It has been something of a surprise to learn this week that we have just reached the end of the nice decade. The name of its predecessor, the me-decade, had made some sort of sense, but niceness hardly seems a quality one would associate with these early years of the 21st century. If there is a prevailing mood, it has surely been one of anxious introspection. For all the relative comfort in which the majority of the population lives, we seem more concerned than ever about whether we are getting our share of contentment. Memoirs of miserable childhoods may dominatebest-seller lists, films and computer games may get nastier and more violent, but we fret about happiness. There are happiness lessons being taught at some schools. Entire faculties have been created to investigate its secrets. There is a Journal of Happiness Studies. The new discipline has come up with some surprising results. Last week, eminent happyologists gathered in Sydney, Australia, for an international conference entitled “Happiness and its causes”. The secret, according to one professor, was to be married but childless.
Films that address the subject, from Amélie to Happy Go Lucky, are praised for their daring and originality while authors, aware that literature has failed badly when it comes to conveying contentment, habitually trot out what has become one of the most over-used phrases of the writing life, de Montherlant’s maxim “Happiness writes white”. The same obsession has seeped into politics. When Frank Field, in a spirit of bogus sympathy, expressed concern last weekend that Gordon Brown was “uncomfortable in his own skin”, the subtext was clear. The Prime Minister is unhappy; a miserable PM is a political liability.
In one sense at least, Field may be right. Brown gives the impression of a man who is looking back to achievements of the past rather than forward. The people who get things done, whether of the left or the right, tend to be optimists: they believe in the possibility of change. By exuding discontent, and by excessive reference to what has happened in the past, a politician conveys pessimism and defeat.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer to the question of how to be comfortable in one’s skin, to enjoy moments of fleeting contentment, is not to be found on a campus or even in the pages of the Journal of Happiness Studies but in the world of ordinary, everyday experience. When a former bra-fitter in Colchester said this week, “It’s best not to dwell on the past”, she was on the right track.
The past for Eve Graham included being the lead singer of a group called the New Seekers, whose song “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” sold 12 million records. At one point during the 1970s, Eve and her band had five singles in the American charts. The work dried up and so, because of a legal dispute, did the royalties. Eventually, she ended up in the lingerie department of Debenhams. “I don’t earn a penny when a New Seekers record sells, and that can be irritating, but you can’t let it rule your life,” she says now.
It is best not to dwell on the past. If the New Seekers re-form and want to release another inspirational song like their greatest hit, that could well be its theme. The academics gathering in Sydney might have saved themselves a lot of time if those words had been flashed up on the screen at the beginning of their happiness conference. Looking back, as Eve Graham seems to have realised, can cause as much dissatisfaction as looking to the future with unrealisable dreams. There is something to be said for living in the present, being aware of those little bubbles of happiness when they occur, rather than looking back on them later with pointless nostalgia.
The trick, perhaps, is to learn the art of ending things at the right time and in the right way. The old New Seeker has avoided dwelling on past disappointments; moving on from a position of triumph is incomparably more difficult. The world so reveres winning that when a winner voluntarily loses the desire to win, it can seem somehow ungrateful, eccentric.
Yet, as the best female tennis-player in the world has just proved, it can be done. Having won 41 career titles and seven Grand Slams, including the French Open four times, the Belgian player Justine Henin has retired from competitive tennis at the age of 25. She made the announcement, without the almost obligatory blubbing, at a press conference. “It is a page that is turning,” she said. “It is the end of a marvellous adventure.”
There will doubtless be earnest analyses of what lies behind the decision of a young champion to give up on glory, fame and money. The truth might just be that she opted for happiness – and good luck to her.