brief ecstatic moment.

The point of this rather agonised personal revelation is this; falling for the idea that happiness is a momentary revelation of pure bliss has its problems.

Certainly there moments in life, whole episodes even, when it seems that the stabilisers have dropped off and we are simply flying along without even knowing what brakes are for, when the stale drabness of everyday reality falls away and life appears in all it’s shimmering, newly minted, just dawned, dewy glory, when we feel positively tazered by the transcendent. These moments stretch us close to bursting and we never return to the same shape again, Normal pleasures feel flabby, limp, lacking somehow. Happiness becomes something we can only yearn for, strive to attain, a dimming memory or a distant goal. Happiness has spoiled us rotten.

So, my question is; Is happiness as an unquestioned good and an undeniably virtuous condition even relevant any more? And does remembering happy times actually make us any happier anyway? Actually, that’s two questions, isn’t it? See, happiness also corrodes the capacity to count! It’s lethal stuff.

24 comments

  1. Love this Phil, a great question alright. Loving the personal insights, very well put.

    Shame I had to think about Sir Cliff Richard at one point though!

    1. Really really sorry about Sir Cliff . . . when it popped into my mind I couldn’t recall who sang it, I must have repressed the knowledge that deeply. I wrote without due care and attention to other people’s delicate sensibilities. Again, my deepest apologies.

  2. Better, but still deluded (I mean that in a zen way). You’re missing the wood for the alcohol. Defining happiness is the trickiest part. Laughing, talking and kissing point to one ineluctable requirement; the ability to share.

    That is not to say that other people are required. Sharing with nature is just as valid. You can be ‘alone’ but still be happy with the knowledge of all things connected.

    My best guess at what the one major requirement for happiness is, currently runs counter to everything that is promoted and valued in our society. Your ego and your individualism are your worst enemy. They poison the waters of happiness. The ancient mystics weren’t stupid. It’s our stupid ego’s which keep us ignorant.

    The paradox is this, when you are so absorbed by an activity that you forget who you are and time stands still for you, that is when you are the happiest. Unfortunately, our consumerist society demands that the individual ego appreciates every experience as an affirmation of ourselves. That way lies perpetual disappointment.

    To bring us back to zen, ‘Looked for, it cannot be found…’

  3. On first reading of this article I thought, “My God, how sad that the happiest memory in the article was blighted by such awful memories, and how sad that the good memory was perhaps only so good because it was interlinked with, or at least had to be compared to, the bad memories.”

    Then I thought about it and realised all of my happy memories are interlinked with bad ones too. My happiest memory that happened in Leeds was the exact moment I rounded the corner in the music department last July and got my degree result – but that was after, by all accounts, a very difficult and emotional year.

    Then I thought again and remembered another great memory. I work in a care home once a week doing musical activities with some of the residents. At one point in my second week while the music played and I was moving round the room I realised all the ladies had got up to dance with each other. One of them even attempted a twirl. It was genuinely humbling.

    My point is this: to be genuinely happy, or to feel genuine happiness, do we have to be completely selfless? Can we only feel it when providing a service to others, or actively trying to make others happy? Is it possible simply to have a happy experience without having to compare it or link it to something bad?

    1. I’m not convinced by the selflessness/self-sacrifice argument, it’s usually used by people who have everything and want to grab a little bit more; and trying to make someone else happy is like trying to make them grow taller . . . I can make you dinner, I can make you twirl, I might even be able to make you laugh, but I can never make you happy, that’s just not in anyone’s power. I think my point was that happiness is a disposition not an event or an achievement, and it’s never an unmixed blessing.

  4. Quite a beautiful post Phil, something I’m sure everyone can identify with, and if they can’t then they haven’t lived or loved enough. Not that love always leads to happiness.
    Brought a tear to my eye (not a happy tear 😉 )

    1. Oh dear, I made you miserable too! That does seem to be my general impact on people . . . perhaps I should be sponsored by Kleenex (other tear drying tissue manufacturers are available.)

  5. AND, following on from your question about relevance, is it possible to be truly happy through contentment rather than elation? Contentment as an idea suggests concession, the idea that at some point something has had to give, which is surely a negative.

  6. Hi Phil,

    Lovely, personal post.

    For me happiness should never be confused with joy.
    We experience joy as a pinnacle, a peak. We don’t expect joy to last. Joy resides in a series of fleeting moments, knitted together to make a string vest of warmth – full of holes maybe, but kept close against us, it protects us from some pretty cold winds. Happiness is seen as a state into which one enters, and from which one emerges into sadness. But does such a complete comfort blanket actually exist?

    In retrospect I have had a happy life, but I can only judge that by the frequency and intensity of my moments of joy, some made all the more real and powerful by their distinction from the lows and hardships. When I feel bad I recall those moments of absolute joy and they sustain me. Maybe all you need to be happy is a really selective memory.
    And a string vest.

    1. Absolutely right about the principle of selection; it’s our disposition and focus that makes us happy, not any particular event or person. And I do think those peak experiences can be dizzyingly delightful but can’t last (those Nietzschian moments on the Alpine pinnacles can be exhilarating, but that could be oxygen starvation.) Not sure about yr taste in male apparel, however. More of a long john man myself.

  7. Beautiful

    Happiness is an emotion. What triggers it changes all the time. What made me happy then won’t make me happy now.

    I don’t think Ivor is right. Flow and happiness are different but perhaps related.

    The question is what will make me ‘happy’ now, and increase my chances of ‘happiness’ in the future?

    Get that one right and the rest takes care of itself…

    1. Not sure I agree that happiness is an emotion. It’s a trait or a disposition, like cheerfulness, not a content of consciousness, like elation or joy.

      And how do we know what makes us happy now, never mind in the future? If you read all the better research on happiness one thing becomes pretty clear: we’re hopeless at predicting what’ll make us happy next and generally fabulate ad hoc reasons for our previous random good spirits.

      And as for Ivor’s conflation of flow and happiness, I imagine his mate Nigel was in flow when he climbed that mountain but wasn’t that happy about losing his fingers!

      1. Indeed I was in full flow when I attempted Mt McKinley as I had no intention whatsoever in losing my fingers and toes. We cannot approcah the awesome mountains in the world with fear of disaster, although we must realise that it can happen. Unfortunately for me, mother nature had other plans and a new journey in my life began. Happiness however is another story…

        I am at my best when tackling sheer adversity as it hits me in the face. Mountain epics, floods, landslips, road accidents – I’ve faced them all, but they are physical issues which I have come to accept as part of nature and man. Also, if you choose to put yourself in these places, then expect and accept everything. I’m no expert on the human nervous/mental/emotional system, but what I do know is the true happiness through working and at times suffering together is a common bond through many. Though my injuries restrict me, I have come to accept them for what they are and put a smile on my face. Anyone who has seen me speak will understand how much I take the mickey out of them. A personal defence mechasnism? Talking of which…

        Happiness can be destroyed or lost in many ways. When I was in hospital with my frostbite, I found true happiness through my family, friends and the excellent staff who cared for me. The problems started when I found myself lonely after the chaos was over. For many years man has suffered a lack of happines when alone. Many of us can cope with it, but as a species (I feel) we need others around us. Perhaps that is why we have evolved into family units etc. I recently suffered the fate of many climbers when returning from the Alps, I found myself single to the words “I can’t cope with this!” There were other reasons that I’m not going to go into here, but since that day, nomatter how much the sun shines, I struggle to find happiness. I can smile all you like, but time is needed here. Is it the fact that some of us can take all the physical trauma you can give us, but break at the first rumbles of the heart? Who knows? As I say, I’m no expert, just a man with an adventurous streak who has a habit of telling the truth, even if it hurts me. That, however is another subject altogether…

        1. A defence mechanism, maybe, but I think you are bang on. And I think you’ve pinpointed on of the things that separates us from the animals; animals seek contentment, stability, safety first; human beings find happiness in pitching themselves against the very things that bring maximum discomfort and potential death sometimes. It’s what the poets call The Imp of Perversity and it’s something the positive psychology gurus will never get.

          Thanks for the brilliant comment, Nigel.

        1. I thought we’d all just decided reflection was so passe and it’s time to get our action pants on? Don’t just sit there wittering, get off yer arse and do summat! Might not make us any happier but at least we’ll have taken action.

  8. Brilliant debate, blog and feeling! I agree with what everyone has said really, as happiness can be and mean so many different things. I do think its a attitude everyone should have, there are highs and joys but we were born to be happy! happiness is infectious and very good for your health .. There are people who think happiness is ont supposed to be state of mind, I can’t see why someone wouldn’t want to follow Monty pythons advise –
    Always look on the bright side me life!

    1. But remember where Eric Idle was when he was singing that line! . . . “Worse things happen at sea you know,” is one of my favourite lines from the film, and a perfect positive psychology mantra.

  9. That film is astounding!
    Reading it back my post made no sense and bad spelling, as I’m typing on my phone…
    Aren’t both quotes essentially the same?
    Do you think happiness is seen as something of bounds? I think this country is consumed by greed and the media, we have forgotten about all the little pleastress of life.
    Nigel your post was heartwarming, there is hope for us all yet.

    1. well, that’s what I was saying really . . . forget about Happiness with a capital H, the thing you get sold by the media, and enjoy the passing moments of pleasure, the laughter, chatter and kisses etc. And The Life of Brian was a life affirming film, I agree.

  10. I’m sure I got in to a conversation on twitter about whether people should strive for happiness. It was whilst trying to find something positive about my job, keeping the shakes from the third coffee of the morning at bay and trying to communicate with my wife on a phone that doesn’t work, that she still hasn’t had the time to replace – my answer was, yes.

    Then just as soon as I posted that tweet – I realised that what may make me happy today, won’t necessarily make me happy tomorrow (as Mike suggests, the trigger changes even if the bang of emotion doesn’t).

    Forgive the football analogy here, but Marco Tardelli wheeling away having scored in the World Cup final, was what I always assumed to be the true epitome of happy. The emotion (sorry Phil, there’s that word again) etched across his face was something I strived for. Yet a lot has happened in my life that has made me undeniably happy, but not once have I replicated that moment – those outward emotions – in my life.

    It’s not that I am a reserved person by nature. I guess the things that have brought the most amount of happiness (my wife singing The Specials – Too much too young, casually, on our second date or the birth of my daughter) caught me so off guard that I didn’t know how to express my happiness – I knew the baby was coming, I was just so amazed when it happened that it took me hours to formulate a thought other than wow.

    Forget the little things in life such as laughing or talking or kissing – I know how to enjoy those. It’s the big things – marriage, birth, succeeding at work where people expected failure, helping someone get through something, doing something important – with someone equally important – they are the things I struggle with, in terms of how to express my emotions.

    So if you ever meet me, and ever see me staring in to the distance with a somewhat vacant, possibly pained expression on my face – don’t be alarmed. Just simply understand that at that moment in time – I am the happiest man in the world.

  11. When I first read your post a couple days ago it almost instantly sent my mind racing off to the Beatles ‘White Album’. Since then I’ve had it’s songs rolling around in my head almost constantly.

    A little while ago I got the album out, a vinyl copy that I’ve had for about 30 years, dusted it off and put in on the turn table. From the opening bars of ‘Back in the USSR’ I felt a flood of emotions, joy, delight and reminiscences swirling inside me.

    Singing along, out of tune and uninhibited (it’s safe, the kids are in bed and my partner is out) I feel a pleasure drawn from the familiarity of something that I have lived with, partied to, for all of my adult life.

    The memories, nostalgia, familiarity, the sound of the record, my singing, the tactile pleasure of sleeve, dust cover and slab of vinyl combine to effect my mental state.

    Now, at the end of side one, the final track…

    ‘Happiness is a warm gun,
    bang, bang, shoot, shoot…’

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