I’ve been over indulging in one of my favourite past times recently - staring out of the window. I used to be handed a punishment exercise on a weekly basis at school for my cloth eared, head tilted reveries but they never quite managed to flog it out of me. This weekend I’ve been thinking about happiness. The Founding Fathers wrote about the "pursuit of happiness" wisely aware that it was a swift and agile hare which we can't always catch. In many ways it is a Catholic grace - a gift. Popular culture would lead us to believe that there are machinations and mantras and proscribed actions that will lead to this elevated state. They are wrong, one thing is certain, if you chase happiness you will never catch it. As Burns said: "pleasures are, like poppies spread, you seize the flower, its bloom is shed'.
If I could I would illustrate this with 'The Happiness Project" right now, not as a recommendation but as an illustration of how each side of the pond reaches for this elusive charis. My best friend and I both started reading it and independently of each other threw it across the room in rage and yet it spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list.
Instead I’d recommend A.C Grayling, the British philosopher with the long movie star locks, who writes that “happiness is an epiphenomenon - that is, something that arises as a by-product of other things, and is only ever a by-product. It comes unconsciously and from the side, it is not and can never be the direct target. It is like the dot of light in a dark room which, if looked at directly, is invisible, but which comes into view when one directs one’s gaze elsewhere.”
What does make us happy depends on where we live. Studies report that in Japan happiness wraps around those who spend time with family, those who are self disciplined, friendly and co-operative, in America the elusive blue bird is linked to expressing oneself, self worth and material success.
Yet research has shown that more money does not equate to more happiness, given that the world’s happiest people are Nigerians and Mexicans,(I find that a bit hard to believe too) while those who put the most store by income and status are often the most unhappy as we are hardwired never to have enough of either.
So how to be happy? Find a way to stop comparing ourselves with our neighbours. Build that metaphorical fence a few metres higher and stop peering over.
Here are a few things which always lift my spirits:
1. A patch of sunlight - my inner cat will contort into all manner of positions to grasp a few rays.
2. Diptyque candles - Figuier in spring/summer, Patchouli in autumn and Myrhhe for the month of December. These are my olfactory magic carpets which spirit me away to a higher, happier plain.
3. Spinning and fencing - I’m a natural sloth and loathe exercise. I’m one of those people who “will not walk the length of themselves” but there is something about “go faster” that cuts through my darkest moods. I suffer from anxiety and several times when I’ve been on the verge of a panic attack, these two pursuits sooth me like a cocktail of mother’s milk and De Quincey’s opium.
4. Nature - That beautiful, bounteous cornucopia which leads us all back to the perfect Edenic state.
5. Dachshunds - they have my heart.
Epicurus said that happiness is the fruit of “moderation and quietness” but he forgot to mention cocktails. I’ve always found that the recipe for happiness is almost identical to that of a mid-afternoon Manhattan.
How do you tempt that flirty blue bird onto your windowsill?
Back next Monday!