’d always been told that I could achieve anything with hard work. So when clinical depression hit, I decided to work my way to happiness. The idea struck when a Facebook friend took up the “100 happy days challenge”. The challenge involves putting up a happy picture, video or description for a hundred days straight. Apparently after this, your neural pathways get into the habit of ejaculating endorphins at the drop of a hat, thereby making you deliriously happy at the sight of drying paint.
Now, to a guy struggling with depression, this gives me hope. It tells me happiness is like a mathematical problem. With enough pig-headedness, I could crack it like any other differential equation. I begin where all 21st century quests begin – Google. As soon as I type in “how to be happy”, dozens of articles appear, announcing “7 Sure-fire Happiness Shortcuts” and “4 Scientifically Proven Happy Hacks”.
I take the clickbait hook, line, and sinker. The first blogpost I read is, “How To Turn Off Self-doubt”. I like the phrase “turn off”. It suggests the ease of flicking a switch. No lifestyle changes. Just a quick trick and bam… self-doubt be gone! The article suggests that I invent an imaginary friend for positive reinforcement. I create a girlfriend named Aisha to compliment me. And she does. She compliments everything, my splendid smoking technique, my prodigious drinking, and the sexy bags under my eyes. It makes me a little suspicious, to be honest. So I dump her and move on to newer articles. After reading a few hundred, a theme emerges.
They’re all variations of the creative visualisation technique. If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, you’ll know it – “A luminous cloud of positivity is entering you with every breath. Imagine exhaling a dark cloud of negativity, and your being is now suffused with lightness and joy”. I try that and end up suffused with mind-numbing boredom.
Determined to give it the old college try, I get a bit more scientific. Empirical happiness researchers have introduced a cutting edge tool to the study of happiness – The Self-report Questionnaire. Basically they ask people on a scale of one to Harsha Bhogle how happy they are at a given moment. Then they write books about the results – MUCHO books. And make money… SERIOUS money.
This one guy wrote a book called, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, and then wrote a book countering that book called, Hoist on My Own Petard: Or: How Writing 10% Happier Threw My Own Advice Right Back in My Face.
Anyway, according to research, positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments increase your happiness. Everyone has a genetically determined baseline happiness. Social comparison, boredom, unemployment, and loneliness reduce happiness. So far, this is pretty obvious, right?
Having learnt the theory, I begin executing practical advice from all the books I’ve read. I try watching inspirational movies, I download all the mindfulness apps and I try that old saw – being grateful about everything. I even try wearing sunglasses all the time because apparently without them you’d frown, and that sends your brain unhappy signals.
In a society where ignorance is bliss, I decided I’d rather be a grump than Trump.
Early one morning as I stand upside down in a yoga pose wearing dark shades while being grateful to Hitler for helping the world harness nuclear energy, I hear my internal monologue telling me I am more miserable than when I’d begun. This is too much work for too little happiness.
I’m just about to begin research on mood enhancing pharmaceuticals when an idea takes form in my mind. What if the purpose of life isn’t to maximise one’s happiness? Fate delivers a book called Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G Wilson. I find myself agreeing with the sentiment in one quote, “…to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions”.
The final nail in the coffin of my happiness obsession comes while reading about a survey in the US stating that married people are happier than the unmarried, religious people happier than atheists, conservatives happier than democrats and the rich happier than the poor. It occurred to me that as a rich, religious, married conservative, Donald Trump should be the happiest man in America. In a society where ignorance is bliss, I decided I’d rather be a grump than Trump.
I therefore renounce my quest for happiness hacks and surrender myself to a life of unremarkable hedonistic achievement underscored by my now constant companion – depression.
And then one day on a business trip, sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette while reading a book in a café, something happens. I look up from my book feeling content. I realise with a jolt of surprise that I am happy, for no reason at all. I try to analyse the reason and I feel it slipping away. So, I pull back. It is elusive. I could only look at it sideways. The moment I focus on it, it starts slipping away again. I guess I’ll never know the reason, but I think I have achieved my peak happiness in that coffeehouse.
Then of course, I tweet about it.