Robert Dessaix

What an unruly grab-bag of a word “happiness” is, an omnium gatherum of dovetailing concepts from “contentment” to “joy.” With reassuring elegance and just the right amount of erudition to impress but not intimidate his readers, David Malouf has tried to bring a little order to the chaos. Although I am not sure that he has distilled the essence of what we mean (or Europeans in particular have meant across the centuries) either by “happiness” or “the happy life,” he stimulated me at every point, as a good essayist does, to ask myself awkward questions about my own accustomed thoughts on “happiness” – my own approach to leading “the happy life.” I’d have liked to come across a uniquely Maloufian twist to arguments about what happiness is, rather than a tapestry of others’ thoughts, but that is to quibble. The tapestry is finely woven.

What really interests Malouf, he tells us, is not how to live if we want to be happy, but why happiness still eludes so many of us now that the “chief sources of human unhappiness … have largely been removed from our lives.” As I understand it, Malouf believes that it has something to do with realising at last that we are alone in an infinite void, the playthings of something capricious called the Economy (which nobody understands), unable to feel at home anywhere, attached only to surfaces. I was not convinced by this argument: it sounds plausible as an explanation of contemporary Western unease (if there is widespread unease), but Malouf supplies no evidence to suggest that this is in fact what is making modern Westerners unhappy (if that’s what they are). A lot of them certainly look bored.

Thinkers from other traditions might just as plausibly argue that we are still unhappy, despite our freedom from the miseries afflicting medieval man, because we are still chained to desire – indeed, inflaming desires of various kinds is the very engine of the modern Western economy. Or perhaps the Prometheus story, so illuminatingly discussed by Malouf, gives us the key: unrest is simply part and parcel of being human – or, in modern terms, a capacity for dissatisfaction makes humankind the inventive, technologically skilled species it needs to be to survive and evolve. 

Happy moments are not so difficult to come by for most of us, as Malouf points out. Small surges of pleasure mark most of our days – and not only in advanced economies – and for each of us their sources will be different. Some will be exhilarated by a visit to Harvey Norman, some seized by joy at a performance of La Traviata or Hairspray, others at peace with themselves stroking the dog in front of the fire, content after a day in the garden, deeply satisfied by a good book or ecstatic at the prospect of erotic fulfilment. Yet none of those things makes any of us truly happy people. And there’s the rub: pleasurable moments (like Ivan Denisovich’s when he looked back over his “undarkened” day) do not make us happy people. It is being profoundly, rootedly happy – living a happy life – as opposed to merely content or fleetingly euphoric, that presents more of a problem. For that sort of happiness some other kind of awareness, underlying all our days, is needed.

It is easy, I think, in considering what this sort of awareness might be, to mistake the starting points for achieving it for the thing itself. For some the starting point might be solitude in Montaigne’s “little back-shop,” for others tumult, for some oneness with the godhead. It depends on your circumstances. It is true that, historically, in the English (and German and Russian) words for “happiness” two areas of meaning dovetailed: “luck” and “pleasure,” giving us a meaning Malouf nicely sums up as “the state of being in good standing in the world of accident and event … pleased with what life has brought you.” This kind of basic satisfaction with your place in the world, while seemingly at odds with the Promethean idea, may be a good point of departure for pursuing a happy life, but not much more. 

That is why the line that Malouf quotes from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (“The day had gone by without a single cloud – almost a happy day.”) strikes me as an unsatisfactory climax to his ruminations on happiness. Malouf interprets this line about Shukhov’s “almost happy day” in the labour camp as an affirmation of the possibility of happiness “within limits.” Accommodating yourself to what your world makes possible is a good place to start, but it cannot be the goal of any “search for contentment” of a lasting kind. In any case, in the original Russian Shukhov simply has a moment of “satisfaction,” reflecting back on a day that has passed, a day described as “undarkened by anything” (not “cloudless,” which implies brightness), “almost happy” – that is to say, free of added miseries – not as actually “happy.” In fact, I would be tempted to translate “pochti schastlivy den’” as “almost a fortunate day” rather than “happy.”

Whatever the prelude to a happy life – rest, rebellion, satisfaction, unease – it seems to me that what characterises lasting happiness is a feeling of freedom. “The little back-shop, all our own, entirely free,” Montaigne wrote. And I think he hit the nail on the head. Whether or not freedom is an illusion is unimportant – perhaps indeed we are no freer than cabbages to choose how we might grow. But unlike cabbages we can feel free – and happiness is a feeling. 

As I see it, what is vital is not what we free ourselves from (that will always depend on our individual circumstances), but what we free ourselves to do. Ultimately, I believe that happiness results from freeing ourselves to magnify our sense of our humanity – to be more intensely, consciously, inventively, adventurously human (“ourselves,” if you like) – and to take pleasure in what grows out of this. When we hear people say that they’re happy when they’re at a heavy metal concert or stoned or talking to Jesus or living in a Tuscan village or alone at home with the cat, reading a good book, I think they’re really telling us about an inkling they’ve had of what happiness is for them, about a step towards it, a beginning they’ve made in its pursuit, not about happiness itself. The freedom you need to be deeply, abidingly happy requires a self-knowledge, I would say even a virtuosity, that few have possessed in any era. As André Gide wrote, to free yourself is nothing – it’s being free that’s hard. 


Robert Dessaix is a writer, translator, broadcaster and essayist. His books include A Mother’s Disgrace, Corfu and the travel memoirs Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev and, most recently, Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 41, The Happy Life . To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 42, Fair Share.


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