The Serious Business of Happiness

Should light-hearted art forms be given the same precedence as 'serious' creative works?

In recent years, it has been strange to discover and accept that I am not naturally optimistic. Through my teens and twenties, I would proclaim my optimism with a staunch fervour. Growing up in the 1990s, when America’s influence was at its peak, optimism was the only acceptable state. Anything else was a sign that something needed fixing, that there was something inherently wrong with a person.

When I look at the bouts of depression in my early twenties, the PTSD caused by a family suicide and a near-fatal car crash, then the crippling anxiety that followed, it’s hardly a vision of the innate optimism I thought I possessed. In fact, there has been Xanex, Cipramil, and Prozac for short periods to get back to my ‘optimistic’ state, along with two periods of psychotherapy, once for six months and then again in my thirties for two (remarkably effective) years.

I have trained myself in optimism. Through nurture, not nature, I believe in the goodness of people and that most things ultimately work out. I don’t consider this naïve. The worst can happen, but it is a rare outcome, so not worth dwelling on. To do so would be as futile as planning for a lottery win.

Yet, I would also agree with President Biden’s more infamous words that 10-15% of people are ‘not very good people’. 10-15% of people, like the naughty child in class, are ruining it for everyone. Over the past year, my partner and I have visited our local forest on many occasions, and it has pained me to see coffee cups discarded around this natural wonder. However, I remember Biden’s words and feel comforted by this sad truth. It helps lift the sense of personal victimhood I have felt seeing plastic lids blowing through the ancient oak woods of Killarney National Park. It is simply a fact of reality.

However, I doubt I am a confirmed pessimist. The only person I naturally assume the worst about is myself. That is a ‘one in seven billion’ ratio. The other six billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine humans who inhabit this planet, in the first instance, are given the benefit of the doubt.

I am a third thing. The most accurate description of my base mindset is Shakespeare’s line, ‘Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. It’s the state I come back to when the spikes of optimism and pessimism settle. It is a sort of ‘neutral’-ism. Life, as I experience it, is simply a chosen viewpoint. People are not good or bad but merely a series of choices that have constructive or destructive consequences.  

However, that is not to say I do not try and stretch my baseline towards optimism, despite the limits of doing this. Recently, I read Stuff Happens! by Emma Gleeson, who discussed the simple, scientifically proven fact that a person can only cultivate their happiness within defined limits. A person’s natural state of optimism-pessimism-neutralism is, for the most part, programmed in. Like the ability to grow physically stronger, we each have a natural limit as to how happy we can be and training can take us no further than that.

I love to laugh. I swing between the profoundly serious – Proust, Ishiguro, Larkin – and the supremely frivolous. On low days, my favourite mental retreat is to watch old Dame Edna clips online. I have a playlist on my YouTube account called ‘Funny Vids’ where I save silly clips. These include scenes from BoSelecta, Rock Profiles, Scary Movie, and Absolutely Fabulous. Furthermore, I love podcasts like Petty Little Things and Cocktails and Confessions, alternating these with ‘serious’ shows like Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time and Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin?.

I detest the middle ground, notably ‘safe’ US sitcoms and documentaries that are more entertainment than fact. It appears the culture I love must be either profound or nonsensical.

We, as a society, tend to put more value behind the serious. I would be more respected in literary circles for loving Proust than Dame Edna. A humorous book unlikely to win The Booker Prize. Bridesmaids, despite its brilliance, would never be a serious contender for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Serious artists are given precedence. God forbid something should be entertaining, optimistic or, worst of all, commercial. And yet, it is so easy to be serious. Any yet, so many of us naturally default to noticing the ‘flaws’ of the world, our own imperfections, the hypocrisies of others, and the brutality of life. Finding life’s joys is the thing that takes effort.

I have massive admiration for stand-up comedians. World-class humour, in my view, is as hard to construct as any great novel, and I believe comedy has profound value. When I think back to my twenties and often reaching points of deep despair, I know that talking to a therapist was fundamental to my recovery. However, joy was equally important. I wouldn’t have survived those years without laughter, without a funny group of friends in my life, without Dame Edna, without Matt Lucas and David Walliams, without Tina Fey, without Joan Rivers, without French and Saunders, without The Royal Family, without Father Ted, without Mean Girls, without Death Becomes Her, without Drop Dead Gorgeous. And the list goes on.

Part of me is forever seeking the unabashed joy of Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, as he sings ‘I Love to Laugh’ while having a tea party on the ceiling. If I had to choose a life between solemn or joyous art forms, I know what I would choose, even at the cost of appearing frivolous. As I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic, I must continue to tip the needle, even a little, towards optimism.

Joy, optimism, and laugher protect the innocent part of me that is forever a child. That is no laughing matter. I think of the words of George Bernard Shaw and have my own version:

‘Without joy, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.’

For me, happiness is a serious business.

Written by Jamie O'Connell

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

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