If Lloyd Grossman cared to leaf through my study bookshelf asking who lives in a house like this, he might suppose a sad clown.
The Meaning of Life, The Happiness Hypothesis, Everything Is Going To Be OK and one I can’t find that had a title like How To Mend Your Shit Life (the cause of some marital alarm when I brought it back from a Book Fair)- all are conspicuous by their presence.
Perhaps I thought it better to cut to the chase and work back rather than sully myself with hobby middlemen like needlepoint, only to discover the formula for smiles is yarn-free.
Now, if you’re motivated to buy self-help books you’re predisposed to letting them help you, and along the way there have been nuggets.
Whether Buddhism for Sheep delivering bite-sized wisdom in ponderous aphorisms or affirmations’ practical boosts, the heart of these little tricks and truisms is in the right place.
They’re also gratis, accessible and an alternative to substance abuse.
But they do have a tendency to treat symptoms rather than cause (‘don’t dwell, think positively’) or from case studies to weave manifesto (‘x is a behaviour of happy people.’ ‘Bully for them. If I were a happy person I’d also be x-ing ’till the frickin’ cows came home’).
Given that none of them has ever furnished the cure I’m wondering if How can I be happy? is the right question- not because it’s wrong to strive for a preferable state but is the preferable state preferable?
Maybe happiness as a descriptor is where we’re erring because really it’s about joy.
To split hairs, let’s goose-step through semantics to suckle at the English language teat: happiness is often described in relation to good fortune, joy as being a cause of keen pleasure.
We search for the former when we would be better to source the latter.
There are only 3 basic states: good times, bad times and the times inbetween.
We’re used to thinking that the challenging times are challenging; this isn’t true.
Challenging times are a doddle. Drama is unambivalent; it demands a response. It forces us into an active mode of fight or flight. We might mess up and suffer and wish we were on a party boat going down the Thames instead but essentially we are engaged; we’re dealing with it.
Happiness is the twin in the mirror. It is a state of active engagement- the lining up of events in a fortuitous fashion. It’s the world conforming to pleasing effect, or the cheesy grin of the A-Team’s Hannibal as his van is transformed into an uber-vehicle of emancipation: ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’
Joy is an intervention to the passive. It is a choice- the deliberate poking of a cheerful nose into the space where mind wanders and turns in on itself. It is the decision to notice the shine on the turd, digging as deep as hell when it’s easier, more habitual, less lonely, to bemoan the turdiness of the turd.
Joy doesn’t shine the turd; it is not a smile on sadness. It doesn’t turn around grief with a hopeful slap of the thigh.
It is an effortful meditation; the derivation of beauty from the apparently unbeautiful; a recognition of that which would normally be overlooked; a celebration on nobody’s birthday.
It is an extraction, an extrusion, an enfleurage process that in the place of the fragrant compounds of plants captures the essence of grace. Sustained investigation, applied imagination; these are its demands.
It’s a Broadway Whodunnit to happiness’ Moulin Rouge spectacle, and the reason that there are tetraplegics whose hearts sing, while Victoria Beckham looks like Eeyore in a pencil skirt.
Our capacity for joy is not our high point; it is our mean state. It’s how we cope standing in the queue at Tesco, not how fabulous we feel in high heels.
Happiness is about enjoying the good times- or tautology in a playsuit. Any fool, after all, can ace a party.
It’s a default emotion no more helpful as a measure of equilibrium than is sadness around death- one that is destined to leave us vulnerable and unprepared when the heel breaks or the carriage turns into a pumpkin.
To seek happiness is to ask for reassurance. It’s the ego’s affirmation; the enshrinement of delusion; a relief from the withdrawal of bad times, like a cigarette.
To ask to be happy is to ask, How can I not suffer?
The answer is, When suffering is not required.
If you feel and you love and you engage, you will know ecstasy and you will suffer.
Suffering is not to be feared. Like happy, unhappy takes care of itself.
Neutral is the dupe that needs addressing: the misery in the mundane; the non-special running through your Aquafresh toothpaste twice a day, day after boring day.
Positive thinking, the counting of blessings, gratitude, the half-full glass… how can these hurt? They all skip around in the same food group giving each other high fives and sherbert dib-dabs. They are a story, a nod of acknowledgement that our perception of things amounts to their existence.
But they are still broad brushstrokes compared to the minute attention of joy, a meta-text to the bliss inherent in our world if only we can be open to it.
Our work, we come to understand, is not to seek happiness but rather to cultivate joy- a come-down-free, omnipresent, renewable source that’s unreliant on self-gratification. My God, it’s all lined up for us! It’s practically Happiness!
And what of the joy to be found in crises?
One step at a time, Pleasure Seekers.
ps. Incidentally, it hasn’t escaped my attention that Mumbo has gone up its own jacksy, that it’s not clever, and it certainly isn’t funny, and there are better egg sucking teachers. It’ll pass.