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

Our national gloom is nothing more than realism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.