Our island is somewhat preoccupied with the notion of happiness at present.
Britain is not fair this month. She is not even plain. She is a dull soggy pallid wench, who does not feel like doing her hair right now, because Christmas has come and gone, and the wraith of recession still haunts her tradespeople, and the grey skies have hemmed her in for too long and it is only, forpetessakes, the middle of January.
She would like to be happy: but she doesn’t quite know how.
Enter a knight on a white charger. The knight: a new charity called Action for Happiness (AFH), led by eco-inspired management consultant Mark Williamson. And the charger? Why, The British Broadcasting Corporation.
A look at the charity, due to be launched later in the year, engenders mixed feelings in a British temperament. The words which it uses to promote itself seem straightforward and artless.The message is this: we are more affluent than we have ever been, yet we are more stressed and unhappy.
They insist we can learn to be happier.
But we don’t hold with too much change here; we’re not for sentiment and show. They talk of a radical shift in culture, and we huff and puff and say, yes, well, that’s all very well, but who’s going to pay the gas bill and battle with the call centre for me if I’m busy changing the culture of Britain?
This is where the charger comes in.
Because we trust the BBC’s Breakfast programme. We listen to those nice smiling presenters on that lovely scarlet couch while we do our ironing and make the kids’ packed lunches and plan the day ahead. And if they say we might achieve happiness – well, we might just be able to visualise it happening.
So the Breakfast team have dubbed this the week of the Happiness Challenge. They’ve rounded up a set of people from all walks of life and booked a posh hotel in Scarborough. The director of AFH, Mark Williamson, is running workshops for the sample group in happiness techniques and meditation: and each morning, over its cereal and toast, a nation watches, rapt.
Could it really work?
The jury is out, and we’ll see what the guinea pigs say at the end of the week. They are, after all, pondering one of the basic questions of life: How can I be happy?
I wonder if that is the theme of every book that is ever written and the subtext to every play. Do we all quest in our own bumbling way for happiness, or are there some for whom bleak is best?
At home with my seven year old son, Felix, we are reading an abridged version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. As I pondered happiness and unhappiness during the day, its antiheroine, Kathy, came to mind. A woman who could have had every social advantage: who was well provided for; who had the love of a devoted husband; and yet seemed born for tragedy.
The choices she made were often headstrong and thoughtless. She was dominated by a stomach full of emotions, not sentiment: great wild horses which trampled down any chance she could ever have of happiness. Today Felix related the scene where Kathy slaps the faithful maid, Ellen, in front of her young moneyed admirer Edgar Linton.
Her temper does not stop there: when her young nephew cries because his closest carer has been hurt, he chooses to voice the words ‘wicked Aunt Kathy’, and earns himself a thorough shaking. Finally Edgar intervenes and she aims a stinging blow at him.
Such self destructive behaviour in a young woman. Are there just some irredeemable wrong ‘uns in the world?
By total contrast, the late Victorian story of a city clerk who lives in an unassuming terraced house in Holloway shows how some people are predisposed to happiness. Charles Pooter, of Diary Of A Nobody fame, rambles on about everything and nothing in his daily journal. We hear of jokes he has made, the odd puzzling dream, life at the office, a happy relationship with his homely wife Carrie, and arguments with the egg man.
Somehow, though, happiness exudes from the pages of this little masterpiece by Lloyd and Weedon Grossmith. Perhaps because the very act of writing a diary means that Pooter reflects on the small happinesses of his life: a solid relationship with his well-established employers; a son who finally turns out well; good friends and relatives.
Action For Happiness hypothesises that happiness is a choice: something which can be learned, if we know how. Could they have rescued Kathy? More importantly, could Pooter have taught us a thing or two?
Time to answer with a little metaphor.
CS Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles closes with the end of Lewis’s fictional world. Towards the end of The Last Battle, a shed has been put up: a door to something else. It’s just this shed door standing in a clearing, and everyone’s saying the vengeful, terrible god, Tash, is inside. The last hero of Narnia, Tirian, is fighting his enemy: and as a last desperate ploy, he jumps inside the shed and invites his opponent to come and meet Tash.
When he gets inside, the shed is not dark. Indeed, he is in a beautiful green paradise: the new Narnia. A kind of heaven.
Tash comes to claim the baddie and leaves; and all the people who have ever visited Narnia from our world are there to greet Tirian. As is Aslan, the lion who made Narnia in the first place.
But there’s a group of people who are not convinced.
Lewis’s mythical dwarves are stalwart souls: history records some great heroes amongst their ranks. But they know what they like and they like what they know. And the throng of new Narnians come upon them, sitting in a circle. The dwarves insist they are in a dark shed.
They have been thrown in the shed of Tash: and their pragmatic minds will admit no other possibility. They sit there in paradise, doomed to the dark little space which exists only in their mind.
A clever picture. At any moment we can open our minds to see what is there all the time.
But it’s a choice.