Michael Bywater: Don't make me laugh. MPs can't make us happy

Our national gloom is nothing more than realism

Share
Related Topics

Politics and commerce want it all, and now their sights are set on happiness. Politicians, popular anthropologists, think-tanks, economists want us to be happy, and are prepared to tell us what happiness is, and how to go about achieving it. Another duty - something else for us to hand over to our masters, like the good big babies we are.

Presumably they have been startled by recent surveys (they pop up all the time) announcing that the British are a miserable lot compared with other nations who have a lot more to be miserable about. We are, it appears, not so much Merrie England as Bloodie England; but Bloodie England is a fine place to be, sunk in immemorial pessimism beneath a drizzling two hundred foot cloud base as we inform a succession of pollsters that we are unhappy with offshore call centres, our mobile phone providers, Tony Blair, our jobs, the NHS, the education system, the climate, our family life, our financial situation, and whatever you are having yourself.

And, as usual, Bloodie England is right. If someone came along and said they were utterly, deliriously happy with those things, we would suggest medication. Our national gloom is nothing more than realism, and it will take more than Smiling David Cameron to change our collective minds.

But more than all this, the thing is a question mal posée. Governments had their chance at promoting happiness and gave it the go-by in favour of a negative utilitarianism (grown to psychotic dimensions in Mr Blair's conker-banning, infantilising Government) which seeks to prevent the greatest amount of harm for the greatest number of people.

Nor is commerce, in its turn, any better. Almost all business works by persuading people there's something wrong with their lives, then offering to sell them the palliative. We might call it the Femfresh Principle: persuade women that they smell bad, then sell them a silly spray to stop them smelling bad. And nobody mentions the fact the women don't actually smell bad at all. (Look around your life. See?)

Neither negative utilitarianism nor the Femfresh Principle has anything to do with happiness. Commerce and politics have nothing to do with happiness, because they are public. Most of us spend most of our time doing things to make ourselves, in the broadest sense, attractive to others. We must; after all, skulking and reeking in a cave will annihilate our genes and our influence in short order.

But if most of our public lives are about others, our private happiness is about ourselves. To share it is almost to negate it. Even when our happiness is in the company of others, we keep our mouths shut. A boat cresting a perfect wave. Suddenly getting a difficult text. Hearing Palestrina at the altar-rails. Singing, very badly, old Cole Porter songs. Dinner with friends. Shaving. Meeting one's child unexpectedly in the street. Some of these are my personal happinesses; others universal, and ancient.

But it is impossible to talk or write about happiness without seeming mawkish, because happiness is intensely private. It is also inaccessible to those who would corral it for political or financial ends. They can steal our tropical paradise and sell it back, but they can't decide when, how or whether we'll be happy there. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle said, in the Nicomachean Ethics: "Happiness is something final and self-sufficient; it is the end of action."

Bloodie England knows this deep in its disenchanted soul. Neither government nor commerce can get their hands on it, to control it or sell it back to us. No wonder they're unhappy.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style