Radio 4 reporter Becky Milligan ponders the secret of happiness…

The question is: what makes you happy? What makes you laugh so hard you’re sick on the floor? Are you happier than sadder? Or so-so, on cruise control, or just below par? And what makes you cry, sob into your sandwiches, howl into a feather pillow to muffle your anguish. What does it for you?

The other day I was on the 87 bus sitting on the upper deck admiring the long blue sky and sparkly clean Thames, Parliament in full glorious view as we steamed over Vauxhall Bridge. I made my way down those vertical stairs and the bus suddenly lurched to the right, tossing me to the left. Through no fault of my own I found myself kneeling on the floor beside a smart young man with my face planted in his groin. I stayed down there a second too long, longer than was decent. But the shock of it, I couldn’t move, and for a brief moment it was really rather comfortable and warm down there. Eventually I stood up and brushed myself down muttering an apology. But his and the other passengers faces neither smiled nor frowned. Oh, the humiliation of it, the cruelty of it, embarrassment multiplied a trillion times by the po-faces. I would have cried. But I smiled instead. The best jokes are at our own expense aren’t they? The best humour sparked by our own foolishness. The biggest laughs prompted by own absurd behaviour. Our own misery is the funniest thing sometimes. It can lift the spirits.

It was a recent interview I did with the guru of happiness, Professor Martin Seligman, that prompted me thinking about all of this. That and an email from Professor Richard Layard, the happiness Tsar, in which he wrote that David Cameron’s well-being survey was to be published imminently and perhaps I might like to report on the results. I was overcome by a dreadful gloom.

Afterwards striding along back passages at the House of Commons with a colleague on our way to some summer party I contemplated the well-being debate. Lost, we whisked up flights of stairs and down again, moved along dark corridors reaching one locked door after another. I struck up conversation to pass the time.

“It’s a load of old baloney, isn’t this happiness thingy. Why should we all want to be happy all of the time?”

My companion pulled up abruptly. “Why? Why? Because it’s the key to a healthier economy and increased production,” he said, “There is research, you know, which shows it.”

I immediately agreed with him. Perhaps investing in our national mood is worth it, because we are worth it and it brings in big returns on the investment. But I have a few nagging doubts about the survey. I can’t understand how measuring well-being (all those numbers and graphs and long words and complicated syntax, not easy to absorb unless you have a degree in psychology) might be of use. A survey is a survey, it’s hardly a cure. What if we discover that we’re pretty downbeat, that we have an impressive bad-being rate? That wouldn’t do much for our collective mental state, or maybe it would. And if, when we’re happier, our economy improves why doesn’t the Government take the short cut and put Prozac in the water. It’s a thought. Would lobotomies have the desired effect? We could drift around in a vague haze of nothingness and become benignly highly productive. Oh, it’s all so confusing.

Earlier in the week I had enjoyed a lecture presented by Dr Martin Seligman in one of the commons committee rooms. Fourteen I think. He bounced off the walls telling the packed room that he wasn’t, actually, that much interested in happiness anymore nor well-being for that matter. It was now about “Flourishing”. That’s it, flourishing. We must flourish and this can be “learned.” I won’t bore you with the technical detail he put up on his projector. But the general overall point was that it is worth flourishing and worth pursuing. I wondered how I might learn the tools to do this. One clue might be found in the book A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor. He writes about a French monastery in which he is staying. At first he describes his misery of being trapped in his monk cell but slowly his mood improves.

The desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo: after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment.

And without the stimulus came an “energy and limpid freshness”.

That is a state of mind worth pursuing isn’t it? That is flourishing. It reminded me of an article I had read about happiness in which the author had brought to the reader’s attention a paragraph from The Lord of the Flies, when Henry, one of the characters, wanders to the water’s edge and sees small “transparencies” swimming around in the water.

This was fascinating to Henry. He poked about with a bit of stick, that itself was wave-worn and whitened and a vagrant, and tried to control the motions of the scavengers . . . He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things.

I recognise this. It’s the beauty of happiness, it happens by accident. It happens when we aren’t thinking about it at all, when we’re distracted, when we’re forgetful, when we live in cloud cuckoo land, when we’re absorbed in something else. We cannot force it. When you force it, it ends in tears. Happiness is an ideal which should be approached and captured by indirect methods, as though you are looking at something out of the corner of your eye. If you want to look at the sun observe its reflection in a puddle.

Recently I was in a bit of a mood when my children shouted at me to come and have a look at something “AmaZing”. I found them in the kitchen bent double over a black line of ants marching diagonally across the tiled floor. They began to count them, “We can’t keep track,” they wailed and started over. I began to wonder why the ants were travelling in single file, rather than a crowd, where were they going? Ahh, they were disappearing behind the cooker. I was occupied, engrossed, wondering whether it was possible for a creature so small to think, were their brains bigger than mine relatively speaking. I hardly noticed my small girls boiling the kettle and carefully pouring the steaming liquid on top of the black busy specs.

“What on earth are you doing girls? I thought you were pacifists,” I cried.

“Oh NO, not about ants, mummy we must kill them,” this made me laugh. “It’s unfortunate but a necessity,” my youngest said. She burst into evil giggles and I laughed some more, my bad mood long gone.

So it might be interesting to take a look at the well-being survey. And after digesting it, remember, so I am told, that we don’t laugh because we are happy, but are happy because we laugh. And sometimes ants are all it takes. Or falling over on a bus.


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  1. Worm on Thursday 1, 2014

    Blogging and helping to create a platform where I am daily surprised by the infinite interesting things that interesting people have to say makes me happy

  2. George on Thursday 1, 2014

    Happiness and a strong economy seem mostly unrelated. Stendahl dedicated a work to “the happy few”, but generally loathed the successful economies of his day. The US has often had a strong economy without anyone seeming much to enjoy himself. And one might say the same of Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and now China.

    The American Declaration of Independence speaks of a right to the pursuit of happiness, without defining the object, or how it might be pursued. Without a closer reading, it would be hard to say whether colonial status impaired that right, or only the rights of life and liberty.

    Flourishing sounds like Corporal Trim and his stick, but I suppose Seligman means “thriving.”

  3. Peter on Thursday 1, 2014

    “Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.”

    –Robertson Davies

    • Gaw on Thursday 1, 2014

      Something similarly true and wise: ‘happiness is the inadvertent upshot of activity’. Can’t remember who said it. But temperament certainly helps.

    • Brit on Thursday 1, 2014

      Sheds a poignant, rather helpless light on the notion of ”the pursuit of happiness”.