In Whitehall and in political party headquarters, whey-faced researchers have been fretting about contentment. Their bosses have noticed that there is a new interest in happiness and, where there is interest, there should be votes. It is how to get them, how to nail wellbeing to the wall of policy, that is the unanswerable challenge.
The problem is that, beyond the not insignificant matter of financial security, politics has little to contribute to any real form of happiness, concerned as it is with the business and the surface of things. Yet there is something interesting going on at present, and it is in reaction to the frenetic pace of everyday life, to the headlines warning of ever more misery, to the nagging round-the-clock presence of new forms of communication. We want a bit of peace, a respite from the tumble of events.
"Where has slowness gone?" asks a contributor to a new book by John Brockman, How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?. The answer is not so hard to find. It is in the success of a slow-burn TV series like Borgen. It lies behind the popularity of David Hockney's exhibition of landscapes at the Royal Academy, of Melvyn Bragg's uncompromisingly thoughtful In Our Time series on Radio 4, of public debating groups like Intelligence Squared.
Slowness, or at least a need to escape from the noise and hurry of contemporary life, helps explain why the almost entirely silent black-and-white film The Artist is making millions around the world. People are tired of being shouted at by the Lord Sugars of their particular world. The assumption that speed, volume, growth and wealth are the keys to any truly meaningful life has begun to seem a touch silly.
This move away from the unthinking, headlong rush of modern life does not, as one might think, reflect a nostalgic, hippyish longing for the simplicity of the past. In the art world, it is younger artists who are exploring the positive and the personal in their work. Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize winner, has a new exhibition called The Joy of People. According to the gallery staging the show, it looks at "what's important and at what's less important in life". There is talk in the newspapers of "feelgood art".
Paradoxically, the search for contentment can become something of a rat-race itself. Scrabbling around for something suitably zeitgeisty to accompany the London Olympics, the Cultural Olympiad has decided that spiritual wellbeing will be the message this year. Bossy directives will be found on posters across town. "Act or Be Acted Upon", one will read. Another bellows, "If you don't like your life, you can change it". But these attempts to bully us all into happiness are as futile as the wellbeing policies of smiling politicians.
The European Union has even begun to play the game. Urging world leaders "to make people's happiness and wellbeing our political priority for 2012", the EU president Herman van Rompuy sent them each a present for the New Year. It was a copy of The World Book of Happiness.
These cheerleaders for some generalised, meaningless happiness – academics, pop philosophers, authors, presidents – should be ignored. Finding contentment is not a matter of will, like going on a diet or giving up booze. It will only be found in your personal life, in the books you read, the films you see, the exhibitions and debates you attend.
As for politicians, they would do well to read a recent interview given by Nicolas Sarkozy, who seems to be heading for defeat in the French presidential election. Asked if he had any regrets, Sarko mentioned the error of having been photographed with Carla Bruni while on holiday in 2007. The problem, so far as voters were concerned, was simple. He looked too happy.
The law of the (Amazon) jungle
On the whole, the mighty retailers of the new technology – Apple, Google, Facebook and the like – try to present themselves with a youthful, bejeaned and cosily idealistic image. An exception is Amazon, whose attitude to competition begins to make Tesco look like the local Oxfam shop. Although the online retailer's latest revenue is up 44 per cent, reflecting a vast and growing share of the market, success has not brought generosity.
In December, Amazon encouraged American customers who browsed in a local bookshop, then bought online, to go one step further. If they indulged in some light industrial espionage, reporting the price of an item they wanted to buy into their smartphone for Amazon's database, they would earn a discount of $5.
Recently, the company has turned its attention to retailers who sell though Amazon. Any firm that dares to offer its products elsewhere at a lower price, they have been told, will be in danger of expulsion.
This, we should remember, is an organisation with an increasing influence over what is published and read.