The Happy Life

The Happy Life

The search for contentment in the modern world

David Malouf




Happiness surely is among the simplest of human emotions and the most spontaneous. There can be no one, however miserable the conditions of their daily existence, who has not at some time felt the joy of being alive in the moment; in the love of another, or the closeness of friends or fellow workers; in a baby’s smile, the satisfaction of a job well done or the first green in a winter furrow; or more simply still, bird-song or the touch of sunlight. But for the vast majority of men and women who have shared our planet in the long course of human history, these can have been no more than moments in a life that was unremittingly harsh. 

Think of a medieval farmer as he struggled to keep body and soul together, at the mercy of famine, plague and the periodic arrival over the horizon of mercenaries in search of food or plunder; or women and children in the eighteenth century who spent fifteen hours a day hauling a truck loaded with coal out of a pit; or the African slaves who endured the Middle Passage to the Americas. Think of the millions, soldiers and civilians both, caught up in the wars and social upheavals of the last century, the invasions, evacuations, forced resettlements, the daily struggle to survive the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Belsen or Mauthausen. 

We get some idea of what “happy” might mean to an inmate of the Soviet Gulags from the list of small mercies at the end of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:

Shukhov went off to sleep, and he was completely content. Fate had been kind to him in many ways that day: he hadn’t been put in the cells, the gang had not been sent to the Socialist Community Centre, he’d fiddled himself an extra bowl of porridge for dinner, the gang-leader had fixed a good percentage, he’d been happy building that wall, he’d slipped through the search with that bit of blade, he’d earned himself something from Tsesar in the evening, he’d bought his tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill – had overcome his feelings of illness in the morning. 

The day had gone by without a single cloud – almost a happy day. 

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his sentence, from reveille to lights out. 

The three extra days were because of the leap years …

The truth is that for most of our history only the few, who had the privilege of living free of long hours of hard labour and vulnerability to privation and every form of accident, enjoyed the luxury of considering what happiness of a more settled kind might be: the freedom to cultivate, outside the turmoil of daily living, their “garden.” Either a real one of orchards and shady walks – Horace’s Sabine farm or Voltaire’s Ferney – or the metaphorical one of Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade.” Or, within a life that is still engaged with contingency and dailyness, what Montaigne calls “the little back-shop, all our own, entirely free,” that we must set aside for our self-preservation in even the most crowded household. “In this retreat,” he tells us, 

we should keep up our ordinary converse with ourselves, and so private, that no acquaintance or outside communication may find a place there; there to talk and laugh, as if we had neither wife, nor children, nor worldly goods, retinue or servants; to the end that, should we happen to lose them, it may be no new thing to do without them … Since God gives us permission to arrange for our own removal, let us prepare for it; let us pack up our belongings, take leave betimes of the company, and shake off those violent holdfasts that engage us elsewhere and estrange us from ourselves. We must undo those powerful bonds, and from this day forth we may love this and that, but be wedded only to ourselves. That is to say, let the rest be ours, but not joined and glued so firmly to us that it cannot be detached without taking our skin along with it, and tearing away a piece of us. The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to yourself.

Montaigne knows only too well, of course, that one needs more than “God’s permission” to achieve this. It helps if one is also the Seigneur de Montaigne, Chevalier de l’ordre du Roy et Gentilhomme ordinaire de sa chambre, mayor and governor of Bordeaux, a child of fortune and high privilege; though even then one will be as vulnerable as any other to the ills of the body, and to the hesitations, doubts, irrational hauntings, moods, fears that trouble our fragile consciousness; and of course no one, however protected by royal favour and titles, is safe from Death. 

Behind Montaigne’s very idiosyncratic avocation of the “little back-shop” of domestic retirement lies a tradition that reaches deep into the classical past: to Seneca, Cicero, Epictetus, and beyond those later writers to Epicurus, Aristotle and Plato in the fourth century BC. This is the tradition we catch a late echo of in one of the most admired of seventeenth-century English poems, Sir Henry Wotton’s “Character of a Happy Life,” a version of Horace’s Second Epode, “Beatus ille qui” – “Happy he who …”: 

How happy is he born or taught

That serveth not another’s will; 

Whose armour is his honest thought, 

And silly truth his highest skill! 


Whose passions not his masters are, 

Whose soul is still prepared for death; 

Untied unto the world with care

Of princely love or vulgar breath;


Who hath his life from rumours freed, 

Whose conscience is his strong retreat; 

Whose state can neither flatterers feed, 

Nor ruin make accusers great; 


Who envieth none whom chance doth raise 

Or vice; who never understood 

How deepest wounds are given with praise; 

Nor rules of state, but rules of good;


Who God doth late and early pray 

More of his grace than gifts to lend; 

Who entertains the harmless day 

With a well-chosen book or friend; 


– This man is free from servile bands 

Of hope to rise, or fear to fall; 

Lord of himself, though not of lands; 

And having nothing, he hath all.

Wotton, an intimate of John Donne at Oxford and later of the greatest scholar of the age, Isaac Casaubon at Geneva, is in many ways the model of a Renaissance man. The life he celebrates in his poem is his own. It strikes a balance between those opposing possibilities, as the age saw it, of the active and the contemplative life. He spent thirty years in the diplomatic service and had a wit that sometimes got him into trouble; he was responsible for the cheeky definition of a diplomat as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” He was for more than twenty years the British ambassador at Venice and in retirement, as Provost of Eton, spent his days, “harmlessly” as he puts it, in the company of his books and a few close friends, but also fishing in a bend of the Thames known as the Black Potts. His companion on these occasions was Izaak Walton, who later described their days together in his Compleat Angler.

Wotton, as all this suggests, was a man of the world and knew only too well its ways. How high office attracts empty flatterers but also men whose chief concern is to slander and bring you down. How words that are meant to kill can disguise themselves as praise. How the man of prestige and even the smallest power can waste his spirit in dreams of greater power or fear of fall. Wotton himself is a model of Montaigne’s insistence that “Solitude is more becoming and more reasonable in one who gives to the world the most active and most vigorous period of his life.” Having embraced the world of action and affairs with all the energy that was in him, he also managed to hold himself apart from its temptations to corruption, both of the public and of the private sort, and, dependent neither on the approval of princes nor of the mob, remained one who, to the end, was “Lord of himself, though not of lands, and having nothing, he hath all.” We have no nicer statement in later times of what the various classical schools, the Aristotelean, the Epicurean, the Stoic, would have agreed was the highest form of happiness, but also the highest wisdom. 

And these days?

One difference, at least in developed societies like our own – and it is a large one – is that something called happiness is a condition that we all aspire to, and which, whatever our place in society, we see it as our right to enjoy. We judge a society, and the state that is based upon it, by how free and happy its people are, and the extent to which its institutions provide for that possibility. Jeremy Bentham’s proposition in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) – “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” – has become essential to any serious political platform. 

But what, in our understanding of the word, does happiness actually mean, and how did it come to be seen as a right, a possibility that should be available to all? And how does “the happy life” as we conceive it now, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century – in a world where “happy pills” can be purchased on prescription, or at any dance party or club, when every city bar has its Happy Hour and one of the instant cures for low-level unhappiness is what we call “retail therapy” – relate to the way Aristotle, or Seneca, or even Montaigne saw it, or as it appeared to Sir Henry Wotton? 

The happy life for Wotton was the life that made full use of the gifts a man had been given, that fulfilled its promise, first in action, then in days and nights of rest; life had been good to him, but he had also served it well in return. Asked about the “good” life, he might have pointed to that word “harmless.” He had done what he could for the world and done no man harm. 

The “good life” as we understand it today does not raise the question of how we have lived, of moral qualities or usefulness or harm; we no longer use the phrase in that way. The good life as we understand it has to do with what we call lifestyle, with living it up in a world that offers us gifts or goodies free for the taking. In terms that even the early twentieth century might have understood, the notion of Virtue barely exists for us. It is a quaint, old-fashioned word that in the daily busyness of living, like its counterpart, Evil, has no useful currency. Evil exists, as cancer does. It is mysterious, scary and we have no cure for it, but we see it as specific rather than general. Ordinary men and women can be foolish, inconsiderate, irresponsible, selfish, greedy; irrational anger and fear, or drugs and alcohol, can make them do things that are destructive and criminal. They are not necessarily evil. But there are others of us – they are statistically few – who have no sense of the reality of others or of the feelings of others. Neuroscientists would tell us that they are the victims of a chemical condition. This, for the moment, seems to be as far as we can go. 

In the world of behaviour to which virtue once referred we think of social qualities now as constituting the terms in which goodness presents itself: goodness of heart, public-spiritedness, generosity, charity, concern for others – community values, which is no bad thing; neighbourliness, the responsibility we feel to the general good, our contribution to the world at large; the contributions we make to the needs of others. 

Television is full of advertisements and appeals to our social conscience and goodwill: Save the Children, World Vision, Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Amnesty International; at the local level the Smith Family and the Salvos. We leave the private choices, questions of sexual behaviour, for example, to personal disposition, unless it takes a social form as domestic violence or a legal one as child abuse. If the attainment of spiritual equanimity is a question at all, it is for the individual to pursue as a private matter.

The consolations of philosophy are still available to us, as they were to Montaigne, in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca; and in these early decades of the twenty-first century, we can also turn now to Montaigne himself, and to Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard. But we have no formal schools, such as the Greeks and Romans had, for training their elite in personal and social discipline; in care of the self – its preservation, that is, against vulnerability to externals, against loss of self-containment and self-sufficiency, loss of control; care for the limited, closed world of the city-state. 

What we have is psychological help for those who seek it, or the pastoral care of a church if we belong to one; or yoga, meditation, dating agencies, Facebook, Gaydar, drugs, cycling or jogging; or the full range of stimulus and sensation provided by continuous sporting programs on pay TV, endlessly proliferating porn websites, Fashion or Race or Food weeks, or all-night clubs. It’s a free world, make your choice. 

Most of us these days enjoy the good life in this later, material sense. (I say “most of us,” but I mean the new privileged, those of us who live in advanced, industrial societies. The truth is that though we are all alive on the planet in the same moment, we are not all living in the same century.)

We are also, if we are to judge from the high level of volunteerism in the community and what we have seen in recent weeks with the Queensland floods, living good lives – in the later sense of lives that take clear account of others, the less fortunate, and in our readiness to devote so much of our time and leisure to being useful and “contributing.” 

The question that arises is not so much “How should we live if we want to be happy?” but how is it, when the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives – large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death – that happiness still eludes so many of us? What have we succumbed to or failed to do that might have helped us? What is it in us, or in the world we have created, that continues to hold us back?


This is an extract from David Malouf's Quarterly Essay, The Happy Life: The search for contentment in the modern world. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


David Malouf is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. He is the author of poems, fiction, libretti and essays. In 1996, his novel Remembering Babylon was awarded the first International IMPAC Dublin Liter­ary Award. His 1998 Boyer Lectures were published as A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness. In 2000 he was selected as the sixteenth Neustadt Lau­reate. His most recent novel is Ransom.


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