If you ask most people what they want from life, most will say to be happy. Probe further, ask what they mean by ‘happy’, and you will get some oblique but not very satisfactory answers: money, status, success for yourself and your children, love, health for those that don’t possess it. These seem to be the symptoms rather than a descriptive of the state that we would call ‘happy’. Is it self fulfilment? If so how do we square the self fulfilment of the mouse and the cat? Is it a state to which one aspires, or a journey?  A Chinese proverb contains much wisdom. Happiness is ‘Something to do, someone to love, something to hope for’. Imagine the negative of any of these, or the lack of any one of them and its veracity is apparent.

Something to do. Happy people tend to be busy, maybe because too much reflection, by those that are not trained for it, can lead to navel-gazing where the focus can be on what is wrong with oneself, one’s relationships and the world. Dissatisfaction can become mental illness that feeds on itself, given the fertile ground that boredom provides: the devil, it is famously said, makes work for idle hands. The self-respect and sense of purpose that goes with earning a living is illustrated best by its converse – the soul-sapping misery of unemployment. This does not mean you have to love your work – a privilege given to few - but if you don’t actively hate it then the other two can probably haul you through, especially the last – hope.

Someone to love. Does love make you happy? Those that are ‘in love’, tend to be like manic depressives, soaring to the heights of ecstasy before plumbing the depths of doubt and rejection, an experience that is memorable for its sweetness and misery and never forgotten – but not really ‘happy’. And we all know those who think that a relationship will make them happy when we know in our heart of hearts that the happiness has to come first: get happy to make someone else happy who will make you happy: it’s a cruel chicken and egg syndrome. Love is, perhaps, a feeling of value, that your core is something that is valued by someone else and vice versa - which is not the same as romantic love. It is about security – knowing that those insecurities and inner sadnesses are safe with another.  In his beautiful book, The Intimate History of Humanity, Theodore Zeldin conceptualises a modern, mature view of love that goes beyond the securing of property and the romantic ideal that we know in our heart-of- hearts is not a realistic state of mind,, “A third kind of intimacy has been imagined, an intimacy of minds, for people who read and think and observe both others and themselves, and for whom life is an exploration.  Instead of constantly asking each other 'Are you still besotted with me?' the question has become, 'Do you still interest me, stimulate me, help me, comfort me, and care for me as I change and grow, and do I still do the same for you?' This intimacy is a partnership in the search for truth, enabling each to see the world twice over, through the other's eyes as well as one's own. Penetrating into each other's mind involves neither submission nor domination: the partners try to listen to each other, while each remains a separate person, conscious that intimacy can be a cause of conflicts, or become too close and stifling, or too defensive.  It cannot be a totally safe retreat from the hostile world, and the implication is that two people are unable to satisfy each other's needs in their entirety.  But their differences make it possible for them to help each other to explore, together and separately, what they could not attempt on their own.”

Something to hope for. Is it possible, unless you enjoy a firm religious belief, to be happy in hospice? Or a prison? Accepting maybe, but happy? Hope might also be about dreams – aspiration to something more than the mundane trudge of daily life. This is not the fantasy of a lottery win but the idea that tomorrow may be better than today – or indeed that tomorrow will be there at all.

So is happiness a state? And if so how do you recognise it? Is it only recognisable if you know unhappiness – in which case it may be more of a journey than a place where you arrive and the happiness itself comes from the striving and sense of achievement that it gives as you attain your goals no matter how small. It could also be a decision. Life is made up of good things and also sadness and grief. You can make a decision to, in the words of the song, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. We all know people who are good at this and they always seem happy even in a state of grief. As the Queen so aptly put it after 9/11, grief is the price we pay for love. Grief and happiness are faces of the same coin – not opposites. Sadness and unhappiness around you are not a bar to being happy though this is not a point to labour if taken to extremes. The decision could also be to take pleasure from small things – a cup of tea, birdsong, a beautiful day. The truism that money doesn’t buy you happiness is a recognition that the competition for greater luxury leaves little time for appreciating these things. Manfred Kets de Vries, who has spent years observing overachieving businessmen put this nicely. ‘All of us are wealthy to the extent that, rather than seeking to have what we want, we seek to want what we have.’ Ingrid Bergman had a simple description of happiness: good health – and a bad memory.

Happiness seems to be a side product – something that comes as a result of looking in other places and doing things. The more we search for it, the more hidden it remains. Nathaniel Hawthorn elucidates this. ‘Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond the grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’

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