What makes everyone else happy?

Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
In pursuit of idleness

This whole Royal Wedding/ May Day bank holiday weekend has been quite strange. I enjoyed watching the wedding on Friday much more than I thought I would, and somewhat embarrassingly found it quite touching, particularly the Queen’s somewhat melancholy facial expressions.  On Saturday I bought a car. Spending quite so much money on a “thing” was quite depressing and empty, and it started me thinking about what people want.

I suppose everyone lives for what could be described as primarily emotional pleasures, but the source of them is much more disparate than I think. I have a naive habit of assuming that everyone else interprets the world in the same way that I do, perhaps because I am a twin and therefore pointlessly compare notes with her on “what matters to people” – as if between us we somehow represent everyone else, rather than reinforcing our own solipsistic bubble.

I’m not even sure that what I always take to be the most universal and basic sources of happiness in all societies on earth apply to some people I know. Love, family and friendship are surely the three things without which it would be very difficult to live a good life; but increasingly it seems as if people actively seek fulfilment in ways that are anathema to all three. They allow themselves to be consumed by the pursuit of material wealth, by the procurement and purchase of an endless array of products and services that I find suffocating, even as I am sucked in by it. The funds to afford so much luxury of course mostly derive from intellectually narrow, highly focussed number-crunching City jobs, working 16 hour days, 6 days a week.  That does exact a huge toll on anyone’s emotional reserves, so presumably they then have to extol the virtues of rabid consumerism even higher in order to justify such a tiny existence behind a desk.

But that is an extreme example. More usually, people my age find enjoyment in stable family lives, their children, to some extent their jobs, and concomitantly in the pursuit of greater security for the future. Saving money for a rainy day is wonderfully comforting. It’s like making pancakes on a rainy afternoon when you’re a bit bored, and then settling down to watch Gone with the Wind, happy that you didn’t spend your days pining after the man you couldn’t have, and that you married the one who loved you instead.

Those have somehow not ended up being my priorities though. I don’t save for a rainy day, I didn’t marry any of the nice men who loved me, and as a result,  I don’t have any children.  Much as I always think Scarlett O’Hara is a terribly flawed character, running after people and possessions that will never make her happy, there is a reason why it resonates. You watch the movie, or read the book, and marvel smugly at her folly. But which of us has not proceeded down the path of materialism, revenge and obsession to some extent? We plan out a new conservatory that will require a suffociating loan, or carry all the wrongs that people have done us around for years, like little shards of ice to insert into a conversation just where it will hurt. It is easy to find excuses for passing the buck, or for indulging one’s desires at someone else’s expense. Very few people betray their friends in quite the way that Scarlett does, but we’ve all had moments of being less than completely honest in an awkward situation.

Her fatal flaw, though,  is living in the past. She pines for Ashley, and for the idleness and privilege her position as a plantation owner’s daughter in the Old South gave her. Her mistake is to combine joyful memories of her physical youth with the immature emotional attachments and ideas she happened to form at 17, and to spend the rest of her life trying to recreate the entire scene.

Perhaps the strange thing is that everyone else seems to actually structure and plan their lives to extract happiness in the future, to progress from the past, and avoid leaning on happy memories alone. It is a sensible approach. I on the other hand come across happiness, and assume that the same things will always make me happy. It is a risky strategy, but in mitigation, I find happiness in things I can’t lose – snowdrifts, rain against the windows at night, walking around Paris without an aim, cold milk, swimming in the sea, and pointless philosophical conversations. I would say that love makes me happy, but it can be lost so easily that it’s quite difficult for the moment you fall in love with someone not to be tinged with fear.

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