Monday, 7 January 2008

The pursuit of happiness

I know there are plenty of my friends who think that at times, I can be a grumpy sod. Reaching a state of happiness is, after all, one we all aspire to. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ was defined as an inalienable right within the US Declaration of Independence and, when we wish each other a ‘happy New Year’, we really mean it, not least because it is something we hope to attain ourselves. But without wishing to reaffirm the prejudices that some may have about my occasional glumness, I think the idea of trying to be happy all the time is a bad one. Let me try and explain why.

To begin with, sadness is essential to life. It reminds us that we don’t live in a perfect world and motivates us to change, to try and improve ourselves and our surroundings. It acts as the essential trigger for seeking more happiness, because one mood can only exist because of the other. If we were happy all the time, it would be like a continuous drug rush – we’d never get anything done. So why is it, then, that a sad person is perceived as weak and lacking ability?

Moreover just as there are many reasons why we feel sadness, from disadvantage and loss to the imperfections in ourselves or the world we live in, so there are many interpretations of what ‘happiness’ actually is. America’s ‘pursuit of happiness’ as defined by Thomas Jefferson at least implies something more than material possessions and the earlier equation of happiness with property, including freedoms of speech and assembly. However, the psychologist Oliver James argues that the stimulation of artificially ‘perceived wants’ over ‘real needs’ within modern English-speaking countries has led to the placing of a higher value on money, possessions, physical and social appearances and fame, a condition he describes as ‘affluenza’. Failing to achieve within the narrow confines what we think we should want, what society tells us we should want, becomes an insanely unrealistic measure of our happiness. Which, I have to tell you, makes me quite sad really.

I think I’ll accept that sometimes I’ll be a bit down and sometimes upbeat, that this is inevitable and therefore aim for something else. There isn’t really a word for it in English but in German, it’s gemütlichkeit. Literally it means ‘cosiness’ but it’s the abstract notion of belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic and the opportunity to spend time with loved ones or in performing favourite activities.

Seeking gemütlichkeit means slowing down, spending more time with my friends, not trying to undertake so many things that they becoming exhausting, standing with others to make the world a better place, accepting that I’m never going to look like Brad Pitt or have quite enough money not to worry about it. It means writing my novel because I want to see how it ends, rather than to become famous, and learning to play the guitar for the sense of achievement, not to impress other people.

Whether grumpy or euphoric, morose or gleeful, the relentless pursuit of something as fleeting as happiness seems more onerous than trying to find a little cosy contentment. I’ll settle for that.

In fact, thinking about it has cheered me up no end…

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