I have an in-built resistance to the current glut of self-help books on the subject of “happiness”. I’ve had a few of them sent to me and find them all very much the same, and I somehow doubt that you can learn to be happy by reading a book. Happiness is a nebulous thing anyway – most of us seem to be pretty content to bumble along feeling reasonable enough but also having no illusions that a state of constant happiness is either achievable or even desirable.
After all, isn’t a state of happiness only possible if you’ve known a corresponding period of unhappiness? We only enjoy weekends because we’ve had to go to work in the week. Before I ramble on too much, let me say that whatever my feelings about “happiness” books in general, I’m going to make an exception for this one, A Private History of Happiness by George Myerson.
The book is simple in concept. It contains 99 written accounts of times or things which made people happy, the “people” in this case being a wide and highly eclectic range of historic characters such as Robert Schumann, Anna Seward, John James Audubon, Montaigne, Horace, Walt Whitman, Dorothy Wordsworth and Anselm of Canterbury. Each episode is followed by a short commentary by George Myerson who tells his readers a little about the writers and fills out the context of the short pieces with information about what was going on in their lives at the time.
The result is rather like reading many short diary extracts, and reminded me a little of John Sutherland’s excellent anthology Love, Sex, Death and Words which provides a daily snapshot of an equally varied set of people (I have this book on my Kindle and often look up the entry for the current day). But with this Happiness book, I find that it does actually remind me to look for those little episodes in the day when everything comes together in a brief moment of calm.
Perhaps the best way of showing this is to give a couple of short extracts from the book (the quoted texts are longer than these I have included here). Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, writes about meeting his brother every morning to go bathing early every morning at the public bath-house.
. . . Carl comes several times a week at five or six o’clock in the morning to fetch me. Or course he finds me still in bed and with me that means the same as asleep; and what a pleasurable awaking it is, when I hear his footsteps in the passage, and he comes in so full of friendliness and bids me good morning. In the greatest hurry I then don my clothes, in the meantime he fills a pipe, and then we start. In a safe bathing room we lave our limbs in the somewhat coldish waters of the Planke, a little tributary of the Spree; at first shuddering at the cold, then laughing at our own cowardice; and after the plunge, feeling extremely well and cheerful. On our return, Carl breakfasts with me, generally on milk, or, on festive occasions, on chocolate; and while this is being partaken of, we chat, or read, or perhaps play a game at chess, and then each to his work. . .
George Myerson then tells us that Friedrich Schleiermacher was a hospital chaplain at the time of writing and describes his stage of mental development as a young man, beginning to participate in the intellectual life of the city. Myerson gives enough information about Schleiermacher to make you want to go right across to Wikipedia to look him up – and that is one of the pleasure of the book – the way these little snapshots make you want to read more about the individual concerned.
Another extract comes from Hans Christian Anderson writing a “letter to a friend”.
Here I am sitting on Blocksberg and writing to you in he middle of a cloud, a nasty cloud which perhaps looks very nice from below, and many a poetical genius wishes himself up in this heavenly land of the mountains; but they should try it! Here is snow, the fire is lit in the stove, and I have an Englishman for my neighbour. It is quite like winter; I have been obliged to take two glasses of punch, and I am now going to bed, therefore no more of this place.
In this very moment three of the servant girls are dancing outside the window. They have after the German fashion, flowing cloaks of cotton, and snoods over their heads; they are gathering flowers, while light, misty clouds pass them like lightning; it is like the witch scene in Macbeth! There is a party of thirty besides the other travellers; they have brought musical instruments with them, and play delightfully. As we cannot see anything, I am now going to sleep to sounds of music.
Myserson comments on this passage, “the present moment was suddenly beautiful and complete. He had no lingering thoughts about future prospects as he slipped gently and happily to sleep, accompanied by the music of the mountain”. And really this sums of Myerson’s thoughts on happiness: happiness is found in spontaneous appreciation of the present moment, those little epiphanies which crop up in all our lives, usually unexpectedly. The art of happiness consists of recognising these moments and realising that life is not all struggle.
I’ve enjoyed my time in this book and it’s definitely one which will remain on my shelves, to be dipped into again and again. It would make a fantastic Christmas present for someone who like reading snippets of diaries or perhaps someone who is going through a difficult time.
This book has also been reviewed by Maria Popova on her marvellous Brain Pickings website. If you’re interested in books or writing I recommend that you sign up to Maria’s weekly email, which will provide you with inspiration and new directions for your literary life. Brain Pickings is one of those websites which is supported by donations from its readers rather than by advertising, a method of financing which guarantees quality on the basis that people only pay for what they like.