One of my favourite quotes comes from the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who, when asked what he found most depressing about the world, answered "the happiness of stupid people".
It is so much easier to be cheerful when you are a slack-jawed nitwit. This is something that was not mentioned in the publicity around last week's first publication by the Office for National Statistics of the happiness survey.
When I try to visualise happy faces at random, the images my brain comes up with – Alan Titchmarsh, Jeremy Clarkson, Sarah Palin, Cliff Richard, or, worst of all, Nigel Farage – are unappealing as role models.
But smart, creative people aren't going to figure because they tend to suffer a disproportionate amount of unhappiness. Bruce Springsteen, who revealed last week that he was suicidal at the height of his success in the 1980s, is just one of the endless examples.
One research finding after another has demonstrated that happy people have a less accurate view of reality than depressed people. All this leads me to an uncomfortable conclusion for happiness academics – being happy is not the most important thing in life.
A re-statement of stoic principles is overdue. My father's generation did not expect to be happy. It was the last thing on their minds. They simply wanted to muddle through, and if happiness came, then they considered themselves lucky. This attitude saved them the daily pain of disappointed hopes.
The trouble is that we have followed the American path of thinking that happiness is not only a practical goal but a moral imperative. People who are unhappy are perceived as dangerous failures. So-called "negative" people are to be shunned, as if they carried a dangerous, transmutable virus.
I have a face like a collapsed cabbage when I am in a bad mood and people in the street are inclined to ask me – no, tell me – to cheer up. I resist the temptation to tell them I have a week to live or to punch them on the nose.
What I really want to ask them is what gives them the right to decide how I should or shouldn't feel? I would like to be happy all the time, of course. But it would be inhuman.
There has been a spate of literature that suggests that it is the happy people who are the sick ones. Eric G Wilson's Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy points out how "generative melancholy" can be a hugely creative force. Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die is a counterblast against American "positive thinking", the idea that every disaster or setback is an "opportunity" for "moving on".
But the world is run not by realistic melancholic introverts, but fantasising, optimistic extroverts – politicians, for instance, and bankers. This is good, to an extent. We need people who can believe in success against all the odds – believe that anything can be possible, believe that change can come, believe that they can make huge unearned profits.
But we need pessimists too. Sadness should not be taboo – it should be respected, like the priest and the funeral director. We treat it like the embarrassing guest at the wedding, we want it to shut up and go away, but it is in all our hearts and so it should be. Life is brief, life is fatal, and it is packed with small losses as well as small joys.
Springsteen would never score highly on the national happiness index. Neither would I, or most of the people I admire. I like happy people, and I like to be around them. But don't disown the frown. Without it we'd be – well, American. Or, even worse, Nigel Farage.
- More about:
- Bruce Springsteen
- Cliff Richard
- Jeremy Clarkson
- Office Of National Statistics
- Sarah Palin
- The Brain