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

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If children with guns are safer than their unarmed peers, then Somalia must be the safest place in the world to grow up

Mark Steel
Theresa May  

Democracy and the police: a system in crisis

Nigel Morris
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone