Robert Rowland Smith: If you're happy, and you know it, clap your hands

On the day we publish our annual Happy List, our writer considers what makes us contented, and how to recognise the signs

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I write this from a hotel room on the west coast of the United States, the country that has been pursuing happiness as an article of faith for nearly a quarter of a millennium. But on my TV, the commercials beat a steady alarum, and one rather different from the selfless one presented in today's
IoS Happy List: the debts that must be consolidated, the allergies in urgent need of treatment, the injuries suffered at work. The programme they interrupt is on obesity. Today's young Americans will be the first generation to enjoy a life expectancy lower than their parents'.

It all suggests that happiness takes the shape of an overfed stomach: a bell-curve whereby too much happiness tips over into misery. According to a pervasive if nebulous fable, America was at its happiest at some point between the end of the Second World War and 9/11. Maybe it was when Elvis shuddered through "Heartbreak Hotel" on The Ed Sullivan Show, or when Neil Armstrong bounced like an oversized baby on the moon. Whenever it was, the moment has passed. Too much affluence, too much confidence, and not only does the rest of the world start to resent you, you start to loathe yourself. You gawp at the TV and see yourself reflected back: overweight, in debt, and at the mercy of a creeping Petri dish of postmodern diseases.

If American happiness is in the process of mutating into its opposite, it's largely because happiness got so conflated with affluence. This marks a lamentable digression from what the sages have always told us. In short, money can't buy you happiness. According to Aristotle, for instance, the route to happiness is goodness. Or rather, "happiness" per se is not a worthy end to be pursued. What counts is how you will be judged by posterity, and posterity cares little for how happy you were. Think of Gandhi. We don't really mind how happy he was: the cause of our admiration is that he was good. Imagine a memorial that read "Here are the ashes of Gandhi. He was very happy". It would carry an embarrassing bathos. What makes people great isn't their level of happiness, it's the overall goodness they represent.

Besides, the pursuit of happiness is illogical. If something requires pursuing, it suggests that that something can always avoid capture. With what's in your possession, there's no need for pursuit, and you can rest on your laurels. Ergo construing happiness in terms of its pursuit is to introduce an essential anxiety. Happiness becomes an object of desire, and the trouble with desire is that it's importunate and unresting. Take the "holy truths" in Buddhist scripture. The first declares that "There is suffering in the world", a proposition with which it's hard to argue. Then the second comes in with, "The cause of all suffering is wanting". Well, the pursuit of happiness is a form of wanting, just like anything else. So the problem with wanting happiness is as much the wanting as the happiness. Deep inside us, wanting creates a hole, a lack, a lacuna. Wanting happiness equals wanting for happiness, and feeling empty.

Yet we are where we are. Objections to the pursuit of happiness on either Aristotelian or Buddhist grounds are likely to fall on deaf ears. Happiness has become the psychological elixir of our time, and people won't be batted away from their share of it. Even politicians seem to think it matters as much as GDP. But what is it? We could start cautiously, by saying that happiness is the absence of unhappiness. Rather than scaling the mountain of happiness, you concentrate on removing barriers. Begin by listing the things that make you unhappy. Being put on hold while you're on the phone to the bank, waiting in for the plumber, watching your computer crash, being woken up on a flight by someone clambering over your blanket to get to the aft toilet. Maybe these are irritations rather than unhappinesses, but you have to start somewhere. Most of these aren't in one's control. On the other hand, we've at least identified that being in control might be one of happiness's essential ingredients.

In echoing Freud's definition of pleasure as the absence of unpleasure, this "absence of unhappiness" concept connects to a deeper substrate. Happiness and pleasure both suggest an inner circulation of energy, an agreeable stirring of the humours. But "energy" and "stirring" imply agitation, and Freud comes to the conclusion that we're happiest when we're most at peace; in other words, when we suffer no agitation at all, happy or otherwise. The risk in happiness is that it brings us to a certain pitch, whereas the greatest pleasure to be had is from equilibrium. Happiness would be OK as long as it could be sustained, and we did not have to suffer a comedown. But it can't, so the next best thing is developing a routine that keeps life as little varied as possible. Sounds boring, of course, but at least you're insuring yourself against those plunges into unhappiness which are lower than the highs are high. The absence of unhappiness is the avoidance of stimulation. It's hardly living – Freud himself equates it with death – but it has its consolations.

What about more active notions of happiness? The psychotherapists who follow on from Freud, and whose business it is to convert unhappiness into happiness, ought to have some clues. I know of one who won't see patients unless they agree to a fitness regime too, since happiness and endorphin-release are related. That's certainly active, but it's the exception. What all therapists believe is that if you're unhappy today it's probably because of unresolved issues from much earlier in your life. Like the light from a dead star, unhappiness takes a while to arrive, but then traps you in its wan and silvery glow, without you quite understanding why you feel like a shadow of yourself. Because you never understood them at the time, you continue to repeat injurious behaviours from long ago. Surfacing and processing them in your therapist's company allows you to move on. To go forward, you have to take a step back.

Becoming reconciled with one's past helps to prevent regret, envy, and bitterness. Why not leverage that self-forgiving impetus and reframe your history in such a way that it becomes a source of comfort and strength? After all, any narrative you tell yourself about yourself will be selective, and likely to be revised at some point. There can be little harm in shaping an inner autobiography that allows not just for the pleasures of nostalgia but the resources of self-esteem.

Orhan Pamuk's novel, The Museum of Innocence, dwells in Proustian fashion on a particular instant that finds the narrator at his happiest, an instant it has taken him decades to pinpoint. It was the minute, one sunny afternoon in Istanbul when, in a little used apartment, in his twenties, he was about to make love to his illicit lover. If he'd known at the time that this was his happiness's zenith, it would have spoilt the moment. Three points follow. First, a condition of happiness is precisely giving up on "pursuing" it, which makes it too objective. Second, happiness is never lost. It finds a place to lie down in a corner of the mind, waiting to be woken. The historical moment has gone, but happiness wants to live on, and makes a friend of memory. Third, happiness is a by-product of love. If you must pursue something, let it be that.

Many years ago, between jobs and countries, I rented a garret on my own for the summer at the Oxford college where I did my PhD. I had just one suitcase plus a laptop – a liberation. Not only that, but I was about to begin the next phase of my life – on the West Coast. This was the happiness that looks forward, not back. To be on the brink of something that promised so much made me incalculably happy.

Robert Rowland Smith's new book is 'Driving with Plato: The Meaning of Life's Milestones' (Profile Books)

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