Monday, 13 January 2014

Happiness? Not all it's cracked up to be.

The nine-year old and I stood looking at the Alpine Ridge ahead of us. The sun was beating down and we were drenched with sweat. The mountain rising above us - still rising above us – was serene and seemed contemptuous of our puny struggles.

‘That’s got to be the top, doesn’t it? There can’t be any more, can there?’ I asked him.

The nine-year old, the son of friends, nodded. ‘Got to be. This has got to be as high as it gets.’

But it wasn’t. We breasted the ridge only to find yet another beyond it.

When we
’d started out on our epic, two and a half hours earlier, it was to get to the top of the hillside above us in order to look down on into the valley beyond onto one of Europe’s most majestic sights, its greatest glacier, the Aletschgletscher. We’d decided that the best way to get there was straight over the top. 

Sadly the 
hill surmounted by a ridge ahead of us had only turned out to be a shoulder of the mountain, with another ridge beyond it, and another beyond that, for hour after hour of hard graft. We did eventually make it to the top but it took over three hours.

Still, the view was worth it. That broad strip of white stretching down between the dun and grey cliffs, with stretches of scrub and grass too, gleaming in the hot light. The glacier was an incongruous reminder of winter in a sun-drenched summer landscape.

The Aletsch glacier
Rock and stone, even grass. And then the ice
Actually, it looked rather refreshing.

‘Let’s go and cool off,’ I said.

Well, even getting downhill wasn’t as easy as it seemed. But eventually we stood on the glacier and felt the cold of the ice under our overheated shoe soles. And we stepped inside, into crevices filled with blue light, running our fingers over icy water coating the walls and making them smooth. It had all been worth it.

Then of course we had to get home. We took one look at the climb and another at the path, broad, smooth and well maintained by the amenable Swiss authorities. We went for it and were back at our chalet in 45 minutes, instead of four hours.

Why am I telling this story?

I keep seeing posts, on Facebook or Twitter, about happiness. It’s inside you, some people proclaim. Or you only have to reach out for it rather than turn your back on it, as others maintain. Or indeed, and I hear people say this regularly, I don’t care what she/he does, as long as he/she’s happy.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Everyone deserves happiness.

Except I’m not so sure. I mean, isn’t the value of happiness just a bit overstated?

Firstly, because it’s seldom unqualified. There’s usually some little fly in the ointment. The meal’s romantic enough, the candles are wonderful, you both look your very best, but it’s pissing down with rain outside. Forget the lakeside stroll.

Secondly, even if it’s pretty well sustained, isn’t happiness just a short step away from contentment? And isn’t that just what the sheep feel in their field, until the day they get loaded into the lorry for the slaughterhouse?

Now I know that in a sense that’s the fate of us all. But do I really want to spend the time up to the point the truck draws up in the farmyard grazing for a few decades, with no more to show for my passage through the world than a few piles of droppings?

It seems to me that this fixation with happiness ignores a whole lot of other emotions that are worth far more. Incomparably more. Elation. Achievement. Fulfilment. Satisfaction. Joy. Even pleasure.

You may say these are just aspects of happiness. I don’t agree. And the experience with the Aletschgletscher makes that point strongly, at least to me. Happy? I wasn’t happy. Why, I felt ashamed. I’d imposed a gruelling trial in a young lad who was in no state to take it – why he spent the next day in bed, exhausted, and though I didn’t, by evening I wished I had. He had nothing to reproach himself with, he was a child. But I was forty, for God’s sake. I should have known better than to take us over the mountain.

And physically too my state could hardly be called happy. My feet were killing me. I couldn’t remember the previous time I’d been that tired. And I was burned by the sun.

And yet – I felt real elation. We hadn’t walked round the mountain on the path, we’d taken it on. A frontal attack. And we’d won. And we’d had the glorious view from the top. Followed by the extraordinary sense of satisfaction that standing on, and inside, the glacier had given us.

Bought at the price of pain. Far more effort than either of us was used to. But far more satisfying than just standing in a field and grazing. A hell of a sight more interesting than mere happiness.

So why do we go on about happiness so much? Is it just because we’re so afraid of pain that we’d rather settle for second best? Rather than pay the price for something rather better?

It’s striking that, when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, what Thomas Jefferson considered an inalienable right wasn’t happiness. It was the pursuit of happiness. Maybe that’s the key: pursuing happiness is a lot more fun than achieving it.

As I discovered among those hellish ridges, all that time ago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beats your early morning swim, I seem to understand.