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A Point of View: The pursuit of happiness

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Everybody wants to be happy, but few of us seem to know how to achieve it, writes AL Kennedy.

What did you wish for when the bells rang and the year turned? I'd imagine happiness may have crossed your mind. It's a popular emotion. The United States Declaration of Independence lists only three inalienable rights - life itself, liberty to appreciate that life and then happiness. Or rather there's life, then liberty and then the pursuit of happiness.

But if happiness must be pursued, clearly it's not permanent - so when I'm happy I'm basically just waiting to be sad. Which makes me feel powerless and therefore tense. Awake at 03:00 - a setting within which good thoughts never happen, even on New Year's morning - I do know that sabotaging my own happiness is an ungrateful form of self-harm. Then again, it gets exhausting - waiting to be unhappy. So my happiness makes me tense, threatened and exhausted and… Oh great, now I'm miserable.

Of course, in the sane hours of daylight, I yearn for the mercy of happiness - if not for myself then certainly for others. We live in austere times, every day we can see streets, lives, faces, which are manifestly unhappy. If we're ill, or alone, on the brink, then happiness seems like a bright room full of strangers - we can peer through the window and see it, but never enter. We may desperately need the strength to pursue happiness, to create, invent, or simply to endure - we may want to smile and watch those we love smile, too. But lack of happiness, as a large body of research shows, damages our mental and physical health, our social interactions and our working efficiency. Misery creates more misery, it cascades. So no wonder we pursue happiness.

But our pursuit can take peculiar paths. The vast advertising industry would have us believe, for example, that acquiring things will make us happy. Austerity and common sense combine to combat that idea, but it seems the awareness of others' poverty, the sense we could be up against it soon, can drive us towards what could be our consumerist last hurrah. The desire to acquire seems heightened in some of us. It's almost as if some people aren't simply hunting new white goods, new computers, new virtual experiences, but trying to buy at least the material symptoms of good luck. When I was a kid, camping out at the January sales was a slightly eccentric holiday activity. Today people forced to sleep in the streets all year round are unremarkable, and meanwhile the January sales last until February, if not March, and are expected to be feral. We're shown pictures of crowds responding with apparently exponential panic, if not violence, to pop-up sales, clearance sales, spring sales, end of season sales, Manic Monday and Black Friday.

The US import, Black Friday, is a kind of purchasing orgy which follows Thanksgiving Thursday - once a holiday about gratitude and sharing which has now morphed into a festival of over-eating, discovering you only like your family when they're not around and preparing to hate them all over again at Christmas. Last year's Thanksgiving Race in Cincinnati - usually a good-humoured charitable fun run - was marred by discourtesy. Snacks and drinks offered to finishing runners were grabbed by the armful, if not the boxful, and young volunteers were frightened and verbally abused. There was none of the usual surplus left for the local food bank. Observers wondered where this violent drive to consume had come from - it didn't seem to be about hunger, more the fear of hunger.

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image captionBlack Friday shoppers - "a purchasing orgy"

As whole sections of first world societies, of British society, realise that warm clothes for their kids, or groceries have become aspirational - does an ambient anxiety make some of us greedier? Do we look at images of happy people with happy things and feel we need more material insulation to keep away the cold? That doesn't sound like happiness.

Some studies suggest our genes may account for as much as 50% of our happiness, but even if that's true, we have the other 50% to pursue. And there's a lot of happiness research to guide us. Money itself, raw spending power, only seems to increase our happiness up to the point where we can comfortably support ourselves and our dependents. Not having enough money can be utterly miserable and magnifies each additional misfortune. It's said that around two million people in the UK are actually malnourished. Finding happiness under those circumstances is heroic, if possible at all. But even when we have enough of everything, we get used to our comforts, even luxuries, and don't necessarily stay happy.

Luxury labels, or even standard branding as we know it today is a relatively recent introduction in human history - it's not so long ago that most of us simply had things in our homes that were more and less useful, more and less beautiful. Victorian activist, designer and man of letters William Morris told us: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful" - precisely when new industrialised production methods meant homes could be supplied with goods that might be neither, but which came in convincing packages, or at a luxury price. A recent study from Yale University shows that capuchin monkeys, unlike humans, aren't fooled into thinking that higher price automatically implies better quality (these were experimental monkeys who did have to pay for some of their food).

William Morris 1834-1896

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  • Writer, activist and designer, associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and also with the early socialist movement in Britain
  • Trained as architect and founded a successful decorative arts firm with Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, using traditional British textile arts
  • Among his books were News from Nowhere (1890)

Home William Morris Gallery

The study of our primate relatives may help us understand happiness. We know, for example, that sharing of food and favours takes place amongst primates and assumptions have been made that this was always about a clear exchange of one favour for another. But a recent study from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center has noted that monkeys exchange reciprocal favours without necessarily keeping track of who did what for whom. This seems to have the same effect it does in human groups, creating positive interactions among both friends and strangers - an atmosphere of monkey happiness.

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image captionDo monkeys have a better grasp of happiness?

An experiment carried out recently by the University of British Columbia and the University of California among primary school students also showed that sharing had positive effects. Half the children studied were asked to perform acts of kindness - food sharing, or giving hugs for example - and half were asked to keep note of pleasant places they visited. The children who were kind had more friends, had more fun and felt happier than those who carried out activities which pleased only themselves. An Arizona State University study shows that just writing out expressions of affection could lower your cholesterol levels. So sharing affection could benefit the heart in both senses. And the work of philosophers like Miguel de Unamuno and now Mariana Alessandri suggest that even negativity - being outraged, complaining, protesting - can increase happiness and resilience if our complaints are shared.

Which is all far away from my self-obsessed and lonely thinking in the chill of 03:00. Happiness isn't permanent - lives change, pleasures fade, bad things happen - but if we choose to pursue happiness, then it can become not so much a condition as a destination. It can inspire journeys. Apparently those journeys are better made in company, with generosity and with the practical application of both outrage and love. And when love and outrage are practically applied we might, just might, consider judging and shaping our national wellbeing according to Bhutan's famous Gross National Happiness index. When GNH is prized above GDP then all manner of changes become possible. We can view the world in any number of ways - the pursuit of happiness may help us find the ones that benefit most of us the most. I can see you as a competitor, as a strain on future welfare payments, or pension liabilities, I can see you as an intruder, a threat - or I can see you as a friend, a collaborator, a teacher, a parent, a child, a human being with unalienable rights. Meanwhile, I know that when I'm cultivating misery in the small hours, if I think, not about pursuing anything, but about my unalienable right to this moment when nothing terrible is happening, this moment when I can breathe and be free and gather my strength - then this moment is when I am happy. And all that would make it happier would be wishing that you're happy in this moment, too.

A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST

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