Jeremy Stangroom on the perils of happiness
Not everybody wants to be happy. Teenagers, especially, have no truck with things joyful. Poets favour misery because it makes them better able to rhyme. And it is well-known that Daily Mail readers are resolutely opposed to fun in all its forms. But that some people wish to be happy is evidenced by the number of self-help books that are sold both here in the UK and in the US.
We've all come across such books, most of us whilst perusing the 'Health and Sex' section in our local bookstore. They have titles like: Horticultural Heaven: How To Unearth Your Inner Flower; and I Ching, You Ching, We Ching: A Guide To Interpersonal Happiness. As far as it is possible to make out, the general idea is that by reading these books, and by consequently re-arranging some mental furniture – and, quite possibly, actual furniture – people get happy. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Will Ferguson, author of the satirical novel, HappinessTM, disagrees.
He imagines a future where everybody is perfectly happy. They've read the ultimate self-help guide, written by guru Tupak Soiree, and now they're as content as can be. They've stopped smoking. They don't drink. They hug a lot. And implausibly – but this is fiction, after all – they have simultaneous orgasms.
However, in Ferguson's world, all this is bought at some expense. People no longer do many of the things that they used to do to make themselves happy. Sensible things, like visiting Las Vegas, going to football games and playing the lottery. As a result, the economy goes into freefall, at great inconvenience to those very few people who are not persuaded by the Tupak Soiree message. And there is a sense in which the happy hordes have bought their happiness at the expense of their humanity. At least, this is Ferguson's message, that you can be perfectly content, but only at the cost of the restlessness, curiosity and drive that make you properly human.
At first thought, there is something right about Ferguson's disdain for happiness. Just consider, for example, that almost everybody would agree that there are few sights more irritating than young children playing happily together in a playground. And that very few people have experienced a group hug at a Luis Palau or Morris Cerullo revivalist meeting without suffering at least some mental scarring.
But at second thought, things are just a little bit more complicated. Because, let's face it, miserable people can be just a tad irritating themselves. For example, it is hard to imagine a lifestyle less attractive than one which requires sitting in a darkened room, dressed all in black, listening to dreary music by The Sisters of Mercy or The Mission. And is there anything worse than a miserable person with literary aspirations and no talent?
Notebooks filled with endless, self-important, introspective, angst-ridden psychobabble, of interest to nobody but the author and perhaps the print of The Death of Chatterton, which will inevitably hang on their wall.
Clearly, these kinds of images of the miserable at play will evoke horror in the minds of every sane person. So what is it with our disparaging of contentment? Why, for example, do we assume without reflection that Nineteen Eighty-Four's Winston Smith was correct in his thought that being loved by Big Brother is not enough? Why do we mistake him for a hero, rather than seeing him as a revisionist, angsty, egotistical, misanthrope?
Well, one answer is certainly that suggested by Will Ferguson's HappinessTM; we sense that to be fully human requires at least the potential for a flourishing which goes beyond simply being happy. That to be fully ourselves we need the discontentment which comes from longing for the unobtainable. So, by all means, read and enjoy Ferguson's satire. It's clever, funny and has a picture of a daisy on the front cover.
But there is another, probably preferable, explanation of our disparaging of contentment and romanticisation of suffering. Quite simply, we have not yet read just the right self-help book. So next time you're in your local bookstore pick up a copy of I Ching, You Ching, We Ching. You'll find it next to 101 Ways To Please Your Lover Whilst Playing the Oboe. I promise you won't regret it.
Happyness (TM) is available from Amazon UK