I’m sitting on a high-speed train, next to the window, with an empty paper cup. How best can I make myself happier?
One of my most popular blogs is W. Somerset Maugham on sex, turnips and the meaning of life (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). In his 1938 essay The Summing Up, Maugham explores whether alcohol, sex, writing or companionship can give you fulfilment.
If you are interested in this subject, you may want to explore the links in this post.
I was thinking about happiness recently as I caught a train from London to Manchester (where my mum lives). I had treated myself to a cup of tea at Euston Station before boarding the train. Having enjoyed the tea – hot and wet – I wanted to discard the cup.
On the train to Manchester
‘These old Intercity trains usually have a bin by the doors,’ I thought. I got up, went to the end of the carriage, and, hey presto, found a bin into which I was able to dump my cup. Back at my seat, I could fold away the table and settle down with my book, John Connolly’s The White Road.
Why did this give me such pleasure?
I have long been intrigued by what makes us happy (see my piece the one with the links to happiness for more). I often boil it down to one thing: feeling that our existence has some purpose in the great scheme of things.
We can define “purpose” in any way we choose – as Maugham argued. Different things will give different people a sense that their life is meaningful. Traditional measures might include giving pleasure to others (partners, one’s children, random strangers); having enough wealth, compared to others in society, to be able to live comfortably (studies show that relative wealth, rather than absolute wealth, is what matters); or faith. Whether or not God exists, belief that a divine entity is taking an interest in your welfare, or that you are living your life according to a sacred set of rules which are good for humankind, is likely to make you happier.
Understanding what makes us happy is important because many aspects of modern life are designed to depress us. Studies show that media outlets make more money by publishing bad news than good news.
Similarly, many of our social media addictions – I’m an addict myself, particularly to Twitter (do follow me on @robertpimm!) seem give us a sense of purpose (hooray, lots of “likes”!) but don’t add to our overall sense of self-worth.
My paper cup incident illustrates another aspect to “my life has purpose”. We derive pleasure from feeling that we understand the world, and can cope with it. Knowing where the bin was on a train – a tiny victory – gave me such a sense. Think: what do I know, what am I good at? Then dive a little deeper into that.
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