Disappointment, fear and loss are as much a part of life as achievement, hope and joy. But this indeterminate state no longer seems to be socially acceptable
I am going to come out of the closet, and make a shocking, even shameful, admission. I am not a happy person. In fact I am the sort of chap who complete strangers come up to in the street and advise to cheer up, since it might never happen. I am not, I should emphasise, an unhappy person either. I love to laugh, and some of my novels have been admired as pretty good comedies. I think I am pretty much like most people, with moods that shift and transform. Sometimes I am happy, sometimes sad, most of the time I am pretty much neutral, with my mind elsewhere. Disappointment, fear and loss are as much a part of my life as achievement, hope and joy. It is all of a piece.
However, this indeterminate state no longer seems to be socially acceptable. It is required of me, both implicitly and explicitly, that I remain in a state of continual near-explosion — passionate about this, excited about that, looking forward to something else. If not, I am antisocial, a grumpy old man. Worst of all I am a failure, because if I was a success, I would be happy.
Happiness, we are confidently assured, is the objective of life and it is something we “get” by working hard, shopping, playing and exercising, giving to charitable causes and taking part in the drama of late capitalism. Because capitalism loves the goal of happiness — since it can offer endless products that will promise it. When they fail to do so, it can offer alternative products which make an identical promise. And so on. I am not an advocate for misery — far from it. Happiness is good for you and for those around you. But you mustn’t be ashamed if you can’t.
I wish I were happy all the time — I just don’t think it’s a very realistic possibility. The daily parade of disaster on the news is sobering enough. The fact of my own mortality is a downer. Old age and sickness frighten me. The difficulties of human communication produce as much isolation as connection. The corruption and venality of the powerful are daily reminders of injustice. It’s no coincidence that all the greatest works of human drama —from Elektra to Hamlet to A View from the Bridge — are tragedies.
We can, it is suggested, find happiness through good works. This is also an ideology. I am as likely to be disappointed by “doing the right thing” as I am elevated. That’s why it’s so hard to do. The secret truth is that being unselfish can leave you just as empty as being selfish. Not that I’m advocating selfishness — just pointing out that if “goodness” were easy, it wouldn’t be particularly admirable. It would simply be a form of hedonism.Lifting the weight of denial
I am sincerely glad that we have all cheered up since the 1970s and 1980s. But there’s a danger that all this positivity is becoming counterproductive. The UN now has an International Happiness Day when we are all instructed to be happy. If I wasn’t grumpy before, I was after this particular injunction, a classic case of happiness bullying. There is plenty of evidence that cheerfulness is not fuelling the zeitgeist quite as much as we suppose. Depressive illness is at record levels. Children are stressed like never before, as are teachers. Suicide is the main cause of death for men under 35.
There is plenty of unhappiness. Why dwell on it? There’s no need, I agree. But we shouldn’t refuse to acknowledge it. TV and the Internet disseminate a form of propaganda by insisting on and showcasing shiny, creative, fulfilling lives. It makes me feel inadequate because my life, although creative, and fulfilling and quite well paid, does not send me into paroxysms of ecstasy every day. It is just life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, often a confusing mixture of both.
I would not go so far as Slavoj Žižek who, when asked what he found most depressing, answered “the happiness of stupid people”. But I know what he meant. Anyone intelligent and sensitive and thoughtful cannot look at the world and themselves without some inkling that everything, although strange and remarkable, is not always awesome. If we could acknowledge it, the weight of denial could be lifted. And you know what? We’d all be a lot happier for it. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015