A happy plan

When we lose our capacity for happiness, our creativity plummets, our relationships suffer.

One of the songs my children used to sing when they were little – and I imagine countless small children are still singing it – went, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” This line was repeated many times, accompanied by highly enthusiastic hand-clapping, proving in those sweet, simple moments that happiness was something we could identify, experience and celebrate. At least, while we are young.

As we get older, we may still be happy. And we may know it. But for most of us there will also be times when we seriously doubt our capacity for happiness. And we may certainly wonder about the explosion of unhappiness that the World Health Organisation predicts as the greatest health problem our world will face from 2020 onwards. Even if this forecast is as pessimistic as the psychological condition it describes, it remains troubling. What’s more, it isn’t inevitably linked to the other horrors we potentially face, socially and ecologically. As a stand-alone fact we are getting sadder. But of course this fact cannot “stand alone”.

When we lose our capacity for happiness, not only does our ability to care for ourselves shrink, we are also less able to care effectively for other people. Our thinking becomes distorted. Our creativity plummets. We cannot work as effectively. Our relationships suffer. Even surrounded by other people, we feel isolated. Our physical health deteriorates. If our lack of happiness becomes severe, we may even become a danger to ourselves or other people. That loss of happiness is tragic individually. But it is always and also a social loss – with measurable effects on the wider world we are collectively creating.

In the face of all this, over the past few years a small “happiness” industry has developed. This reflects in part the influence of Buddhism on the West. It may also be a reaction to the rather defensive cynicism that has driven mainstream thinking for so long. (“Can anyone other than a newly minted born-again Christian be genuinely happy?” I was asked recently by a professional working in the field of mental health.) Some of it also reflects changing patterns of response and treatment to psychological disorders – and a healthy new-found interest in the psychologically “well”. Whatever the cause, the effect has been to put happiness squarely on the public agenda. Can we be happier? Can we affect our own happiness? Can we “make” other people happier? Is happiness simply a by-product of other factors? If we have to go searching for happiness, is it still an experience worth having?

These are not questions that I have dealt with directly through most of my writing life. I have certainly focused on emotional and social wellbeing. And I’ve paid close attention to how we develop insight, awareness and connectedness. In fact, if I look back on the books I’ve written I can see that I have been constantly engaging with all the factors that contribute to a greater sense of aliveness, hope, joy, serenity, optimism, creativity, inclusiveness and gratitude (all expressions of the complex state of mind that we call happiness). But it is not until now that happiness has come to the forefront of my concerns.

Perhaps I thought that as someone who struggled with depression in my younger life, and certainly with feelings of uncertainty and bleakness even when I seemed to be outwardly “successful”, I wasn’t qualified to write about happiness. (“Leave it to the Dalai Lama,” I probably thought.) But now I see happiness and our relationship to it quite differently. I know that experiencing the absence of happiness has given me invaluable insights. I also know that a genuine vision of happiness can encompass – and soften – times of sorrow, pain, grief and confusion. I know that happiness affects us collectively as much as it does personally. And I know that skills and understanding matter every bit as much as circumstances or temperament.

(For more of Stephanie Dowrick’s short articles, see Free Thinking, published by Allen & Unwin, 2004.)