Glad to be Glum.

As I write this from the safety of my second floor window I’m watching three boys, nine or ten years old, dash out into rat run rush hour traffic and deposit milk bottles dexterously along the back groove of a speed bump. Whenever a car hurtles over a bump and sends a bottle skittering to the kerb undamaged the boys retrieve it casually and try again. When a tyre catches the bottle at just the right speed and at exactly the right angle there’s a sound like mortar fire and shattered glass fans out across the road, startling drivers and putting pedestrians at risk of serious injury. There’s a limited number of bottles to be robbed from neighbours gardens (who’d be a milkman these day!) and when there is no more the boys take to knocking over a bin and chucking the contents in the way of harassed and tired motorists. All the while the looks on the boys’ faces is one of pure joy, perfectly villainous happiness.

Happiness, I want to argue, is not an unalloyed good, a condition we should all naturally wish to aim and aspire towards. No matter what all the self help books would like you to believe, happiness is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, happy people are bad, boring and barmy.

Happy people are bad. Like the boys wreaking mayhem with milk bottles and domestic rubbish, bad things can make us happy. There is absolutely no guarantee that happiness leads to wholesome relationships, global peace and social harmony. I’ve only got to spend a few minutes chatting in the queue at my local Coop to understand that there’s plenty of folk out there who would be happy to cleanse the world of people who come from far away, or believe in a different version of the supreme fiction, or enjoy non-regulation use of their reproductive organs. And you have only to inspect the contents of your own day dreams and illicit fantasies to realise that we are a criminal, venal, bestial lot really. The only reason we settle for a pipe and slippers and don’t rip through life with a hard, gem-like unforgiving flame is simply because indulging in what would really make us happy would land us in jail. It’s called growing up. Some people pretend that all that bad stuff doesn’t “really” make anyone happy, it’s just a glitch in moral development, a fault in parenting, a by product of bad circumstances. But the plain fact is, it’s feels good to be bad. Forbidden pleasures are by far the best and it’s only lack of courage or imagination that makes us behave ourselves.

But happy people are not just bad by commission. More often they are bad by omission, because they don’t think, can’t cope with criticism, and have no reason to act, because everything is just right as it is. Happy people are complacent clods. Scientific fact (Psychological Science, May 2004 issue if you’re interested), the happier you are the more likely you are to make bigoted judgments – like deciding someone is guilty because of where they are from, or deserves mistreatment because they don’t follow the rules. The reasoning is that happy people have an attitude that fundamentally “everything is fine” and so anyone who questions this worldview is difficult, asking for it, a trouble maker. Happy people reduce the world to stereotypes, often malevolent ones.

Happy people are insufferably dull. Yesterday someone retweeted a link to “10 Writers Who didn’t die of Alcohol, Drugs, Or Suicide,” . . . it can’t be a coincidence that they were also the ten most pointless, tedious, turgid wastes of shelf space imaginable. Happy people don’t bring anything new into the world. Art, politics, science etc, by definition exist because of frustration, discontent, the feeling that the world is not enough, has to change or has to be known better and deeper. The world as it is is just about right and sufficient for the happy people. Positive psychologists are fond of pointing out the argument from longevity. But who cares if happy people live longer? It’s not as if they do much when they are around, they are just on the planet as ballast. “Better a Socrates discontented than a pig happy in the shit,“ as John Stuart Mill was fond of saying. And Mill wrote one of the insightful books on happiness ever and was most certainly never dull.

Happy people are barmy. They must be. How can they walk around with a smile on their face, whistling a merry tune, always merry and bright when all around them is what they blithely call, “conditions?” Oh, and did you know that “conditions” only counts for 8 – 15% of your happiness according to the Happiness Equation, H = S + C + V, where Happiness equals Set Range (genetics, about 50%) plus Conditions plus Voluntary control (attitude or attention, a whopping 40%! Meaning happiness is mostly in your bones or in your head.) Of course the people who come up with this sort of risible nonsense are tenured professors at Ivy League Universities; a pretty nice “condition” if you can swing it. Most of the rest of us have to struggle with rather less lucrative and salubrious circumstances. Happy people though love that kind of intellectual candy floss. If bad things do happen to them, if they get the sack, their partner dumps them, their dog has worms and sicks up on the new carpet, they pretend the universe has handed them a lucky bag and they can’t wait to see what wonderful opportunity is contained within. Happy people fib to themselves but fool nobody else. Indeed, fooling themselves could be the first rank symptom of Happiness Disorder. As the psychologist Richard P. Bentall has observed, ”There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will), give unrealistically positive evaluations of their own achievements, believe that others share their unrealistic opinions about themselves and show a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others.” And that’s from a bona fide ‘ologist of the psyche variety. Happy people are bonkers. And when they wake up to their true condition, chewing the cud in their field of dreams, they’ll find it’s nothing but a very small paddock. Next to a slaughterhouse.

I’m going to finish with a poem. Not one of those stultifyingly slack-jawed, saccharine, little ditties you find in the positive psychology tomes, this one has a bit of bite to it and makes a fairly important point about happiness. It rhymes too. It’s called Richard Corey, by Edwin Arlington Robinson:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good Morning!” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine — we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.

Beware the happy people!


  1. Wonderful piece Phil.

    Truth is that both love and hate can provide great creative drive. For the boys in your piece it is the love of adrenaline and the challenge. They are truly in Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow State.

    It is indifference that is the progress killer. And indifference is driven by either ignorance, a lack of compassion, a blind selfishness or a paralysing fear of risk and failure.

    Does indifference induce happiness?

    Is indifference a strategy to achieve happiness?

    Who knows?

    1. oddly I was going to mention how the kids were in The Flow . . . and how the happiest people I know tend to be the least self centred . . . self interest isn’t always that obvious.

      Indifference changes nothing.

  2. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”

    John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Chapter 2)

      1. Only ’cause I’ve recently been reading the book. The whole thing’s online.

        To be frank, it was that or link you to the Ken Dodd song, Happiness.

  3. Is there a difference between being happy and being positive?

    I don’t think I am happy all the time, in fact, very far from it, but I maintain a determination to be positive come what may, which I try to hold to, and it keeps me going through lots of adversity. It’s about believing that something will come good eventually.

    On the occasions when I let that determination slip, that’s when I get really down.

    1. But isn’t that just self bullying? And what’s so great about being positive anyhow? Can’t think of anyone more positive than the bankers who buggered up the economy, and I’m sure they’re still chuckling away . . . most of the problems in the world are caused by positive people.

  4. For Michael Foley summed it up well when he said in ‘The Age of Absurdity – why modern life makes it hard to be happy’, “So the absurdity of happiness is that it is embarrassing to discuss or even mention, impossible to define or measure, may not be achievable at all – or,at best, only intermittently and unconsciously – and may even turn into its opposite if directly pursued, but that it frequently turns up unexpectedly in the course of pursuing something else. There is no tease more infuriating..”

    1. I’m pretty sure Foley pinched that thought from one of Alan Watts’ books, possibly Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown . . . A sadly neglected writer, and one of my teenage idols, he’s still worth a read.

  5. And this is from my dear, take-no-prisoners friend whose favourite catchphrase is “It’ll be FINE!!”? Now don’t claim that shallow get-out clause ‘irony’ Mr K as a defence again synthetic positivism…we all know you really mean it, and that all is ‘FINE’ in your world… PS can’t say I disagree with much of your premise though: happy types invite slappy fights, and you know my views on cake.

    1. No, it really will be fine . . . and that’s my mantra against catastrophizing thinking and not my recipe for syrupy satisfaction. And there’s no problem in the world that will not look better after a good cup of coffee and a nice slice of carrot cake.

  6. This post made me momentarily happy! It made me snort like a pig actually at one point, which made me even happier…Obviously that sensation was a short lived one, as I got onto the clever comments and realised I was not *that* intellectual and had no idea what everyone was talking about…that made me feel distinctly glum for a bit.

    I woke up happy today…numerous reasons, a full nights sleep, my daughters plump arse, a damn fine cup of coffee, a lack of pressure, a day of seeing people who make me feel good. May just stay away from Twitter for a bit, because there are a lot of people who piss me off there!

    I feel happy that Phil Kirby writes for us, we are lucky!

    So the rest of your miserabalists can go do one!

    1. Momentary happiness is as good as it gets . . . then it’s back to contemplating one’s essential existential plight and talking twaddle on twitter . . . no wonder I’m such a miserable git.

  7. Oh dear, Phill! If the kids were doing that on my street in Beeston, my next door neighbour would be straight outside to give them a b*ll*cking!

    I don’t believe people really enjoy being grumpy. Those who say they do are really just a teensy bit jealous of the happy.

    Far from being vacant, it is often the case that those who wear their smile with pride do so because they have been to hell and back in their lives and have learned to appreciate every little moment of banal normality as a precious gift.

    I’ll end with a poem, too. My friend wrote this a few months after his wife died. It’s called ‘Postman Steve’:

    life doesn’t get any better
    sitting at the window
    waiting for the postman
    to deliver better days.

    theres only one keeper
    of your soul and destiny
    he doesnt wear blue shorts
    his name isnt steve.

    1. Ah, but that’s Stoicism, an ancient and intellectually robust ethical position, and one I’m rather partial to . . . I’m talking about new agey mental fudge where the smile covers only a gaping vacuity.

      Like the poem. Thanks for that.

      And I live on Beeston Hill, Malvern Road . . . nuff said.

  8. Now I know where Simon and Garfunkel got their inspiration from for a song called, Richard Corey. It’s a good song too;

    “And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
    Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.”

    Provocative post Phil, it’s a string vest of a polemic, but at least it’s an exploration.

    1. As always, I’ve gone to sea in a sieve . . . and yes, Simon and Garfunkel knew their 19C American poetry.

      So, happiness and creativity Mr Tymchak. The floor is yours.

  9. What a deep thinking and interesting post. I’m sad now, because I’m happy. Today at least anyway. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

    But, like John Popham “..I don’t think I am happy all the time,….. but I maintain a determination to be positive come what may”
    Helen …..”it is often the case that those who wear their smile with pride do so because they have been to hell and back in their lives and have learned to appreciate every little moment of banal normality as a precious gift”

    All these things have to be taken into account when you come into contact with “Happy” people.

    There’s a song ” I’m crying inside and nobody knows it but me” perhaps that’s how Richard Corey was feeling.

    I can find happiness in the smallest of things and often for the briefest of moments. But they are there.

    Happy and Positive, 2 different hats, not always worn at the same time.

    1. Amazing how many songs are written about sadness, so very few about being happy. And why do the saddest songs bring us the most pleasure? Right now I’m listening to Sarah Vaughan, “I got it bad, and that ain’t good,” a heartbreakingly sad song but one I listen to over and over. Whereas I could never listen to Kylie Minogue even the once, she’s to chuffing cheerful.

  10. Yeah – really interesting take on ‘happiness’ and some very provocative stuff which I will continue to think about.

    Personally, I don’t believe it is possible to experience happiness without also experiencing unhappyness – how can you measure one without experiencing the other?

    1. If it wasn’t for unhappiness we’d have no stories to tell, no wrongs to right, and nothing to care about. I’m not arguing for wilful masochism, just that we get rid of melancholy at the risk of annihilating half the beauty of the world . . . artificial happiness is an anaesthetic . . . vapid and vacuous.

  11. Hi Phil,

    There are almost to many strands to talk about in a comment but my initial thought is that happiness is not a singular emotion nor a constant state and you can’t `be’ a happy person by default.

    I think sadness can be a form of happiness, i also think that it is not something that we should strive for but not an emotion we should deny either, the most suprising things can make us happy.

    I think happiness is short lived, that it comes in tiny sparks that almost immediately disappear, which is different to being a perceived happy person. I think everyone finds a way in which they can deal with the world, this may not translate as happiness but thier own interpretation of it.

    1. Hi Victoria,

      I agree that your argument deserves more than a mere comment. Why not write a post? That would make me very happy . . . momentarily, then perhaps sad that I’d been proven wrong . . . then maybe spurred to greater intellectual endeavour to defend my sloppy philosophizing . . . it all gets pretty knotty this happiness malarkey, doesn’t it!

      1. aliveness, intensity, awakeness . . . why let one fleeting emotion dominate and colonise your life? I agree with John Stewart Mill, happiness is a by product of a life well lived, but the more you strive for it directly the further away and more elusive it gets. Happiness is like the end of a rainbow, it’s pointless to chase it . . .

        He who bends to himself a joy
        Doth the winged life destroy.
        He who kisses the joy as it flies
        Lives in eternities sunrise.

        As always, Blake says it better.

      2. Why should we strive at all?

        Why must there be a necessity to anything? If you find happiness does that mean you have to maintain the status quo to remain happy, or do you need to keep pushing to find new forms of happy so that you have options each time you are unhappy?

        What if happy then makes you unhappy – what do you then strive for?

        Can we simply not blunder through – not with hope – but with an understanding that not everything we touch will turn to gold, but occasionally we might produce something that could be sold by Elizabeth Duke?

        1. If it doesn’t come as easily as leave to a tree then best it not come at all . . . I think Keats said that, and he managed to be happy despite his miserable illness and without much in the way of striving at all. It’s not a popular option though these day when we’re all meant to be sweating it down the gym and tapping away at our brain training consoles. I’m not a striving type myself, not in the slightest.

    1. I know about the Happy Project. I’m going to be writing more about it here, I just wanted to kick the whole thing off with a bit of silliness. I don’t really mean half of what I say you know.

  12. There’s a great line on happiness from Russian character Svetlana, in the season 3 episode of The Sopranos, “Proshai, Livushka”…

    “That’s the trouble with you Americans. You expect nothing bad ever to happen, when the rest of the world expects only bad to happen. And they are not disappointed. You have everything, and still you complain. … You’ve got too much time to think about yourselves.”

    1. Have you seen the book “Hammer and Tickle,” about jokes and humour under Communism? Shows that even when those “conditions” get seriously nasty people find some way of having a laugh . . . though I doubt they were ever happy.

  13. If depression is clinically classified as ‘the absence of joy’, then does happiness require the presence of joy?

    While one person may only be happy when they are comfortable and content, and become anxious and unhappy when competing or when pushed out of their comfort zone, another person absolutely needs excitement, competition and challenge to feel fulfilled and thus happy.

    So is happiness about comfort and contentment? Or joy and excitement? Is it about stimulation or relaxation?

    Then.. is the debate about semantics? Or is any debate about an unquantifiable entity such as a state of mind defunct when lexical choices are applied as terms to describe them because they necessitate unquantifiable entities being put into quantifiable discrete boxes (words)?

    Are we extremely lucky to speak one of the most descriptive languages on the planet so we can debate in this detailed way? That’s something to be happy about!

    1. I think technically this is a short post rather than a long comment. I never saw words as boxes, that in itself if a metaphor . . . why not words as beams of light? If you arrange and angle them just right the reality is revealed perfectly . . . a much more generous and generative metaphor than cardboard containers. Though I think we have wandered from the subject.

  14. Cracking post and a wonderful discussion. W S Gilbert pointed out in ‘Patience’ that “the truly happy never seem quite well” and he was right. In my experience happy folk are either saints or simpletons. Either way they are deluded, deliberately stifling desire, curiosity, appetite and emotion in order to conform to someone else’s notion of propriety. They’re happy because they’re not themselves…which is sad.

  15. It was an interesting point about happy people not bringing anything into the world. The phrase ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’ rings true throughout the entire article, I would imagine very few people sit down down and think ‘all is well in my world – I think I’ll invent something’.

    I’ve just joined in with an interesting experiment to measure the nations happiness which makes for interesting reading. You need an iPhone and to visit

  16. i’m happy. the only thing that clouds my day is the thought my happiness might make other people less happy, cos nothing’s more depressing that someone who is happier than yourself. particularly if you don’t know what’s making them happy cos that gets you wondering what you’re missing. especially just when you thought you’d got it sussed.

    still, i’ve not seen anyone happier than me today. except, perhaps, when someone i know called my name across a busy shopping street just so they could wave. that’s pretty happy. but maybe having opportunity to wave at me is what made them so happy. which is lovely.

    you can go puke now.

  17. Great post Phil.

    I’m from the horses for courses school. Coming from a family where both glumness and delight can turn into something worse, we go for the middle road of contentment. We also recognise that you’re only as good as you’re last game, so never think you’ve made it. And for goodness sake live for today and don’t think too deeply about everything because in the end we all die…..

    My contribution to your high-fallutin cultural dialogue is from my favourite TV programme Seinfeld, where the brillint George Costanza says “When she threw that toupee out the window, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I feel like my old self again. Neurotic, paranoid, totally inadequate, completely insecure. It’s a pleasure.”

    Keep frowning


  18. After a sodding miserable day, with my sodding godaweful husband… I read your little piece and felt all was right with the world. Nice to read something so fun and thought provoking from someone from my neck of the woods… If I see you out and about I will be sure to scowl.

    1. Hope your husband isn’t much of a reader of blogs else there’ll be a bit of a domestic. And if you ever do see me loping around South Leeds make sure you prod me . . . I am quite blind, I’ll not notice you scowling at me.

      By the way, I really like your blog.

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