Last night I was at an event at the Emporium, a former church in Brighton now converted into a multi-purpose venue. It’s a delightful place, both very big and very welcoming, an unusual combination; a sort of giant living room. It’s also, so a leaflet told me, a ‘happy café’, part of the Happy Café Network. This is new to me.
‘Happy Cafés.’ reads the leaflet, ‘provide a warm welcome for anyone interested in happiness and wellbeing – and encourage them to meet together for a drink and a friendly chat. Happy Cafés also display inspiring and informative material to help people discover new ways to improve their wellbeing and make others happier too. Action for Happiness supporters may also identify themselves by wearing a sticker provided by the café, to help them connect with other likeminded people. Let’s make the world a happier place together.’
Why does this make me want to punch someone in the face? I agree with every word of it. Am I so sorrowed by cynicism, or maybe by irony, that I can’t handle a direct appeal to me to ‘make others happier’? Why am I even now itching to write witty and sneering putdown comments on the campaign and its thumbs-up logo and its smiling poster boy? It’s almost as if I’m ashamed to admit to a desire to be happier myself, and to live in a happier world. Why should this be so?
Part of it is that dreaded concept, ‘cool’. It’s so very uncool to grin at everyone and seek to improve their wellbeing. Cool people don’t smile; they show in their every move that they know the world is a dark place. I, however, am simply too old to be cool. Too old also to behave like a child, and there’s something child-like in this chirpy sharing of happiness. And yet they’re right, surely. If we all behaved more like children, and shed our miserable self-consciousness, and just enjoyed ourselves more openly, wouldn’t that make life more fun? Then I recall that as a child, for some of the time at least, I was tormented by self-doubt and fears of being friendless. So maybe the problem with the Action for Happiness campaign is that we sense it to be unreal. You can’t take ‘action for happiness’. You do what you can to get through the day, and happiness happens by, if you’re lucky.