Saturday, 28 April 2018

The Happy Life

I've been meaning to read this issue of Quarterly Essay since it came out (in 2011, oops), so when I found the audiobook at my library it seemed a perfect opportunity. I'm very glad that I did. Indeed, I'm always glad when I find the time to pick up a Quarterly Essay, they're always very worthwhile reading, or listening.

The Happy Life was quite different to what I was expecting. Much more philosophical and considered, which if I'd thought about it more I should have expected really. David Malouf starts out with reminding us that it is only relatively recently that we can even consider notions of happiness, and that life for humans for the majority of our history, has not been a happy one.
But for the vast majority of men and women who have shared our planet in the long course of human history, these can have been no more than moments in a life that was unremittingly harsh. 
And moreover, how can we not be happy when "the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives- large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other disease, the near-certainty of an early death". At least for those of us in the first world these problems really do not bother our day to day lives. 
The truth is that though we are all alive on the planet in the same moment, we are not all living in the same century. 
In a relatively brief time span we have gone from a life spent merely surviving to one where "something called happiness is a condition that we all aspire to, and which, whatever our place in society, we see it as our right to enjoy". I had never considered that a document written in Philadelphia in 1776 would have any bearing whatsoever on whether I am happy in my daily life. But Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence wrote that all men are created equal, "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain (inherent) unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". David Malouf calls these words "perhaps the most influential of the coming century". Can they really be having an effect more than 200 years later and half a world away?

David Malouf spends quite a bit of time making the distinction between the Good Life and the Happy Life. He argues that we need to feel in control of our circumstances and that as long as our problems are in human dimensions, then we can be happy within limits- he uses the example of Shukhov, an inmate serving out a 10 year sentence, 3653 days (including leap years), in the Soviet Gulags in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I agree that concentrating on problems of human dimensions can reduce our stress, and so increase our happiness. It's basically why I stopped watching TV news 2 years ago after the murder of a French priest tipped me over the edge. We can't take on all the problems of the world. I certainly can't. And it's not just about the major global problems- of climate change, the fate of the polar bears, of poverty, disease and famine in the developing world, of terrorism and idiots being elected President of major nations.  I don't want to know about every person killed by a drunk driver all over the world, I don't want to know about every child dying in tragic circumstances, every family tragedy. I can't grieve every terrible incident around the world. It is truly overwhelming. 
What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shop our lives are no longer personal- they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them- cannot put a face to them, cannot find in them anything we recognise as human- we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insusbstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with. 
But David Malouf entirely ignores many very large sources of human interactions that are all on a very personal scale. The extraordinary pain that can occur from human interactions, especially from those closest to us. The pains of abusive relationships, of domestic violence, of infidelity, of marriage breakdown, or of family tragedy, personal hardship or mental illness. These are major influencers of our internal state of wellbeing and happiness. 

The Happy Life is beautifully written, as you would expect from David Malouf. He made a very interesting aside about writing by hand. 
(I happen to have set that sentence down in the old, slow way by hand. If I had used a computer, I might have got it down in a third, a quarter of the time. But like a good many writers, even this far into the twenty-first century, I find that the pace at which I work in longhand- at which my arm, my hand moves in the act of writing- has what is for a "natural" relationship to the speed at which my mind works and I do not want to let go of a relationship that seems to be peculiarly mine. Writing by hand slows the thought process, allowing thinking to think again, mid-thought, and leaving open the possibility of second thoughts. It has an effect too on syntax, on the way a sentence gets shaped.)
Which is something I'd never thought about but it's interesting to do so. Some years ago my workplace changed from handwritten documentation to an electronic system. While it has some advantages, there are also definite disadvantages. I hadn't particularly thought of it in the context of creativity though, or how the method of notation in fact effects the thoughts being recorded. Another less successful digression was rather too long, and on the subject of Peter Paul Rubens intimate portrait of his young wife. Het Pelsken (Hélène Fourment in a Fur Wrap), now bizarrely available as a doona cover and range of other products. While I did enjoy the art history aspects of this section, I really wasn't quite sure how it advanced his argument- or indeed what that argument was a lot of the time.

The Happy Life gave me much food for thought, but no particularly practical suggestions as to how to achieve a happy life (although I do think I'm working that out on my own). And it is helpful to recognise the Good Life that we lead. 


I'm Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

It is probably just me, but I like concrete suggestions. When I need a lift, I focus on a couple of these that have worked in the past, especially gratitude.

Louise said...

Yes, the more practical, concrete suggestions are helpful. Gratitude is an interesting concept, not always easy. I do generally enjoy the more philosophical musings too, but I thought he wandered a bit too far at times.