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Last Updated: Monday, 27 August 2007, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Is happiness enough?
A clown and her son at annual Congress of Clowns in Mexico City

By Clive James

Is personal happiness enough when there is so much suffering in the world, or is it selfish to focus on the misfortune of strangers to the exclusion of loved ones?

In an early Robert Redford starring vehicle called The Candidate, which is now largely forgotten but shouldn't be - watch and marvel as he uses all four facial expressions - there is an interchange of dialogue which encapsulates a nagging philosophical problem.

Redford has pointed out that if he runs for office he will never be happy again, and his prospective campaign manager says: "Clams are happy."

Clive James
The happiness soon struck me as so absurdly self-centred that it made me unhappy to think about it

Redford decides that he is a more complex mechanism than a clam - some critics of his acting might think he reaches this decision too hastily - and runs for office.

The implication is that happiness, in itself, is no worthwhile aim in human life. Certainly TE Lawrence didn't think so. It was TE Lawrence who bowled over the young CV James by insisting in print that happiness was "a by-product of absorption".

Peter O'Toole didn't actually say this when he impersonated TE Lawrence on screen in Lawrence of Arabia. Always one of the most cultivated among actors, O'Toole, as his autobiography Loitering With Intent proves, wields a prose style considerably more notable for clarity and rhythm than anything Lawrence could muster in his much praised but seldom read masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a magnum opus which has all the characteristics of a sand dune without the sense of humour.

Omar Sharif at an international bridge tournament
Omar Sharif at play
But the producers of the movie wanted their Lawrence to lead memorable charges across the desert, not to utter penetrating philosophical truths. He was allowed to proclaim the secret of stoicism, but only when putting out a match with his fingertips. Film producers want the visual element. If somebody says that no man is an island, they want to see a man and an island.

So O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia got no chance to tell his co-star Omar Sharif, who really was "of Arabia", that happiness was a by-product of absorption. In real life, Omar Sharif was under the impression that happiness involved champagne, cigars and a blonde on each arm. He might well have looked nonplussed at the word "absorption".

But the off-screen Lawrence wasn't proposing that the human soul should model its aspirations on the properties of an aspirin. He was saying that if you were absorbed enough in some worthwhile activity, happiness might be the spin-off.

Fleeting feeling

A corollary to this fine idea was that there might be no time to enjoy the happiness, because you would be too busy being absorbed.

Clive as panellist on have I Got News For You
All smiles
I myself, during a long career separating an idle and misspent adolescence from my present state of incipient disintegration, usually found that I had almost no time to stop and examine what might well have turned out to be a period of happiness, and that, when I did, the happiness soon struck me as so absurdly self-centred that it made me unhappy to think about it.

I also found that it might be taken as even more self-centred to voice this conclusion. The people who are sharing the raft on your course through life's rapids, notably your immediate family, are unlikely to burst out cheering if you say you can't be happy for five minutes without thinking of all the people who aren't.

They might be quick to point out that when you talk that way, the people who aren't include them, and that they might perhaps come first in your thoughts, to the extent, at least, of your trying not to bore them with expressions of your misery just when everybody is settling down to watch The Sopranos.

When I set out to be positive in this series I guessed that the question of the legitimacy of personal happiness was bound to come up, but I kept putting it off. What makes the question so tricky is that we're given both the capacity for personal happiness and the sense of proportion to realise that it's an offence against common reason.

The capacity for happiness works the same way as the capacity for misery, in that it refuses to be relative. If you have made a loved one miserable, it's useless to tell them that many thousands of people are currently dying by violence. In fact it's another form of violence to say so. Misery can seldom be reasoned away. But happiness, though just as pure a feeling, can often be reasoned away in an instant.

Time out

Nowadays I try not to let that happen. Not long ago I was in New York on business and the weather was getting hot enough to make you walk on the east side of the avenues in the morning and the west side in the afternoons, so as to keep in the shadow. If you're anywhere near Central Park, it's the ideal weather for a take-out deli lunch.

Picnickers in Central Park gather for free New York Philharmonic concert
Central Park. In summer. With a picnic. What's not to like?
You don't have to eat fast food in America, because between every two fast-food emporia there's a deli full of good slow scoff. Armed with about 10 bucks worth of unimpeachable nutrition, I went into the park, sat on a rock, got started on my salad, and contemplated existence. I saw an old guy hobble past who was what I will be in about 10 years, if not 10 minutes. He looked happy and suddenly so was I.

For once I managed to hold back the thoughts of how few deli lunches had been eaten in Darfur that day, and I savoured the moment along with my slice of watermelon, which took me back to when I was kid in Australia. It was 60 years since I first had a slice of watermelon wrapped so far around my head that it chilled my ears.

That time, I hadn't questioned the legitimacy of my happiness, and I tried not to this time either. But I had to try, that was the difference.

I don't think it's true that the underdeveloped world starves because the developed world doesn't, but there's just no denying that you can't eat your fill without insulting a lot of people who have nothing to eat at all.

You find that out when you grow up. Finding that out is growing up. Life makes us melancholy, and the melancholy comes from the realisation that your moments of happiness are not only fleeting, but meaningless in the context of the sufferings of others.

Much ado...

Melancholy will find us. We don't need to seek it, and it's definitely no virtue in itself. By her own account, Shakespeare's Beatrice was born under a dancing star, and she's the brightest of her bunch because she has the impulse to be merry, even though, being so brilliant, she will see the world as it is and it will make her sad. Meanwhile she will correctly judge any man proud of his own gloom to be a crashing bore.

Dickens noticed that those whose hearts are always with unknown thousands abroad are often the most indifferent to the fewer people nearer home who might benefit from practical help
We owe it to the next generation to behave as if life were worth living. It is, even when we hear that yet another child has gone missing. It is even for the child's parents, although to them it might not seem so ever again. But the little children want your smile, or they get scared.

In my own family, in which I used to be a member of the second generation but have now been promoted to the first, a third generation member has recently established herself as one of the leading footballers in her age group.

Her age group is two minus. But she can not only kick a ball, she can link the kicks into something indistinguishable from ball control. She is never not moving. She is also hardly ever not smiling, except when you aren't. If you frown, she will catch the frown, and would tell you off if she had the words.

She already has words in a scarcely credible number, and only last weekend she came up with her first complete sentence. Dare I say that it was a philosophical apercu comparable with "happiness is a by-product of absorption"? With several adult witnesses present, she said: "The wanting, and the more, and the porridge."

Move over, Seneca. Step aside, Pascal. Now this is philosophy.

Tajik toddler feeds himself porridge, where a severe drought has devastated crops
The wanting and the porridge
For indeed there is the wanting: and sometimes the wanting is for means of sustenance tragically unavailable. And then there is the more, and there will always be the desire for more, as with Oliver Twist, who did not have enough, and as with the glutton, who has too much.

And then there is the porridge, the irreducible essential which must be provided or else there can be no real choices.

Whether or not this young philosopher is providing us with a coherent picture of the world, I am happy to hear her speak.

But the question remains of what the happiness is worth. It's impossible to be compassionate for all the suffering individuals in the human race, and Dickens was only one of the great writers who noticed that those whose hearts are always with unknown thousands of people abroad are often the most indifferent to the fewer people nearer home who might benefit from practical help, starting with their own children, bouncing down the stairs unattended even as the philanthropist histrionically weeps for larger disasters far away.

We should do what we can, but save our sadness that we can do no more. Because eventually disaster will draw close enough. Dealing with it will demand a sense of proportion, which is always a balance between good cheer and realism, and can't be resolved entirely in favour of either term, lest our view of life be either inane on the one hand, or heartbroken on the other.

And so saying, he vaulted to the saddle of his camel and rode away.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Like sunshine and darkness, happiness and unhappiness co-exist in our lives. If it were never dark, we wouldn't appreciate the sunshine. If it were never light, we wouldn't appreciate the sunshine we've had and wouldn't hope for more. Enjoy the one and accept the other, because that is nature and we aren't able to control or dictate.
Simon, Leicester, UK

Why should I feel sorry for someone I cannot help when I work so hard to bring up my own family pay taxes and do charity work when I can. This is the typical British liberal bleeding heart syndrome. I am not guilty for anything I am only doing my best in an imperfect world.
paolo di paolo, wembley

Clive James - we love you! I totally agree with most of what you say and I too have noticed the phenomenon that Dickens noticed - particularly with students who champion global causes but will not get involved in issues of poverty and deprivation on their own doorstep. But we all need to care more about others and then happiness will be a more likely bi-product of our altruistic activities.
Tricia Priestley, brighton

After reading Clive James' essay, I now realise how selfish I am. Not because I am sometimes happy, but because, sometimes I feel guity about the happiness I feel because somewhere else, somebody might be miserable. This then robs those around me of the happiness they get when they see me unhappy, dragging them down to the despondency I have cutivated to a pure art form.

My solution? I have set aside times of "fits of morbid melancholia", times when I feel as unhappy about bombs in Iraq as I do about stabbings in South Leytonstone. I have decided to follow the verses in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and decided that there is "time for everything under the sun".
Shaft144, London, UK

There is a Portuguese saying that loosely translates into "There is no endless misery neither everlasting happiness." Moments, flashes, fragments... This is the build of our feelings and states of mind. Happiness is frightening just as misery and some people prefer not to have it noticed, maybe by fear of guilt and maybe by intolerance of happiness itself. However, one is just as unavoidable as the other. The tapestry of life is mesmerizingly made of several colours and one is not more important.
Carlos Wigderowitz, Dundee


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