Happiness is.... what? Just the opposite of misery, or more? Week in Books column


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The Independent Culture

Earlier this year, a terminally ill cancer patient requested a last visit to the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum to see a Rembrandt exhibition. A striking image accompanied the news story, of the patient on a gurney, surrounded by staff, face turned towards one of Rembrandt’s final self-portraits, the colour and shade in the photograph reflecting something of the light falling across Rembrandt’s aged face in the painting, and the edges of darkness converging behind him.

The drama of the photograph lay in what it denied us: the face that we wanted to see in this instance was not Rembrandt’s, however enigmatic he appears in his magnificent stillness, but the dying patient’s. Instead, it invited us to imagine her face – the smile (or otherwise) and the happiness (or otherwise) that was collected there. It seemed like a metaphor for happiness, a feeling when expressed still evading clear expression.

The sun has been shining in this, Britain’s Annual Week of Good Weather, so what better time to revisit theories of happiness, from Aristotle’s eudaimonia to Alain de Botton’s trendy School of Life variants. Optimists might even consider the eruption of a heatwave on the same week as the publication of Dear Stranger: Letters on the Subject of Happiness (Penguin, £14.99), to reflect a happy alignment of the stars. The book, written with the support of the mental health charity, Mind, brings letters to the reader by de Botton of course, but also the poet Blake Morrison (“Two deckchairs in the shade of a weeping birch./Everyone you love still alive, last time you heard”), Donal Ryan (“Be happy is a senseless exhortation. Be makes far more sense”), Conn Iggulden (on his former preference for achievement over happiness), Deborah Levy (on moments of light while visiting her terminally ill mother), Helen Dunmore (on NHS provision for the depressed and mentally ill), and more.

What is noticeable in many of these letters on happiness is the concentration on what is assumed to be its opposite: anxiety, grief, depression. Matt Haig tells us what depression was for him and that it might have its own working edge – “RD Laing said that ‘breakdown is often breakthrough’”; Dunmore tells us about the UK’s rising suicide rates; Botton talks about the catharsis that comes from reading Blaise Pascal’s philosophy of pessimism and the calm gained from “communion around our dark realities”. If a definition of happiness has to be approximated from investigations into its opposite, this may suggest the nature of happiness to be so difficult to grasp that it can’t be looked at directly for blinding us, like the sun. This approach has its limits – navigating one’s way out of unhappiness might not be tantamount to finding happiness.

It appears just as ineffable when writers describe or redefine it: John Lewis-Stempel suggests the company of a dog (“it’s just a thought”). Perhaps not if you’re a cat person. His point, one suspects, might be to figure out what lifts the spirits, and then to embrace it. The Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari rejects Jeremy Bentham’s theory that human life is defined only by pleasure or pain, where happiness (or pleasure) is little more than the transient, addictive hit of physical sensation. He offers the possibility of finding happiness by abjuring the pursuit of pleasure. This has a Buddhist echo to it, but still seems to reach a definition of happiness through its negative – that which it is not.

The crime writing duo, Nicci French, invite the reader to forget the desire to find happiness altogether: “Depression is a thing. Unhappiness is a thing. It is something to be dealt with in all sorts of different ways. We shouldn’t aim for happiness. We can aim to be busy, to be useful, to challenge ourselves, to be kind… And sometimes, in moments, maybe with a warm beer and a half packet of crisps you’ll realise: I was happy.” Naomi Alderman, in one of the most unsentimental reflections in the book, moves the debate on by appearing to undermine it with the idea that we may overrate happiness, and that it might even inspire a lack of compassion: “I don’t know how much I rate happiness... I take it and enjoy it. But, I don’t know, I tend to feel that we make a bit too much of it these days?”.

The simplest definition of happiness is in the few images in the book: Jez Alborough’s illustrated rhyming poem, Nat the Cat, with a smiling cat as she comforts an unhappy rabbit, and Chris Riddell’s sketches of a mother holding a child, a couple holding hands; the image summarising the feeling in a way that words can’t. Which takes us back to the picture of the woman in the Rijksmuseum who might have been smiling or crying, happy or regretful or sad, or all of these things, at once.