14 April 2010

Happy just to be Content

Over the weekend heard two 'synchronistic' things that got me thinking.

A few of us had gone away to Sark, camping overnight and making the most of the fine weather and a friend and I got talking about the nature of relationships, marriage and the like.

The first 'thing' was in the form of a question by a friend who first made a comment that [paraphrased] 'things were simple for his parents. They met each other (fairly young) and got married.' He then asked me if and why I thought things were generally different nowadays.

Initially, I commented that it was the added stress of modern life, largely driven by the pressures of an increasingly consumerist society, saying that people were influenced by elusive, mythical images or love, perfect partners and lifestyles, all of which could be theirs for the right price and if they worked hard enough. And quite apart from that they were offered fairy tale endings at every turn only to realise these false dreams evaporate quickly when faced with the banality of everyday life.

The following day, when I woke in my tent in Sark, I switched on my clockwork radio (after a bit of winding) and stumbled upon an programme called 'Broadcasting House' on Radio 4 which was essentially on that very theme. The host was interviewing Linda Kelsey who, like Dawn French and Lenny Henry, was preparing to divorce after more than 20 years of marriage.

The discussion was very compassionate and there was no acrimony, simply a recognition that the two had drifted apart and that there was responsibility to be taken on both sides.

But the comment that stuck me most was this:

'The difference between our generation and, say, our parents generation is that we have this great sense of self-entitlement; we believe that we have the right to be happy and that if we're not happy we have to go and seek happiness, whereas our parents thought much more in terms of loyalty and longevity.'

There are of course many reasons for the shift in attitudes towards marriage and more generally what people expect out of life, but I particularly find her comments about self-entitlement and the 'right' to happiness very interesting...and challenging. I do not believe she meant it as a criticism, but it did make me realise that
'It is much more important to be content than happy... and I am much happier now for having realised that'

The interview with Linda Kelsey can be heardhere. 31 minutes in.


  1. Additional thought: People put too much store by the pursuit of happiness, when really all we should be looking for in life is to be content. You may disagree, but I think people are never satisfied these days as we are always trying to be sold more and more - either literally or figuratively - and happiness is something that has to be worked hard for and then bought. If we simply went back to basics and realised that what we need for contentment is fairly minimal (but precious) then everything else would be a bonus.

    Any thoughts? Please feel free to disagree. Maybe being content is the enemy to self-fulfillment. All thoughts welcome

  2. CS Lewis - part 2:

    The real situation is skillfully concealed by saying that the question of Mr. A.’s “right” to desert his wife is one of “sexual morality.” Robbing an orchard is not an offense against some special morality called “fruit morality.” It is an offense against honesty. Mr. A.’s action is an offense against good faith (to solemn promises), against gratitude (toward one to whom he was deeply indebted) and against common humanity.

    Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behavior which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous and unjust….

    If we establish a “right to (sexual) happiness” which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behavior, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behavior is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behavior turns out again and again to be illusory. Everyone (except Mr. A. and Mrs. B.) knows that Mr. A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as for deserting his old. He will feel again that all is at stake. He will see himself again as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for the woman.

    Two further points remain.

    One is this. A society in which conjugal infidelity is tolerated must always be in the long run a society adverse to women. Women, whatever a few male songs and satires my say to the contrary, are more naturally monogamous than men; it is a biological necessity. Where promiscuity prevails they will therefore always be more often the victims than the culprits. Also, domestic happiness is more necessary to them than to us. And the quality by which they most easily hold a man, their beauty, decreases every year after they have come to maturity, but this does not happen to those qualities of personality—women don’t really care twopence about our looks—by which we hold women. Thus in the ruthless war of promiscuity women are at a double disadvantage. They play for higher stakes and are also more likely to lose. I have no sympathy with moralists who frown at the increasing crudity of female provocativeness. These signs of desperate competition fill me with pity.

    Secondly, though the “right to happiness” is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will—one dare not even add “unfortunately”—be swept away.

  3. We Have No 'Right to Happiness' - C.S. Lewis - part 1

    'After all', said Clare, 'They had a right to happiness.' We were discussing something that once happened in our own neighbourhood. Mr. A had deserted Mrs. A and got his divorce in order to marry Mrs. B, who had likewise got her divorce in order to marry Mr. A. And there was certainly no doubt that Mr. A and Mrs. B were very much in love with one another. If they continued to be in love, and if nothing went wrong with their health or their income, they might reasonably expect to be very happy.

    It was equally clear that they were not happy with their old partners...You mustn't, by the way, imagine that A. was the sort of man who nonchalantly threw a wife away like the peel of an orange he'd sucked dry. Her suicide was a terrible shock to him. We all knew this, for he told us so himself. 'But what could I do?' he said. 'A man has a right to happiness. I had to take my one chance when it came.' I went away thinking about the concept of a 'right to happiness'.

    At first this sounds to me as odd as a right to good luck. For I believe--whatever one school of moralists may say--that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn't, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.

  4. I posted the above paper by C.S. Lewis because I think it punctures a lot of the myths about happiness. I don't think that all divorces are to do with the pursuit of happiness; some may be to do with all kinds of stress and unhappiness, which is not the same. Leaving a situation in which someone is desperately unhappy, suicidal, or abused physically and / or mentally is certainly justified, and quite different.

    There is an asymmetry between happiness and unhappiness. We cannot legislate for happiness, but we can legislate against suffering.

  5. sometimes I talk to people who will proudly boast of having been married 50 or 60 years...but when pressed those same people may admit to having been miserable or "content" for the majority of those years.

    Perhaps you are right that our expectations in all areas are too high or unrealistic; all long term relationships will have good times, bad times and periods of "contentment"

    It is often said that people do feel they have a god given right to boundless happiness and will abandon a relationship at the first hurdle. Others, will hang on to a unhealthy or distructive relationship for many reasons, kids, debt bondage, social standing, fear.

    The Dhalai Lama, a smart cookie once said that the purpose of our lives is to be happy... and I guess it's all relative.

    some people who seem to lack material wealth and security are happy with their lot... is this because they have a healthy state of mind, healthy priorities or just low expectations??

  6. An interesting post Montfort. Please can you confirm whether you support Senator Syvret in his fight for justice for the abuse survivors? Many thanks.

  7. People seem to have their priorities wrong. I can understand wanting material wealth for a secure future, but the endless pursuit of bling and status symbols is pretty futile.

    So long as I have a warm residence, food, water and clothing, and the love of my friends and family - that's enough for me. Anything else could be either a blessing or a curse. I find that the more I own the more stressed I become - you're better off without pointless rubbish cluttering up your life.

    Live life one day at a time.

  8. Thanks for comments guys. Will be responding shortly

  9. Recently I was on a beach and a proper old Jersey Bean started talking to me. He said that he thought the problem with youth today is that they are too far away from nature and spend too much time in front of computer screens. I think this is kind of related to the above discussion.

    I also think that life is too complicated now a days, I have so many pieces of paper that are supposed to be filled in and I really can't be bothered. Certain pursuits such as planting Jersey Royals in my eyes have a purpose and are therefor enjoyable but sadly today we seem to have to spend more time messing around with banks accounts, forms, etc etc.

    A few nights ago I was having another discussion; the jist of it was that although we have "one of the highest quality of lives in the world", I feel almost certain that if their was a measure of happiness then those in poor little villages would score considerably higher than the average Jersey citizen, simply due to the simplicity of their lives.

  10. Live life one day at a time - yes how I agree. My concept of happiness is a joyful, elated feeling of being on a high, It can be short or long lived and likened to a bubble that can be burst very easily.
    Contentment to me is a warm, comfortable, peaceful place to be. At peace with oneself and those around you. It conjures up a picture of a roaring fire and a cosy home and most importantly being happy with whatever you have or have not got.

  11. Humans, and most other animals, know when they are unhappy and instinctively move to rectify the situation by removing the causes of their unhappiness.

    In different periods of history and parts of the world, it was almost impossible to legally escape an unhappy marriage, so people stayed locked together in a state of 'tolerance'.

    There were often practical, economic reasons that couples could not part, especially if there were children involved.

    If people can really no longer stand each other, they should separate, even if there are children involved.

    Consumerism and advertising are predicated on discontent - they actively stimulate a sense of discontent and promise you relief from it when you purchase their product. So it is not surprising that in a consumerist society you find more discontented people with more complex desires that cannot ultimately be satisfied.

    The difficulty is distinguishing between discontent and unhappiness, and once having done that, identifying the true causes of your unhappiness. You might be unhappy with your job, your failed ambitions, your social life, your money situation etc, all of which you then project onto your relationship.

    It would be wrong to say that things were different for our parents and grandparents - see Joyce's 'Dubliners' or Ibsen's 'A Doll's House', which revolve around the same theme. They just generally had less options so either decided to not pay attention to their unhappiness - because they couldn't change it - or to carry on in 'quite desperation' and to pursue enjoyment outside of their relationship.

    Of course, some of them were just happy :)

  12. Jacques,
    Thanks for you patience in waiting for a reply. I would hope that it goes without saying that I back justice for abuse survivors. I also think it is important to point out that whilst public opinion may be divided about Senator Syvret's absence from the island, no-one should challenge his work and commitment to working to the same end. You will note that there are several questions this week submitted relating to Haut de la Garenne (the name that some States Members dare not even pronounce). It will be interesting to see what fruit they bring. Please feel free to leave a comment.