So I started writing my list. It was a list of rules. It was a List of Rules for Happiness. Yes, yes, have a big scoff! Here’s how far I got.
- Control my road rage.
- Think about what Frank O’Hara would do.
- Don’t wear uncomfortable shoes or shoes that always fall off.
- Learn how to fix a puncture
Rightly sensing it was futile, I gave up. In so many ways, the List has helped me out: shaping and reshaping and whittling the days. Quietly going about its business of taking “baby steps” and chipping away at “priorities”. But it wouldn’t help me this time. The List has crossed itself, gently but firmly, off. Ol’ Listy has left the building.
If you want to go there, you can find an incredible swathe of Rules for Happinesses and the like. (One place to start is Barking Up the Wrong Tree’s impressive digest of things you didn’t know about happiness, which includes articles such as “Do negative emotions improve sports watching?” and “How to make good experiences even more pleasurable and bad ones even worse”.)
The whole idea of the “Rules for Happiness” is sort of an oxymoron. Firstly – obviously – happiness can’t really be a goal in itself. It can only ever be the sidecar to a particular thing you’re doing or thinking. Second, anything or anyone that tries to get you to lighten up, especially when all signs point to crud, not only doesn’t have the desired effect but can also lead you to feel a peculiar blend of resentment. First, the attempt emphasises just how un-positive you actually feel. Second, it makes you momentarily loathe the person or thing that’s trying to lift your spirits. (Think of the office party. Then die inside.) Third, true happiness, no matter how short-lived, can only ever arise freely. I’m sure this must be true, because I’ve never knowingly had a nice day because someone told me to. Whenever a supermarket teller told my great Uncle James to have a nice day, he would say darkly, “I have other plans.”
I still remember my mother telling me, before a piano lesson with Beverly Archibald (the great pianist of my home town, Te Kuiti): “For God’s sake, smile, bugger ya!” So, after a crap day at school, for which reason I was not smiling, I had a miserable piano lesson. And I was so discombobulated by my attempts to smile that I accidentally farted (I was about nine, so I tell myself this person is not me anymore), to which my mother cried, “Say pardon!”
Whether imposed by your mother, your boss, or even your rational thinking brain, forced jollity and pardons don’t fool our emotional brains. It’s like telling an armed and fully wired intruder, “Just relax, big lug,” which will enrage them, and it’s like the email I got today that tells me to “Celebrate body shape diversity!” on Diet Free Day and to carry out a ceremonial smashing of my scales (the implication that all other days are designated non-celebratory makes me feel particularly grim) and it’s like the obligation to go sight-seeing, which I always do reluctantly, even in this great city. “Look at the world,” the sight-seeing trip says. “Marvel at the immeasurable beauty of nature and the glorious achievements of mankind.” But I can’t bring myself to marvel for the sake of marvelling. It’s unnatural.
The UK media have been talking a lot about happiness recently because a movement called Action for Happiness was launched last month with the grand ambition of stanching the tide of miserableness in Britain. David Cameron has made it a target of government policy, so the whole thing has received plenty of criticism and sneering of the “We’d be better off miserable than wasting money on this bollocks” variety. So I tried to be cynical about it and found I couldn’t. There’s a crucial difference between telling people how to feel and promoting positive change in people’s communities, I think. Action for Happiness seems to define happiness in fairly broad terms. It can safely assume that we all want to be healthy, to live somewhere safe, to feel like we’re part of things. So it wants to create circumstances in which people are more likely to feel better about, well, being alive – by encouraging volunteering, encouraging people to help keep their communities safe, and promoting personal responsibility (don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, should we really eat this cake, oh alright then go on, etc.). To me, it’s not saying that’s all there is to it. It’s just a gentle prod that says, “Life could be a bit easier to deal with if we all did this.” The trouble is how to get people to engage with that so that it becomes meaningful.
So all the stuff about list-making, yeah, don’t worry about that for now.