The happy-clappy books don't work

In a fit of despair, Nicholas Lezard turned to the latest self- help manuals to gee himself up. He tried to follow their advice. He's still depressed

I WAS FEELING a bit down in the dumps, you know, a little blue, before writing this piece, so I thought I'd take a little advice from Cheri Huber in her The Little Book of Beating the Blues (Thorsons, pounds 5.99): "Get as comfortable as you can be, the idea being to stay awake, and start with several long, deep breaths. As you take these breaths, see if you can keep your attention focused on the breath as it

enters your body,

as it fills your body,

and as it leaves your body."

Neat, eh, the way she writes it as if it was poetry, or rather as if she is right there in the therapy room with you, making whooshing and puffing noises so that you get the idea?

Anyway, let's carry on.

"Taking another long, deep breath, shift your awareness to what you are feeling, to your emotions ... being open, being available ...."

We are then asked to pause and see if we can be "open to any insights your emotions might hold for you", and although all I am aware of at the moment is a vague desire for a cup of tea, I take "another deep breath.

"Just allow yourself to let go completely and absolutely .... Let yourself feel what it is like when you let go completely.

"PAUSE ...

"What is this like for you? Is it like laughing, dancing, running?"

No - it isn't like laughing, dancing, or running. It feels like ... it feels like making myself a cup of tea and rolling a fag. Ah well. That's the English for you. (Melancholia has been called "the Englishman's disease", incidentally.)

Still, it works (the tea-and-fag cure, that is), which is perhaps more than can be said for the advice in The 10-Minute Miracle by Gloria Rawson and David Callinan, a teeny-tiny book also published by Thorsons for pounds 7.99. (Thorsons, it would appear, is the loopy New Age imprint of HarperCollins.) This not only has various means for cheering oneself up, recharging the spiritual batteries, as it were, but suggests that if I am suffering from anaemia, I should "drink water that has been charged with red vibration (a colour card placed underneath a glass of water)".

But I am straying off my subject, which is happiness. (The only real question raised by The 10-Minute Miracle is whether a prosecution for fraud could be successfully brought against the authors and publishers.) For this I turn to Happiness Now! by Robert Holden (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 8.99), founder of the Happiness Project, whose "innovative work has been the subject of thousands of media features worldwide" - and now, with this article, another one.

Happiness Now! comes with numerous encomia from authors of other self- help books, such as Paul Wilson, who "wrote" The Little Book of Calm, Jerry Jampolsky MD, author of Love Is Letting Go of Fear, and Stuart Wilde, author of Life Was Never Meant to be a Struggle (it wasn't? Duh!) Holden's book comes with lots of diagrams, parables, and down-home wisdom. For example: "Most early-morning decisions are about showers, make-up, clothes, children, food, time, and transport. They are 'doing decisions', as opposed to 'being decisions'. What I am most interested in is not your 'to do' list, but your 'to be' list. In other words, did you make any conscious decisions about how you wanted 'to be' today? To put it another way, what sort of a day did you decide to have today?"

It would perhaps be churlish and negative to say that the way my day was going to shape up was not entirely in my hands, in that reading these books put me in a decidedly grumpy and mean-spirited mood all day. The point, rather, is that there seem to be an awful lot of books coming out which suggest that we are all a somewhat miserable bunch and that what we need is to learn how to be happy.

The big gun in this series is The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, the record of dozens of conversations between Howard C Cutler, a shrink, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama (to be published in October by Hodder & Stoughton, again). This is not a foolish book, and in fact looks like Plato's Republic when set against the others. But the fact remains that what the book is is an extended advertisement for Buddhism - rather in the way that Happiness Now! has a very Evangelical-Christian tone. (This is not apparent from a quick glance at Holden's book, whereas you couldn't accuse any book with the Dalai Lama's name in huge letters on its cover of sneakily introducing Buddhism where it has no business.)

If all these books have anything in common, it is their assertion that we are less happy than we used to be; or that we are under greater pressure to consider ourselves happy than we once were. Solon's remark, over two and a half thousand years old, "Call no man happy until he dies, he is at best but fortunate," seems to have been forgotten, both as a piece of practical advice, and as a way of reminding us that people weren't necessarily any happier in times gone by.

I am not mocking the existence of these self-help books, only their prose, and some of the conclusions they reach. And their blurbs. And Robert Holden's ghastly grinning mug on the cover of Happiness Now! And the way that The Little Book of Bearing the Blues has not been typeset, but handwritten and interspersed with irritating drawings; for example of a locked and barred door opening up to reveal a sunny country road. (One problem is that, as Montherlant said, happiness writes white; the communication of happiness does not make for good reading. I remember that Theodore Zeldin, normally a very good writer and historian, and an expert on the French, wrote an astonishingly crazy novel called Happiness, which should stand as a warning against those tempted to write allegorical stories on this theme.)

Happiness is one of the biggest philosophical questions to have bedevilled us. It is, perhaps, the Big Question - bigger, even, than the existence of God. "Happiness," said Santayana, "is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment."

The pursuit of happiness is enshrined as a right in the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly, many people, even Americans, think that it is in the Constitution. They don't realize, either, that what Jefferson was talking about was the right to own property; and that it is the pursuit that is a right, not the achievement of it. These are revealing historical and interpretative slips.

Aristotle worried at the question of Happiness at length in his Ethics. Happiness is eudaemonia, well-being, and after lots of argument with himself, he comes to these conclusions: "Happiness demands not only complete goodness but a good life."

Bearing in mind Solon's remark, he arrives at the definition of the happy man: "One who is active in accordance with complete virtue, and who is adequately furnished with external goods, and that not for some unspecified period but throughout a complete life." And, probably, we should add, "destined both to live in this way and die accordingly". He also adds that "goodness implies seriousness", and that it wouldn't hurt to have happy and virtuous friends, too.

This is a tall order, and out of our control; but this definition seems to hold true to this day. Except that nowadays the question of happiness does not so much revolve around virtue and goodness, as about "being compassionate towards yourself", "being what you want" - nuggets picked up from Holden and Huber - and having a great big grin slapped all over your stupid face.

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