Ken Dodd once said it was the greatest gift that he possessed, but happiness remains problematic when it comes to a defining description. ‘Forget your troubles; come on, get happy’ sang Judy Garland, yet one doesn’t need to see Bridget Jones doing an impersonation of Liza Minnelli’s mom to be aware of how happiness effectively eluded Dorothy throughout the brief 47 years she spent as an all-round entertainer. When David Bowie released an album in 1977 with the far-from upbeat title of ‘Low’, the coke-fuelled black clouds encircling the (allegedly) Nazi-saluting Thin White Duke suggested listeners were in for quite a walk on the wild side; yet Bowie’s genius was to marry a despairing line such as ‘Pale blinds drawn all day/nothing to do, nothing to say’ to the most joyous of melodies in ‘Sound and Vision’; hell, he even roped-in Mary Hopkin for backing vocals. And as much as I love them, Radiohead wouldn’t do that.
Painting a portrait of darkness comes easier to artists than attempts to portray the flipside; light is far harder to encapsulate either on canvas or in verse than shade. When they try, they inevitably fail – or the critical reception they receive persuades them that the task is a fruitless one. Whenever Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles domestic bliss was manifested in song, he tended to be torn to shreds by critics and – early on – by his former musical soulmate as well. Perhaps the problem was that McCartney’s concept of happiness (or his methods of portraying it) diverged from that of those paid to review his releases – though their concept clearly diverged from that of the record-buyers who continued to provide Macca with hits; and this, in a nutshell, is what makes happiness such a tricky proposition to put into words that speak to everybody. It is entirely relative.
Private passions that constitute many a Saturday or Sunday are often as incomprehensible to outsiders as the chosen pursuits of those outsiders are to the practitioner they cannot fathom. Renovating steam-trains can be as alien a hobby to those who queue-up to cheer on, say, Northampton Town FC during drizzly midweek November evenings down in League Two as much as it can be to those who spend a small fortune ordering an LP from Japan that they already have half-a-dozen different copies of, merely because the label or sleeve design vary from the rest, despite the track-listing being identical. Whatever makes you happy, eh?
Music that has generally dealt exclusively with ‘feel-good’ factors is routinely written-off as disposable, though I’d argue a landmark of pop perfection such as ‘Dancing Queen’ probably required more work putting into it than ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’; that’s not to say Abba’s polished jewel in the 70s crown is superior to Dylan’s nightmarish end-of-the-world tour de force at all; both have their place. But just because one embodies joy and the other embodies despair doesn’t mean the latter is entitled to special privileges in the critical canon. To my ears, pop culture artefacts encapsulating emotional extremes at both end of the spectrum coexist as a necessary yin and yang if music is supposed to provide a soundtrack for all that life has to offer. You can’t have one without the other.
Whenever official bodies attempt to co-opt happiness and impose activities they imagine will inspire happiness on the population, I tend to recoil. I had the same reaction to organisations such as the Scouts when I was a child; and for all their merits as raisers of funds for undoubted good causes, the likes of Children in Need and Comic Relief provoke a similar response in me as an adult. Being told to smile because you’re not starving or being pressurised into having ‘fun’ because others can’t have it is unnatural; genuine happiness when it strikes is generally a spontaneous sensation impervious to planning. Announcing in advance when one should feel happy always reeks of tactics once employed by Butlin’s redcoats or the Radio 1 Roadshow to me – at times even reminiscent of being ordered to radiate fake joy during the taking of a childhood photo on a miserable family holiday. The very personal nature of what actually constitutes happiness in the individual does not always make it a communal experience; granted, it can do when it comes to a Cup Final or a big gig, but such events are atypical as a rule.
The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is noted for its philosophy of Gross National Happiness, incorporating the concept into an index that measures the wellbeing and happiness of its people, rating such a theory as highly as other governments value Gross Domestic Product. The Constitution of Bhutan regards the collective contentment of its populace as being as important to the nation as the usual economic considerations, and the UN was sufficiently impressed to instigate its annual World Happiness Report from 2012 onwards; the current holder of the ‘Happiest Country in the World’ title is Finland, though the Finnish probably didn’t have to worry about competition from Syria or Yemen when the votes were counted. As always, happiness depends on multiple factors when it comes to a nation as much as it does the individual sons and daughters of that nation.
Now is perhaps not the best of times to undertake a happiness survey of these discontented isles, though previous attempts at gauging the mood of Britain have often yielded surprising results. Apparently, the peak of recorded happiness for the population of the UK remains 1976 – yes, the supposedly bleak mid-70s, the era of the Three-Day Week, industrial disputes, strikes, IRA bombs and The Bay City Rollers; maybe the Long Hot Summer of that year played its part, though the democratisation of must-have accessories and household appliances along with the social mobility that had yet to stall probably helped. It’s also worth remembering a large proportion of the population at that time would have lived through the Great Depression, WWII and post-war Austerity, so I would imagine colour TV, central heating and affordable housing seemed satisfactory consolations for any minor hardships.
So, no – happiness can never be entirely quantified either by the compilers of statistics or artists attempting to capture it in art; it is down to the individual, and even the individual cannot necessarily explain why one thing inspires happiness and another doesn’t. Moreover, unless one happens to be a puppy, happiness is a transient state that can go as quickly as it comes. The agony that arises from its departure is in the not-knowing when – or if – it will return, for the addictive nature of personal happiness can create a craving destined to disappoint. I know with absolute certainty what the single happiest moment of my life was without question, but I also know that moment exists now solely as a memory and will probably never be surpassed; and that’s shit. But that’s life. It is rough and it is smooth, so come on. Get happy.
© The Editor