The happiness industry is wrong – feeling sad is just part of the package

Harvard Business School has been attracting glowing reports for its Leadership and Happiness class, taught by the social scientist Arthur Brooks. The seven-week program teaches its whizz-kids to understand the roots of their own fulfillment so as to “lead others in a way that increases happiness”. The course has been heavily over-subscribed, its graduates dizzy with talk of massage and therapy dogs.

Compare Yale’s hugely popular Science of Well-Being class, led by Professor Laurie Santos. Her lessons – available online – promise “to increase your own happiness”, and that “You will ultimately be prepared to successfully incorporate a specific wellness activity into your life”. Masters of the Universe need sunny smiles. Go, project sunbeam!

Over this side of the pond, mental illness has been in the news with the revelation that – despite levels of depression having almost doubled since Britain’s first lockdown, with a record 1.6 million people estimated to be waiting for NHS treatment – the number of patients being referred for talking therapies by GPs has plunged by a third.

One can only begin to imagine the wretchedness of this situation: reaching the point where one realises, and acknowledges, that something is seriously wrong – never not a colossal and painful leap – while being unable to access the professional help to make matters better. We would not allow people to limp on in this agonising way with broken limbs, yet broken brains are deemed somehow liveable with – they’re not.

Male suicide figures have reached a two-decade high in England and Wales, at a rate of 16.9 deaths per 100,000, according to the Office for National Statistics, men aged 45 to 49 at highest risk. There is also an increase in suicide among young people, women under 25 especially. And these are recorded cases for the year 2019, before Covid ate away at our collective sense of sanity.

I should confess that I have skin in the game here. My own depression is a tendency that has always been with me. As a child, my psychiatrist father would tell me that I was “mercurial”. In my late 20s, a boyfriend would condemn me as “having no gift for happiness”, while gaslighting me senseless. Still, he wasn’t wrong. I sought talking cures in my early 30s, medication in my late 30s. I have taken the antidepressant Citalopram since 2010, switching to the variant Escitalopram last October.

In 2015, I outed myself as a depressive in this paper, when my editor asked whether I knew anyone who could write about the subject, and I answered: “Well, yes.” Publicly acknowledging my condition felt seismic. A former boss berated me: I had done a terrible thing, sabotaging my career and frightening my friends. Cynics might argue that it can have the opposite effect – declarations of mental instability among women, particularly female, now so prolific as to feel de rigueur.

Either way, my misery-guts status gives me a certain expertise – “lived experience”, as the buzz phrase goes – when I say I am not convinced that happiness can be taught. Sad sacks such as myself tend to be extremely well-versed in hedonic theory. Does it make us happy? It does not. Meanwhile, some people are born joyous.

My boyfriend is one, his existence a stream of “Hello Trees, Hello Flowers”-style exclamations. “I’m so happy!” He will declare, in the manner of my toddler niece. I love them both for it. Long may it last. (With luck it will, as he is an irrepressibly cheery 47, she emotionally literate enough to also be able to say: “I’m going away to be on my own because I am about to be sad.”)

Amassing a series of lamentably predictable techniques will not amount to this sentiment, unless one’s bliss can be secured by the most banal sort of magazine self-help article. (And, if it can, then – truly – chapeau!) In the same way that the platitude runs “love is a verb”, happiness is not merely something you do, but a state one can strive for, persevere at, feel one’s way to and – if chemical conditions allow – cultivate, born of this individual experience; less positive occurrences very much included.

It is, as my therapist friend Jules puts it, “learning what happiness actually is”.