Who’s happy?

masks-001I began this blog a week ago, intending to write about happiness and how, generally, I believe the upper-classes to be less happy than the lower. I thought I had loads of quotes to use: stuff read over the years – but finding them was a different matter; buried in hundreds of books. However, after nearly abandoning the idea through lack of material, I decided to press on anyway.

A controversial theory perhaps but interesting all the same. Of course the classes as I imagine them mainly existed in the past, nevertheless, there are probably three groups of people everywhere: those at the bottom, those in the middle and those at the top. There are of course major differences in ambition among these categories, some being more-or-less happy where they are, while others’ aspirations and desires know no bounds.

I generalise shamelessly, but I have never understood sentiments such as Vita Sackville-West’s, below:

No thinking man can be happy, all that we can hope for is to get through life with as much suppression of misery as possible.”

I’m sure Sackville-West was immensely talented. I don’t know. I haven’t read her. The above quote is from West’s novel, The Easter Party, quoted in a review of the latest biography of West in the Spectator, written by Mary Keen. She preceded the quote with a comment on Sissinghurst and the gardens created by West, and on which were based her Observer gardening columns. She writes:

Isn’t that what imaginative people do? Make somewhere they can call their own world? Reality, both of the real and of the modern, manufactured sort, is often pretty unbearable and most of us wear masks and adopt strategies for dealing with life in whatever way we can.

Keen goes on to quote Myles Hildyard, who questioned in his letters the right of those who expect to be happy.

So, we have:

…as much suppression of misery as possible’

Reality…is pretty unbearable’

and Hildyard questions those who

expect to be happy’.

All three statements are alien to me. I can’t speak for others, because people are rarely honest about this, but I have been mainly happy throughout my life, at worst content and occasionally miserable. I have no idea why West had to suppress misery. She was well-born, wanted for nothing, lived in splendid surroundings, had a successful career as an artist and two lovely children. What was there to be miserable about?

Now, I do not hide from reality. I am well aware of all the suffering in the world, but thankfully it hasn’t reached me. The unnecessary suffering of others can haunt and anger me; it does not affect my own happiness though – why should it? Making oneself miserable about the suffering of others does no good to the sufferers and no good to oneself. I think in many cases it is merely an excuse to be miserable. I am amazed at the number of young people I meet who declare life a trial, who didn’t ask to be here and don’t appreciate that life is a gift. To be enjoyed. You are here once for a comparatively short time. Be happy.

As you may have gathered, I am working-class.

I suppose what Sackville-West is suggesting is that no thinking person can be happy because the very act of thinking reveals how horrible the world is. But the world isn’t horrible, some human beings are. I don’t see that as a reason to be miserable, especially one as privileged as Vita Sackville-West. It seems to me that many of her class were, and are, just plain miserable. A misery, through their actions, they often end up inflicting on the rest of us, who are not miserable.

Steven King is most certainly working class, straight-talking, no-nonsense and honest. Norman Mailer was always a happy soul, and he was far from well-born. He was at home in – and wrote about – all levels of society. Chekov was descended from peasants, and wrote about them honestly. Tolstoy wanted to be a peasant, learnt their ways but couldn’t be one; he wrote about them sentimentally, but his motives and his heart were in the right place. Graham Greene was happy, although he said he made himself sad by doing too much with his life. Not a writer, but a genius just the same, Charlie Chaplin was born poor, but still thought:

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Of course there is another side, many examples will prove me wrong. Ernest Hemingway said:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

I don’t agree with him. Hemingway was never a happy man and projected his feelings on to others. Kafka, born into the middle-classes, was just plain miserable (and unreadable, in my opinion):

People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as nauseatingly miserable beyond repair.

Beyond repair; good-grief. I’m glad I never met him.

I believe that if you’ve never struggled to pay a bill, never wondered where the next penny is coming from, never been close to homelessness through no fault of your own, then you don’t really fully understand life. Many of the rich and well-off consider the poor to be to blame for their own predicament. This is an easy way to think (or not think); some of the poor are to blame, many lack great ambition (no sin), most are just not greedy, and the majority are not to blame for where they happen to be. They were born there. As were most of the rich. Being born with money means (through no fault of your own) you never have to really deal with life. And I’m not sure you really know happiness either.

Most of the poor I have met are a damn sight happier than the rich. Markedly so. Especially in India, Bali and Cuba, to name just a few of the places I have experience of. Cuba, where 90% of the people are very poor, has the happiest people I’ve ever met. I believe the poor, or not rich more accurately, are happier because, as Epictetus put it:

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

And Aristotle:

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

Charles Darwin, who understood much, and was not of the poor said:

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

Our institutions cause not only poverty but people in body bags. Of this, Barbara Bush said:

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?

This does show how some people deal with reality. They ignore it. I’m not at all sure that Bush has a beautiful mind, but she believes that she has, and the fact that her son caused those body bags to be used does not seem to trouble her, or indeed even occur to her. This is a fine example of how someone, born to riches, lives in a sort of dream-world, a strange world that doesn’t exist, except in the imaginations of very rich, stupid people.

Sadly, I have generalised and simplified outrageously, but at least I have raised a subject for discussion. I will end on a positive note, from perhaps the greatest optimist of all time, Anne Frank, whose happiness in the most horrible of circumstances is an example I wish everybody would follow:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.

Whoever is happy will make others happy.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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8 thoughts on “Who’s happy?

  1. Great post. I too have thought much on the subject of happiness. My current hypothesis is that it is not economics that primarily determine happiness. Rather it is the ability to develop and sustain deep relationships with the people around us. Now it just so happens that poorer communities, in my experience, tend to be closer communities than their more affluent counterparts. Contrast a suburban gated community with a lower income urban community. The residents of the gated community leave for work in the morning, returning through the garage in the evening, rarely interacting with their neighbors. In the lower income community people are out on their porches or on street corners rubbing elbows with one another. The exceptions in both cases seem to me to be those who go against the grain. The wealthy man who values strong family ties and goes out of his way to be intimately involved with friends and colleagues can be very happy indeed. Whereas the poor man who shuns family and friends and preys upon those in his community more vulnerable than himself can be thoroughly unhappy. I think for good reason Jesus said that it “is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” I would argue that wealth doesn’t inhibit happiness, but rather it inhibits the relationships that lead to happiness. Thanks for initiating a thoughtful discussion on an important issue.
    Jim

  2. I agree that the rich can be happy too. I’m not recommending poverty, but don’t understand rich people. As long as I have a roof over my head, books and a bed, I find I don’t need a lot more (I realise this is the height of luxury for some people). I’ve actually been quite rich a few times and it made little difference to me; I may have been less happy. I don’t understand people who must have the latest phone, car, game – whatever – seems to me the height of unhappiness. But we’ve been turned in to mass consumers. Where does that all end? I’m well aware too, that most of the poor now would be the consumers of tomorrow given the chance. I’m quite well advanced in years, so my only solution now is to get the hell out of it – away from the advertising and the silly events that make up much of modern life. In this case: Cuba, not because it’s a perfect society but because it’s like going back to 1959 with the community and lack of urgency and friendship (and lack of advertising) and more that that entails.

    I do agree with you about community, something I think the rich rarely encounter or understand. Thanks for a thoughtful reply.

  3. I have a very large, extended family and the ones among us who are well off are rarely happy. They hardly ever attend family gatherings, and if they do, they sit in a corner and pout because they don’t know anyone.

    The exceptions among us (I count myself as working class) are the shoppers, the tech addicts who want the latest iPhone (well beyond the reach of the middle class in Pakistan, it’s about 2-3 month’s salary to buy an iPhone) and just can’t afford it. They’re just as unhappy.

    This was an excellent, thought-provoking post.

  4. I think that generally I’m sort of right, although the rule doesn’t apply to everyone. Interesting that the well-off are the least happy in your family. I do find that often to be the case. I don’t have a large family. I find that a help rather than a hindrance. I agree that shoppers are unhappy. The working classes have been made unhappy by their duty to shop – and it’s never enough. My answer is don’t shop. I’m afraid there’s a lot of silly people out there. The advertising makes me puke – no humour, no subtlety, no finesse or thought – just “you’ve got to have this, buy it now”.

    Thanks for the compliment!

  5. Chris – I really enjoyed this post, and I think the Epictetus quote sums up my feelings. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” The comment left by Natasha echoes that. If you want endlessly, you’re never going to happy, or as Sheryl Crow tells us “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” We are in the process of selling our house and downsizing to a small, simple apartment, and my wife and I are looking forward to it 100%.

    • I didn’t know Sheryl Crow said that. Yep, sums it up for me. Yet so many people seem lost and miserable. They are just too easily influenced, I fear – just look at Black Friday. Horrible. I’m at the age now where I’ll just find a place to be at peace and mostly forget about it all. Won’t stop me writing though. Thanks for the praise.

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