Five years of austerity ahead, a rolling crisis in the Eurozone which could make things a lot worse yet, rising unemployment, prospects for business poor. We are all less well off than we were – some of us horribly so. Riots in recent memory, public sector strikes, the media in the dock, politicians distrusted, the Church in denial. This is the worst things have looked for a long time. It is all bad news. And if I look for comfort elsewhere what do I find? Wall-to-wall celebrity culture, reality telly, karaoke freak shows masquerading as pop music and rock music practically dead. Have I missed anything?
So, I’m looking around for some reasons to be cheerful. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
- We are about as well off as we were in 2006. This means that we are nearly all still much better off than at any time in history. And not only us. Some parts of the world that have been poorest for longest are beginning to see signs of a real change. If our economy is growing slowly or not at all, other places that have been poor for years and years – India, even Africa, for example – are seeing growth at last. And our economic situation will get better, even if we have to moderate our expectations a little. Would anyone in Britain really choose to live at any other time in our history? Many periods sound fun but in all of them the chances of dying early and painfully are far greater than now and nearly all of them give us many fewer options than we currently enjoy.
- None of this has much to do with what really makes us happy. Of course, it’s much harder to be happy when our circumstances are difficult and I have no intention of minimising the travails of those who are really up against it. But the things that give us real happiness include satisfying relationships, being creative, good company, time for thought and reflection, work that means something, looking at and enjoying the world that goes on perfectly happily however we are feeling. I remember going to see a falconry display when I was feeling depressed. As the huge sea eagle flew fast straight at me and landed at my feet to collect the piece of meat thrown there by the falconer I felt a fearful thrill. As it stood there at my feet, magnificent, implacable and utterly uninterested in me, I was transfixed and delighted. My depression lifted at that moment, though I only realised it later – at the time I was too absorbed in the bird to notice.
- Happiness is, in the end, a choice. If we make it dependent on our circumstances we will always be at the mercy of things we cannot control. We wear ourselves out trying to get life lined up around our desires and expectations and enjoy only fleeting periods of success and the illusion of control. I know, because I do it all the time! Happiness comes when we understand the futility of being driven by that voice in our heads that says “I won’t be happy unless…” That involves a change of mind-set. Wouldn’t it be good to be able to say “I’d prefer to have this or that, but I am happy anyway”? That would be a liberation. I guess this may be easier for those with faith in God because we can underpin our different thinking with the conviction that the world may be painful, but in the ‘final end’ (as Dylan says) we are safe, that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’. But I am not sure that it is necessary. Happiness starts for all of us by accepting the world as it is and deciding to enjoy it.
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