“I think you might do something better with the time than waste it asking riddles that have no answers.”
So says Alice to the March Hare and the Mad Hatter when she encounters them down the rabbit hole of Wonderland, playing at tea parties in their self-confessed madness.
Happiness is one such riddle that preoccupies far too many of us for too much of the time. Madness is another, although not so many of us contemplate it to an equal degree. And yet the two are so often inextricably linked, unresolved conflicts tangling us up in knots.
A book that provides the perfect lens through which to see the many, varied experiences of the mental arena is Dear Stranger, an invaluable compendium for anyone interested in what, how and why the mind ticks. Judging by the 257 million answers provided by Google to the question “what is happiness”, that’s an awful lot of us.
Published by Penguin in collaboration with the mental health charity, Mind, Dear Stranger gathers the reflections of writers, scientists, comedians, bloggers and illustrators who reveal the necessary highs and lows that make happiness such an elusive concept.
One of the common threads running through the book is this idea of happiness as a transitory state. It is neither something to aim for nor capture and contain as a permanent ideal, whether because of the lows that are necessary for the highs, or because of the things that happen in between which deserve our attention, or because of the humanity and compassion that come from understanding the sadness of life.
Every day is a fight
Journalist Ilona Burton cautions that “feelings, like everything else, are just temporary. Always cling to that thought”, while Nicci French writes that “happiness isn’t a thing…It’s more like heat, the product of a process. Depression is a thing. Unhappiness is a thing. It is something to be dealt with in all sorts of different ways”.
Caitlin Moran is, as usual, superb, with her evocations of a pet called Eric, herself as the dachsund she takes care of whenever they end up in the dark place, which, as she beautifully points out, is because “we feel more of the world than most people. That’s amazing….Every day is a fight – the highs are high, and the lows are low. You are rarely lukewarm. But you and Eric – you are witnesses together. You are not alone, alone.”
Actress and writer Francesca Martinez is excellent on the psychological trauma caused by the compulsion we all feel to live up to the “social constructs” of beauty, wealth and success. A quest we should abandon in the recognition of its futility because, as she says, it will only “lead to a life wasted on chasing empty goals and obsessing over what others think of you”. Without diminishing the impact of “society’s superficial goals”, Martinez reminds us to remain alert to the “wonder of being alive” because:
“The chances of us bursting into life are practically zero. The cold, dark expanse of space could have been lifeless and the distant stars could have formed something else. Yet here you are.”
Journalist Sathnam Sanghera perfectly captures the curse – and the blessing – of difference: “So much human misery is caused by people trying to fit into holes they don’t belong. Whether it is hiding their sexuality, or hanging out socially with people they don’t even like, or doing along with stuff just because of social and family pressure to do so. But you’re already there. It is almost certain that you will not remain as you are, but you are already have the courage to be different”.
The author Nick Harkaway suggests that happiness “is the feeling you get from performing your life in a particular mood. It’s an action or many actions, and you have to live it and do it all the time and that’s how you get to be happy”. Business tycoon Richard Branson similarly channels some Zen in his advice to concentrate on being rather than doing: “Don’t waste your human talents by stressing about nominal things, or that which you cannot change. If you take the time simply to be and appreciate the fruits of life, your stresses will being to dissolve and you will be happier.”
Ride the wave
A personal favourite is Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s wholly rational take on happiness as a physical sensation over which we have no control which makes it illogical to pursue – it determines us, not vice versa. For Harari: “Freedom from this pointless rat race may be achieved by seeing our sensations for what they are: fleeting and meaningless vibrations. Once we realise the meaningless and ephemeral nature of all sensations, what would be the point of trying to get one particular sensation rather than another? Knowing yourself as waves of evanescent sensations, just allowing the waves to come and go without trying to freeze them, chase them, or drive them away – this is happiness.”
It’s worth pointing out that Dear Stranger in no way claims to be a self-help book, and it’s all the more helpful for it. There are no tips, tricks, recommendations or magical cures, just a series of insights, one or more of which is sure to resonate with every reader.
The point is that whatever brings you to this book, you will leave with a little more understanding about the minds of others, and your own. A universal must-read. And with all profits being donated to the charity Mind, it's imperative that more of us do.