Tidings of joy

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The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World, by David Malouf, Chatto & Windus, RRP£10, 106 pages

It’s Christmas, the second most popular time for husbands and wives to start planning divorce proceedings. (The most popular is the summer family holiday.) ’Tis, we’re told, the season to be jolly, though with its short days and long, dark nights of the soul, it’s more likely the season we ask ourselves how jolly we really are. And no, that bottle of 12-year-old single malt you’ve gift-wrapped for yourself is not the solution.

So what is? That’s the question the novelist David Malouf has set himself in this limber yet learned essay. Why, he wants to know, has the vanquishing of most of the great enemies of happiness – hunger, disease, early death, poverty – failed to usher in an age of widespread contentment? His answer will not please Britain’s prime minister, who having looked at the predictions for future growth has let it be known that he thinks it’s “time we admitted that there’s more to life than money” and “focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general well-being”.

Not that Malouf is some mad materialist who thinks money is all that counts. Rather, he believes that politicians do more harm than good when they start concerning themselves with the cheeriness or otherwise of prospective voters. After acknowledging the power of the phrase-making in the US Declaration of Independence, he goes on to analyse Jefferson’s most famous clause – the one about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – and finds it, if not wanting, then at least a little wayward.

The problem, Malouf argues, lies in the gorgeous economy of the prose. A few days before he wrote the Declaration, Jefferson had read his friend George Mason’s preamble to the Constitution of Virginia.

In it, he made the claim that all men have the right to “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”. Happiness for Mason was a possible by-product of house and home. In Jefferson’s vision it becomes part and parcel of man’s estate. In boiling down Mason’s legalistic doggerel to seven, rhythmic, weighted words, Jefferson, says Malouf, conflated and confused different categories of experience.

Life, after all, is a natural thing, liberty a social one – but happiness is something else, something personal and private and the product of something we can’t quite pinpoint. (No sooner do you discover that you’re happy, than you find that you’re no longer happy.) Yet by calling for the pursuit of happiness Jefferson suggested it was something we could get hold of. And by according it the status of a right, he licensed our feeling deprived whenever we feel depressed.

That we feel depressed at all Malouf ascribes to the gift that in turn makes him such a fine novelist: our capacity for imagination. Unlike other animals, man can shape the world so that it suits him better than it otherwise would.

Alas, this talent for sanding down the roughness of existence means we tend to overlook the bits of life that are already smooth. No matter how contented we might occasionally find ourselves, we cannot help conceiving of how things could be improved. We live not in the present, but in the only future there ever is – the one that we are perpetually dreaming for ourselves.

At which point, Malouf turns to the figure of Shukov in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Cold, hungry, bored and banged-up in the Gulag, Shukov ought to be Mr Misery. But as painted by Solzhenitsyn – who knew more than you and I ever will about despair – Shukov is a model of contentment. Why? Because, says Malouf, “he takes short views and deals only with the smallest units of time – a few moments, a single day”.

Malouf mentions him only in passing but, like Schopenhauer (and the Buddhists before him), he believes that it is only by wanting nothing more than the here and now that life is to be endured.

Not a very Christmassy thought, perhaps. Still, reading this short, very to-the-point book should be top of your list of New Year’s resolutions.

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