Are you a happy person? Or, to put it another way, how would you rate yourself out of ten on the happiness scale? A person who recognises himself or herself as generally happy almost all the time would score ten. Someone who lives nearly permanently with depression or anxiety would score one. I would put myself at seven to eight. Perhaps seven is better for occasionally I find myself prone to irrational anxiety.
We might look at the factors which contribute to our happiness. I am struck by the fact that happiness is only loosely connected with circumstances. Someone who has a comfortable income and sufficient saving is not necessarily happier than someone who has to budget with great care in order to pay the bills. Sick people may be happier than fit people. We are all agreed that our standard of living has risen dramatically since Victorian times, but are we confident that the Victorians lived a life of tragedy in comparison with us? Do we assume that our medieval ancestors lived in misery compared with the benefits which have developed since then?
Certainly comparisons are important, but they do tend to be short term. So, if we have just acquired a new car, or a new food mixer or a new blouse we may feel happy because we are able to contrast our new benefit with not having it. But the comparison may have faded in 24 hours or 24 days. I have a friend in her fifties who finds it necessary to buy new clothing every week, and sometimes every day. Her cupboards are full, and more than full. Yet many of her purchases actually stay in the box. I take this to be an addiction: the pleasure centre in her brain only comes into action with acquisition. I think that her demanding job, which is pretty thankless, plays a part in this. What else has she got to enjoy?
Temperament is clearly a factor. At the negative end of the scale we find misery through depression. If you know anyone with deep depression you will know that all your advice and reasons to cheer up fall on stony ground. A frequent feature of depression is the belief that you cannot cure it; you are locked in. Some such people may be helped by psychotherapy, but not everyone. Above that dire level we find people who are more inclined to depression than others. And much the same may be said about conditions of anxiety. Sometimes the sufferer here is rationally aware that anxiety is not justified, and never helpful. But they remain anxious.
Upbringing can be a factor. I have a friend whose mother died from tuberculosis when he was six years old. For safety reasons he was not allowed in the same room during her long illness. After her death his father married again, and started a new family. My friend was pushed to the margins – he was an unnecessary addition. Today, seven decades later, he has never escaped from the feeling that he is unworthy of others’ love – so he cannot rely on it, or them.
Perhaps there is an answer in our relationships. Surrounded by loving family we are aware of the value of that. Yet relationships have their hazards too. Who is sick? Who has just lost their job? Who is quarrelling? Who has died recently? The problems come and go: we can move from happy to unhappy overnight. Here again temperament can claim a big part. If we can, in Kipling’s words: “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same” then we are remarkable people.
Yet there is a brighter side. If we look at the less fortunate areas of our society, or at the almost unimaginable conditions elsewhere in the world, we may hope that some people remain happy, nevertheless. I like to tell my grandchildren of the Blitz and the doodlebugs, rationing and the tough post war years compared with their bed of roses. But in truth I enjoyed it all – and all the more as things improved until Macmillan could say in 1957, “most of our people have never had it so good.” My expectations were small compared with my grandchildren, but they were met. Closing the distance between expectations and their fulfilment is one key to happiness. Perhaps in its pursuit we should focus on pruning our expectations rather than bewailing the gap