Every day in every way I grow more and more despondent, and I started from a pretty low base. There are some words I find impossibly difficult, and they are undoubtedly related to my long-term and/or innate despondency. ‘Love’, ‘feeling’ and especially ‘happiness’ are at the head of the list. This is not because I haven’t experienced any of them, but because whenever I think about using the words I don’t really know what anyone means by them. I’d find it easier to sit down and write a book about each (coming, obviously, to no conclusion) than to use them casually in speech or writing. I’m not alone in my stuttering, but most people seem to get by with those sorts of word, understanding them in an accepted, acceptable sense. I find it hard to use them seriously (I was going to write ‘sincerely’, but that’s another problem word) or without some form of qualification. I can quite easily come to terms with the inevitable fallibility represented in the idea of ‘good enough’ mothering, but ‘good enough’ word-use is harder to resign myself to, though just as necessary, I suppose. Remember Prince Charles: ‘Whatever “in love” means’? I never thought to compare myself to HRH, but he is, among other things, a bit of a nit-picker and miserablist, and we do have that in common.

Gretchen Rubin (a name that hints at a fairy-tale ending) is entirely confident about using those words. Two of her Twelve Personal Commandments are: ‘Act the way I want to feel’ and ‘There is only love.’ (I bet you want to know what the other ten are; we’ll be back.) Both notions render me monosyllabic: how? What? As to happiness, well, she’s named her whole project after it, and gave a fine example of what she means by it and how it may be arrived at when The Happiness Project went straight to the top ten in the US bestseller list:* ‘I’m in shock. I just found out. My book, The Happiness Project, hit #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, its first week out in the world. This is one of the HAPPIEST moments of my professional career! I’m beyond thrilled!’ she trilled on her blog. Gretchen not only knows happiness when she feels it, she even knows the feeling of ‘happiest’, and wants to share the love. Not that she’s suggesting that writing a book on happiness and getting top sales is the only way to be happy. With her help (the online Happiness Project Toolbox lets you read and make lists and resolutions, tick boxes and assess your current condition), you can find your own way within reason and law; and you probably should because there are already more than 140,000 books on the subject of happiness on Amazon, and either you aren’t going to make much of a dent in the market, or you are, and risk knocking Gretchen’s book off the list, thus reducing her extreme happiness – which is contrary to her project. If she, as our happiness scout, Happiest-in-Chief, isn’t happy, how can we be?

Freud, in accordance with his reality principle (good title for a self-help bestseller, there), explained that the aim of psychoanalysis was to transform ‘hysterical misery into common unhappiness’. That, like ‘good enough’ mothering, always seemed a reasonable and graceful objective. But Rubin is more ambitious and takes over where Freud leaves well alone. Her plan is to help people to upgrade from ordinary unhappiness, where Freud waved farewell to us, to the condition of actually being happy. But there’s a rub, if you’re me. Her book and website come with a health warning. Almost anyone can be happy, she claims, but only if they’re not very unhappy to start with. Actually, in Gretchen’s vocabulary there’s no such thing as very unhappy: ‘the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression. Depression, a grave condition that deserves urgent attention, occupies its own category apart from happiness and unhappiness.’ Unhappy? Go to Gretchen. Depressed? See a doctor (‘I’m a big believer in the power of medication’). This makes me feel like the respondent to a piece of graffiti I once saw in a lavatory. Someone had written: ‘Grils’ Rights Now.’ Someone else had crossed out ‘Grils’ and inserted ‘Girls’. Below that, in another hand, was a plaintive cry: ‘What about us Grils?’ You can see her problem. She promises tuition on how to be happy, but there are these people who just can’t manage it, and the chances are, seeing as how she’s a bestseller, they’ll sue for peddling a product that’s failed in its stated purpose. So if you can’t get happy, then you weren’t unhappy to start with: you’re depressed. If you’re depressed, don’t come and play in Gretchen’s toolbox, take the meds. Gretchen is in the happy-making business, not a doctor: get better and then she’ll sort you out.

What kind of unhappiness is she dealing with, then? Obviously not the kind that comes from hunger or natural disaster or illness, requiring a redistribution of resources, insurance or cash, to be remedied. The short answers, which are the answers Gretchen likes to give, to those kinds of unhappiness are simple: if you’re hungry, eat something, and if you’re sick, go back to England in the 1950s. Like many short answers, not all that helpful. Ordinary unhappiness is a feeling of incompleteness in the midst of resources, the sense that good as things are, they could be better: you have an itch at the back of your mind that you can’t quite scratch, you know you’re not hungry but you want to eat, you know you’re not sick but you think you should have some medicine. And somehow your great job, lovely home, achieving children don’t soothe the mild irritation. There are all those people somewhere else with no food or water or drugs who obviously are more than unhappy, to say nothing of those people with clinical depression or who are in mourning for someone lost and gone. Here you are not suffering from any of those things and still you’re not happy. It’s actually worse for you; at least the poor and the sick know why they feel incomplete. The only thing you are sure of is that you ought to be happier. You have no doubt about that.

This is Gretchen’s constituency. She offers her own life-before-the-project as a model of the nebulous lack. ‘I was married to Jamie, the tall, dark and handsome love of my life; we had two delightful young daughters … I had friends; I had my health; I didn’t have to colour my hair. But too often I sniped at my husband or the cable guy.’ She is also a graduate of Yale and Yale Law School who began by clerking for a judge and then decided she wanted to write. Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK are two of her previous books, so you know you’re in the hands of an itemiser and a simplifier. Buy her book, go to her website, register and claim your own interactive place in the project, chat to others about your successes and failures in the happiness grab. Gretchen meanwhile will offer no end of lists to help you define the lack you have and show you how to supply it (clever this ongoing project notion: she’s working at it with you all the time, and it’s never finished, not a one-off course but a life’s work). She explains it in her July email newsletter, which also includes ‘seven tips for dealing with a sweetheart who is crabby all the time’: ‘On the Happiness Project blog I post daily about my adventures in trying to be happier, as I test-drive the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies and tips from popular culture.’

She’s figuring it all out, doing all the groundwork and then passing on the results to us all (well, not to me, obviously, because I’m under the doctor, but I can tag along if I want). She has read, or rather ‘plunged into’ everything: Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Montaigne, Pascal, Bertrand Russell, Thoreau, Schopenhauer and Oprah; Tolstoy, Woolf and McEwan; Adam Smith, the Dalai Lama and Malcolm Gladwell. Everything. And having emerged dripping with all that wisdom, she has at last managed to take the first step and define what happiness is. It wasn’t easy, but in the end she put the wisdom of the ages together with her top-class legal education and opted for Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s considered definition of obscenity: ‘I know it when I see it.’

Back to the Twelve Personal Commandments. The first, it has to be said, is difficult: ‘Be Gretchen’. I can see the sense in that as things stand, but being Gretchen is beyond me. Apparently, it isn’t even easy for Gretchen, since she has to remind herself to be her. Still being Gretchen is the first step on the road to happiness. OK, she means: ‘Be yourself’. But like many purveyors of such advice, she gives no guidelines, and I could more easily be Gretchen than fathom how to ‘Be Jenny’. If I thought I knew that, I probably wouldn’t have the doubt-space in my head to enable me to consider myself unhappy in the first place. Some of her commandments are more clear-cut than others, but that’s true too of the more modest ten that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. ‘Be polite and fair,’ like ‘Do not commit murder,’ may not be easy but you can see how it might save you trouble in the long run. Walk into a shop and call the proprietor a capitalist, thieving cunt, and you are likely to leave less happy than when you went in, though I can imagine circumstances in which another kind of contentment might override the social benefits of hypocrisy and self-control. There are contradictions, too: isn’t ‘Identify the problem’ cancelled out by ‘No calculation’? And ‘Act the way I want to feel’ doesn’t chime well with ‘Do what ought to be done.’ But what of the gnomic ‘Spend out’? Gretchen helps us with this and explains: ‘by spending out, I mean to stop hoarding, to trust in abundance. I find myself saving things, even when it makes no sense. Right now I’m forcing myself to spend out by wearing my new underwear.’ This does at least makes sense of the ‘Be Gretchen’ commandment, because surely anyone who wasn’t Gretchen who heard themselves say that or read it back after they’d written it would immediately head to the nearest tall building and throw themselves off.

There aren’t only commandments, there are also truths, specifically Four Splendid Truths, the second of which deals a sucker punch to any objections cynics like me might have about the single-minded self-absorption of the happiness project: ‘One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.’ So the next time someone comes to me with a tale of redundancy, their disability allowance being cut, or their loved one running out on them, I’ll just tell them about that pair of Jimmy Choo boots I saw on Net-a-Porter. All they have to do to feel better is to buy them for me. Trust in abundance, guys. Am I beginning to get the hang of this happiness project?

Truth number four is ‘You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.’ This is not just unfathomable but raises a prior question. Why is Rubin so very sure that happiness is the goal? Why do people, some people, understand their sense of incompleteness as a lack of happiness? Or why do they believe that such an incompleteness can and should be remedied? If the answers to these questions strike you as completely obvious, or they don’t seem to be sensible questions at all, then maybe it’s just me, but I suspect Freud didn’t stop at ordinary unhappiness because he was at a loss to know what to do at that point, but because ordinary unhappiness constitutes part of regular existence.

I once tried this thought out on a panel on a TV book show when we were talking about a biography of Ford Madox Ford. There was general agreement that his had been a tragic life, evidenced by catastrophic love affairs, difficulty in writing and several failed suicide attempts. I wondered if you had to see it as such a tragic life, or just that kind of a life. He did after all have all the melodrama and all those torrid relationships, and he also wrote some of the best novels of the 20th century. Even suicide attempts, if they fail, offer a kind of renewal, if only of unhappiness. Certainly, he wasn’t happy, but was it a tragic life? I’m no more sure what constitutes tragic than I am about defining happiness. They cut that bit out when the show was broadcast, because the other people on the panel just blinked at me and moved swiftly on. I recall, too, the novelist Bernice Rubens saying in an interview that she would rather never have written a word than have split up with her husband. This distressed me on the grounds of both literature and love. It’s absolutely true that writing a book doesn’t make you happy (it’s never good enough while you’re writing it or after you’ve finished it, and anyway what about the next one), and that being part of a couple might give you a feeling of security, and love is very nice if it goes on and develops, but it seems to me, apparently against all common sense, that there’s no contest, if there has to be a contest, between having a husband/wife/lover and writing. Choose the pursuit of happiness if you really must, but there are better things to do with a life, unless freedom from difficulty is the only acceptable existence. If you’re Ford you can be sad, despairing, happy and do some good work. What’s so tragic about that? It sounds more like ‘everything’ to me than Elizabeth Gilbert’s version: a year shlepping, shopping and praying around Italy, India and Indonesia.

Despair is a dreadful thing to live with though people do. But as Gretchen rightly says, it’s of a different order to sniping at the cable guy. Actually, those odd moments of complete and strange contentment that I’d call happiness if someone held a gun to my head, have as often occurred while sitting out depression – though it’s an inadvisable route to take. Keep really still and wait (it helps if you’re fortunate enough to have someone else take care of your child and your accumulating unpaid bills) and you may find yourself eventually in a period of extraordinary relief and peace. It also happens from time to time if you just sit still and quietly, or when, for example (if the editor will forgive a lyrical lapse), a sudden cool breeze relieves you on a hot day. Or when apparently from nowhere you get a train of thought that feels as if it might become an idea for something. Or that day when inexplicably Barack Obama gets elected. Or after you have just bought the perfect skirt, the one you have been wasting all your money trying to find all your life. Ditto a lover. Previously happiness has been understood to be a matter of happenstance – most of the words for ‘happy’ in European languages originally meant ‘lucky’. Now it’s a project. Probably has been since it was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and the bit about securing the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through the means of an elected government was overlooked in favour of an individualist reading. More recently, goodness in the world started to be measured by value for money and achieved targets. It starts with a five-year plan and gradually, via the defeat of universal education and social welfare, it becomes the happiness project. You fill in grids, put crosses in boxes, look for four truths and follow 12 commandments and you will get that indefinable something that you don’t have but which you know you are entitled to. Rubin, I learn, was raised in Kansas City. She’s not in Kansas any more, she lives in New York, but I think that, unlike Dorothy, she got stuck in Oz.

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