Many years ago, so the story goes, the then British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was hosting a dinner in Downing Street for the French head of state, General de Gaulle and his wife. It was during that late stage in the meal when the lights are lowered and confidences shared that Macmillan leaned over and asked Madame de Gaulle, what she wished for most in all the world. He was, however, disconcerted when the stout lady looked round at him and confidently replied, ‘A penis’. Uncharacteristically lost for words, Macmillan spluttered and choked on his brandy before the General came to his rescue. ‘What Madame meant to say was ‘appiness!
But what is happiness? Is it the same as joy: those ephemeral moments of shared excitation, that are such fun while they last but can leave us deflated and mildly depressed until the next time? Or is it something deeper: the well-being that comes from companionship of friends, the satisfaction of achievement, or maybe that quality of peace that comes from release from everyday fears and desires, feelings of safety and security and the absence of pain and suffering?
Health professionals do not tend to use the word ‘happiness’, they talk about well-being, a term that carries more weight and encompasses elements of security with companionship and relief from or absence of illness. Health is a major component of well-being.
Too many people, it seems, are trapped in lives of quiet desperation, persecuted by feelings of inadequacy, frustration, boredom, anxiety, guilt or shame, and tormented by symptoms of illness. For them, the quest for happiness can seem futile. Like sleep or relaxation, the more they try to achieve it, the more it eludes them. But instead of searching for that elusive Grail of happiness or seeking relief from oppression, it might be more positive and productive to optimise the conditions that underpin a contented life: companionship, purpose, contemplation, space and freedom.
It might be said that there is no such thing as a man or a woman, there are only relationships. I know that sounds somewhat abstruse but bear with me. Humans are sociable creatures; much of their purpose and contentment derives from interaction with their fellow beings; the biggest cause of their unhappiness is ‘other people’. But we are also the products of our society and upbringing. Our personality, initially moulded by our parents and our immediate family, then by teachers, mentors, colleagues and friends, is constantly retuned through the influence of the global culture via the news and social media. And only too often, it may be derailed by the responsibilities and vicissitudes of life.
The collective consciousness of the ‘culture’ is unconcerned with the individual; it transforms the diversity of personal intuition and meaning into approved beliefs, creating generalisations, guidelines, laws and dogma. ‘Those who speak of men in general, speak of no one’. Personal context is ignored; statistics decide the will of the majority. Original thought and free will is contained and constrained by the culture and its systems; political opinion determined by the media, knowledge implanted by education and health directed by an unholy alliance of science and commerce. We are told what to think, educated by the book, treated with algorithms and guidelines. This creates a personal struggle between the freedom of the individual and the rules and regulations of society; an existential conflict that can disconcert us and make us ill.
Human beings are not like ants, driven by reflex to obey the unconscious instinct of the colony; we can think for ourselves, constantly forming and reforming connections, making associations, putting situations into context, creating meaning from experience, imagining possibility. Every time we report something to somebody and receive their response, we remodel the meaning and even our memory of what happened and fine tune our opinion. The essence of personality is the freedom to think, act and change our minds, which is derived from the confidence to be an individual in the company of others and the feeling we can make our lives better.
But human existence is full of personal contradictions. Diversity rules; generalisations are never true. People brought up in a restricted environment may yearn for the opportunity to live authentic lives, free from cultural obligations and constraint. Others, who have experienced neglect, rejection or abandonment may welcome the security of external regulation as freedom from responsibility. Their differing concepts of freedom are both versions of a kind of happiness, allowing them to live the lives that suit them best, free from emotional tension and illness. Jean Paul Sartre once wrote. ‘Freedom, freedom; the prison of the free.’ Independence requires thought and hard work and risks insecurity and loneliness.
Jeremy Corbyn campaigned to give power back to the British people, but some commentators are saying that the people do not want that responsibility; they would rather support the kind of ‘strong and stable’ leadership, proposed by Mrs May. What can one say, except, ‘be careful what you wish for’?