A friend of mine recently commented that most of the women she knows don’t seem very happy. Despite being married with children, comfortably off and in good health, they moan constantly to her about their husbands, offspring, houses and jobs. My friend is a positive person who just gets on with life and she doesn’t understand why these women complain all the time.
I do. There’s a lot of fun to be had from moaning – not to mention whingeing, ranting and bitching. Nothing drags me down more than relentless cheerfulness; to quote Aldous Huxley, there’s something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness. Indeed, I’d argue that the very fortunate have a moral duty to gripe from time to time, if only to remind the rest of us that they, too, have their problems.
In any case, it’s no great revelation that the pursuit of happiness often ends in dissatisfaction, especially when it involves the accumulation of material wealth. Many of my old neighbours have moved away from our terraced street to large detached houses, only to find that they’ve lost something intangible in the process. They chased what they thought they ought to want – sweeping lawns, off-street parking and electronic gates. It turns out that the things they left behind – front doors that open directly on to the pavement, postage-stamp back gardens and the proximity of a busy high street – foster a sense of community that’s lacking in the tree-lined avenues further out of town.
I’m bemused that happiness is something we wish for our children. ‘I just want you to be happy,’ we say, using this as justification for buying them an endless supply of consumer goods and ferrying them around to sports clubs and friends’ houses in their spare time. When I contemplate my sons’ futures, I can think of so many things that would come higher up my wish-list than happiness. What about kindness, consideration, reflectiveness or thoughtfulness? Don’t these qualities make a far greater contribution to the common good?
Our modern obsession with taking our emotional temperature every five minutes hasn’t served us well. When it comes to encouraging this corrosive self-scrutiny, the psychoanalysis industry has a lot to answer for, with its therapy-for-therapists model that resembles pyramid-selling. The point, surely, is that happiness is elusive. You’re occasionally aware of it at the periphery of your vision, like a faint constellation in the night sky, but as soon as you try to examine it, it slips out of focus.
So, instead of happiness, I’ll settle for contentment. The things that make me content might look a bit like a lowbrow version of Woody Allen’s rumination in the closing scenes of Manhattan on things that make life worth living: a long list beginning with Groucho Marx and ending with his lover’s face.
My own list would be a random assortment of food and drink, songs, smells, places and people: a blueprint of a life. It would include cheese, chocolate, oysters and red wine (but not all at the same time); the scent of furniture polish, cut grass and freshly ground coffee (ditto); the music of Bobby Womack and Leonard Cohen; the memory of my parents dancing to December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons; the Liverpool waterfront on an autumn evening; the tiny village we visited in south-west France, long before we had children, where swarms of pipistrelle bats fed on insects under the streetlight; my first sighting of the New York city skyline on a bus from JFK airport; and sitting on a windswept beach in Pembrokeshire watching my sons play football with their father and grandfather.
Naturally, none of this prevents me from having a good moan from time to time. Still, I have to admit that, in comparison, happiness seems like such an irrelevant, frothy little emotion.