By Tom Cadman
May sees autumn preparing to slide into winter, with its denuded trees, barren gardens, cold mornings and bleak days accompanied by the inevitable onset of the winter blues. It’s the time of the year when Shakespeare’s graphic phrase, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” takes on an annual significance.
Winter and discontent seem to go hand in hand. As winter progresses we hurry it along, fervently hoping for spring to arrive and a glorious summer to follow.
Perhaps it’s a good time to counteract the anticipated lows of winter with a renewed commitment to the pursuit of happiness. What better way to dispel the blues?
The NZ Listener, mind you, has reservations about such a premise. In the March issue, Jane Clifton looks at the conclusions of American essayist, Barbara Ehrenreich, who after researching a bunch of studies on America’s “feel good” culture decided, “there was no correlation between feeling good and being healthy and even some that said mild pessimism was a more adaptive attitude. It’s not that the search for happiness, enshrined in the American Bill of Rights, is wrong,” she says, “it’s when it becomes compulsory that it fails to deliver.”
Does this mean we are lumbered with an inevitable winter of discontent or are there some positive possibilities in the quest for happiness?
Eric Weiner (rhymes with whiner), author of The Geography of Bliss – One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, spent his life as a journalist “roaming the world telling the stories of gloomy unhappy people living in profoundly unhappy places.” In this book he recounts how he changed tack and went in search of the world’s unheralded happy places. “Places,” he says, “that possess, in spades, one or more of the ingredients we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness.”
In the course of a year, his journey in search of happiness took him to some unusual destinations – the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India and of course the United States.
Along the way he made some interesting discoveries. “The United States is not as happy as it is wealthy. …wealthy people are happier than poor ones but only just. …people are least happy when they are commuting to work,” and strangely, “the world’s happiest nations often report high suicide rates!”
It’s not surprising that lurking in the background is always the question of happiness and money. In Bhutan he gets a salutary reminder of money’s fragility: “There are no billboards or neon signs; there is hardly any advertising in Bhutan, and neon signs were banned until a few years ago. However I do spot this hand painted sign on the side of the road.
When the last tree is cut
When the last river is emptied,
When the last fish is caught,
Only then will we realise that we cannot eat money.”
Our own government appears to have swallowed the idea that money and happiness necessarily go hand in hand. Their determination to mine selected conservation areas, their constant harping on our low income levels compared to Australia, makes me wonder if we would do well to have the Bhutanese sign, professionally painted and fixed above the Speaker’s seat in Parliament’s debating chamber. It would serve as a constant reminder that there are more lasting sources of happiness and contentment than money and may well prove a good substitute for the droning prayer with which each sitting day commences.
It is in Bhutan he uncovers “gross national happiness,” a wellbeing test that serves as an antidote to the Western world’s obsession with Gross National Product. It’s an absurd idea of course. How can a Government have a happiness policy? That may be so but it raises an interesting possibility.
Arriving home in America, Weiner concludes that Americans, and perhaps most Westerners, are less happy than ever before. In the United States since 1960 the divorce rate has doubled, the teen suicide rate trebled, the violent crime rate quadrupled and the prison population quintupled. There are increased rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems and enough evidence to show these are real and not just the result of better reporting.
His conclusion? “What makes for happiness is notoriously hard to predict. We are able to acquire many of the things that we think will make us happy and therefore suffer confusion and disappointment when they do not.”
For Jesus, happiness lay in settling the seat of life’s sovereignty, “seeking first the Kingdom of God.” In other places he makes plain that happiness is a by-product. It does not happen by concentrating on ourselves but on others. To which St Paul adds his own discovery that contentment is the grace that enables us to adapt to all sorts of places and conditions.
“Ultimately,” writes Eric Weiner, “most of us would choose a rich and meaningful life over an empty, happy one, if such a thing is even possible.”
Perhaps W. H. Auden’s recommendation, “dance while you can,” may well be a good starting point in any search for happiness.