The Changing Face of Happiness
Once upon a time in the writing of this newsletter, I used to start every week’s entry by asking you guys, the readers, a question. I’d love to resurrect that element this week if that’s alright, and if any of you would be willing to share your answers with me I’d love to read them and respond to them. My question this week is:
If you could only choose ONE thing, what one thing would you choose that you don’t currently have in your life that you believe would make you completely happy?
I ask this not because I assume the people reading this newsletter aren’t leading happy lives already – you all seem pretty happy and fulfilled from your replies – but because I think everybodytends to live by circling around somethingin their minds which they believe is a condition for their eventual future happiness, rather than being able to consciously practice and cultivate happiness in their day-to-day lives. Even if we’ve arranged the circumstances of our lives to deliver as many of the things we want and care about as possible, it’s hard to avoid occasionally thinking “And once I’ve managed to get thisthing sorted, then life will reallybegin!” It’s an attitude I’m working hard to unlearn, but it also seems to be fairly universal, from the stuff I’ve been reading.
It’s a phenomenon which the Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz called “the provisional life” (you can read a blog about it by the brilliant Oliver Burkeman here) and it might end up being the starting point for a new project I’m beginning to gather ideas for. Whether that project ends up being a theatre show, a scripted narrative thing, an audio piece, a documentary film, or whatever else I’ve no idea, but it’s a subject I keep reading interesting things about and then turning over in my head, so there’s something in there I’m curious about. I’d love to hear if any of you have returning points of significance you go back to in your minds, telling yourself “Once I’ve got thatthing, then things will be perfect,”if you’d be willing to share them with me!
I recently read this piece on the world’s leading happiness expert, Robert Waldinger, sharing his findings on what makes people happy, and he draws an important distinction between Hedonic happiness (doing things that make you feel good right now,hence Hedonism’s general association with food, drinking, partying etc) and Aristotelian happiness – the sense that life is meaningful and generally good. Waldinger’s example is of a parent getting home from an exhausting day of work and needing to read a bedtime story to their kid that they’ve already read a hundred times already – it might not be the thing that actually feels like the best, most enjoyable thing to do in that moment, but it will still have a net positive impact on your overall happiness, because it’s an activity stemming from someone’s values that they have chosen to invest with meaning.
I think the key to leading a truly happy life is finding the right balance between those two models. A purely Hedonic life looks very empty to me – it requires the chasing of more and more dopamine hits and adrenaline highs, all in the name of doing what feels good rather than doing what your chosen values drive you to do, which sounds tiring and sad to me. But a purely Aristotelian life is a pretty empty one, as well, I fear (I say “I fear” because I’m definitely someone who lives primarily according to that model rather than the other one; I’m quite bad at spontaneous hedonism). Last week I saw Kim Noble’s incredible Lullaby For Scavengers,which in many ways is a brutally honest depiction of what it takes to live a life driven entirely by what you believe is meaningful. There’s no doubt that without an unflinching desire to make uncompromising art, that show would not be anything close to what it is – it’s the sort of show you either make with 110% conviction, or that you don’t consider making at all. But it doesn’t pull any punches about what an outcast and a pariah you become when every choice you make is informed by that model, and never by any consideration for what you might choose to do if you just wanted to do something pleasant, or nice, or be kind to yourself for a bit.
Kim Noble living in a sewer
Thankfully, the options obviously aren’t limited to either “Shallow, vacuous, miserable party animal” or “Lonely social outcast artist” (and it’s also slightly unfair of me to use Kim Noble as my sole example of the latter as I don’t know him, and he may well be incredibly happy and fulfilled outside of the dark, twisted narratives of his shows, I’m just reporting my own feelings on what I thought about while watching it). In between those poles lies a way of living that generally balances our need for pleasure with our need for meaning, and in a funny way I think it’s that balance that gives rise to the “provisional life” mindset. Perhaps that “One of these days…” mentality is a byproduct from our consciously choosing notto live a life dictated entirely by one of those two extremes, so we’re constantly wondering what it would be like if we slid slightly in either direction.
The final thing about that Guardian piece I’ll dig into is the very alarming fact that, in a study among millennials on what they believed they would need in order to have a happy life, fame was a frequent response. From some other reading I’ve done on the subject, “fame” was practically non-existent as an answer when people first started doing these studies on happiness around 100 years ago. I have a theory that this changing face of what people believe happiness looks like has a lot to do with Simon Cowell. For hundreds or even thousands of years, wanting to be famous was quite a weird thing to want. Pursuing a creative career was a weird thing to want – it was quite narcissistic, quite precarious, often involved inflating your personality and behaving in ways which are socially quite problematic. It was a way of life that was generally only pursued by a very specific personality type. Then at the end of the 20th century, reality TV and Simon Cowell and The X Factorand Pop Idolcame along and broadcast the message that the concept of “fame” was not an unfortunate byproduct of choosing to pursue a particular type of career – chiefly media and the arts, but also maybe politics or a handful of other pursuits – it was now an outcome and a goal in its own right, and one that was achievable for everybody and anybody. It became a normal thing to want, even for those that weren’t necessarily thatinterested in doing any of the things you used to need to have done before you were considered famous.
I think it’s alarming that that shift seems to have caused such a generational rewrite in people’s conceptions of what happiness looks like, or what it requires. Don’t get me wrong – working in the arts, I totally understand the feeling that maybe getting more validation for the things you make might make you happier. I’ve had to work hard to unpick those feelings so they don’t hold too much sway over my general happiness, or start to warp my own ideas of what I need in order to feel happy with my life. These days, I tend to codify it by telling myself that the one thing I want in order to feel like I have a happy life isn’t for my creative work to be “successful,” but for other people to enjoy it enough for it to continue providing me with the opportunities to make more work. This feels like a more sustainable way of thinking about it:
Less “One day I will have this” and more “Every day I will do this.”
An old friend of mine told me this was too vague to be a personal mission statement, as it basically amounts to saying “In order to be truly happy, I will continue to do things,” which is a bit of a cop-out, but to be completely honest, I don’t mind that so much. It sounds like the makings of a happy life to me.
What about you guys? What conditions do you find yourself setting for your future happiness? What eventual “One day…”s do you find yourself circling back to? I’d love to hear them if you’d like to share them with me – perhaps they’ll help me to find my way through this new project as and when it begins to take shape!
To get the ball rolling, the thing I most often find myself wondering about is the idea of one day being cast in a TV comedy show like the ones I loved growing up. I’m aware it’s an unhealthy thing to pin future hopes on, as it’s not really in my control, but it’s the one thing my brain often goes back to thinking “That’d be nice.” Let me know what yours are!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Some brilliant shows are at Soho Theatre next week, including Sam Nicoresti’sCancel Anti-Wokeflake Snow Culture on Monday and Tuesday, and Roisin & Chiara’sSex On Wheels on Friday and Saturday.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – The amazing Katie Pritchard did a new character at ACMS on Monday, in the guise of a worm doing burlesque. It’s really quite something.
Book Of The Week –Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a spooky modern ghost story set in Highgate. It’s good!
Album Of The Week –Fantasy by M83. This is their new album, and their best since 2011’s megahitHurry Up, We’re Dreaming. I think Anthony Gonzalez has spent a lot of the years since then trying to process that album’s success, which he never really planned or aimed for, and this album sounds like the one where he’s finally at peace with it. It’s great.
Film Of The Week –Uncut Gems. My God, this is a stressful film. I’d been told the film was just watching Adam Sandler make a series of terrible decisions, and yet I was not prepared for quite how angry they would all make me, and quite how many times I would say “No, surely not” at the screen.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know your thoughts, and if you’ve enjoyed this newsletter then I’d love you to send it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Spring’s on its way: