Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
Graft. This was the answer from my latest quickie vox pop that gave me the most pleasure. The relevance of this – beyond my liking for the sonority of consonants – is that the question I asked was: what makes you happy? Apparently, the following do, too…Cake forks. Messing around in boats. Aiming above the target in order to hit it. Vindication. Anticipation. Various other hard-considered abstract nouns. Brown paper packages tied up with strings. Sex. The sun (sic).
I’ve got Ed Miliband to thank for this recent interest in happiness. Because, if there’s one thing that doesn’t make me happy, it’s negative politics. I’m sure this is the same for most people – apparently, even Ed. Though I’m not so convinced by this. Whilst above-inflation pay growth makes his party’s continuing ‘cost of living’ obsession hard to justify, he’s still talking about a ‘crisis’, rather than a ‘solution’. And it’s difficult to leapfrog from the opposition benches without offering a viable positive alternative to the status quo – not least regarding economic policy, which almost always drives governmental change. In a piece criticising negative politics, however, I’m coming close to hypocrisy. So, let’s consider why positivity matters, and why politicians need to harness its power – something even more potent than the currency of hope.
What do we really want in life? What are we aiming for? Who knows, but pleasure definitely comes in to it. It’s essential to a good life: Aristotle thought that, whilst pleasure isn’t the ‘good’, or the aim of life, it’s indisputable that the best life will be pleasurable. For him, this best life is one of ‘eudaimonia’. And though the common translation of this word as ‘happiness’ is overly simplistic, it isn’t irrelevant to the long-term self-fulfillment it seems, rather, to entail.
This thinking is hard to dislike – unless you prefer to focus on consequences instead of intentions, or struggle to see each of us as an individuated entity. The latter is particularly relevant, as it can be used to counter those alleging an inherent selfishness in the Conservative approach: the old misquote about Thatcher and society. Not only does personal fulfillment (and responsibility) allow us to co-exist in coherent and caring community, it is a natural goal of our behaviour.
But the search for happiness can be misdirected. The allure of materialism veneers the truth that – like votes – happiness can’t be bought. And it’s not really an adjectival state to be pursued. Rather, even in the saddest of times, we can experience moments of simple joy. The longing for all-encompassing happiness is distracting, not only from these, but also from the essential positivism that protects us from the misery of human failure and atrocity. We should focus on what brings us happiness, rather than an alchemical quest to become happy people.
So, here are three things that have recently done it for me:
1. French fries. We all know that food isn’t supposed to make us happy, but it exemplifies the pleasure that can come from giving in to occasional baseness. One of my favourite people thinks that anyone claiming to hate McDonald’s is lying – because who doesn’t like fat and salt? And if we’re just talking about the fries, then I’m in, alongside the chefs of America. We should happily divulge what we really like – even if we fear it’s not cool enough – because snobbishness definitely doesn’t engender happiness. It’s like negativity – you can bond with someone by bitching about somebody else, but it won’t bring you trusted friendship. This works the other way round, too. If great champagne makes you happy – and it certainly does me – then admit it. The happiness that comes from being genuine is hard to beat, even if it doesn’t always get you what you want.
2. The Times Crossword. As rational beings, intellectual challenge stimulates us – as does our perverse satisfaction in overcoming unnecessary obstacles. Competition is a natural human desire. The clever clueing of cryptic crosswords amuses me, and the commitment needed to crack their codes brings added contentment. This is enhanced by it having been my dad who showed me how to solve them; when he was ill and too exhausted to concentrate for long, I had to get better at this, in order to help him. Indulging in memory can make you happy, too.
3. U-turns. If you predicate your principles on what you think is right, you should love these. Surely it’s better to U-turn and be right, than to stay being wrong? If you’re a Conservative not because you want to be, but rather because you’re convinced that Conservatism offers the best answers, it’s easier to convince others of your viewpoint. An anti-dogmatic approach also allows you constantly to reassess your position on an issue. The U-turn’s relief dowers almost forbidden joy. And I felt this the other night during Meistersinger at the Coliseum. There’s more than a whole column in ENO’s escalating financial mise en scène, so I’ll avoid discussing the happiness that comes from seeing a much-loved failing institution put on an excellent show. But this is the first time I’ve truly enjoyed Wagner, and that’s a big admission for me to make. Silly dwarves, ugly concepts, and my impatience aside, I now think that I probably previously shunned him because I like to be in control, and his music is too much like a drug. Either that, or I’m just getting old; like right-wing politics, the Wagner appeal seems to increase with age. But this was a definite U-turn, and it made me happy.
Ah, but Rebecca, you say, these examples are exactly why people think Conservatives are selfish! You’ve just focused on yourself. Well, sure – and yes, making other people happy can make us incomparably so, too. But that shouldn’t be the reason you do it. Buy the homeless man outside the station a cup of coffee because it’ll make him feel warm inside, not you.
Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this. I’m contrary to the extent that if someone else had told me to make a list of these things, I would have balked unhappily. But that old thing of counting your blessings, even while you want more – and conserving the good things in life – is at the heart of Conservatism. We Conservatives are essentially positive: we believe in the good of others and the society we’ve built together. We don’t want to impose unnecessary change on people for the sake of it; we trust them to make their own decisions.
And this returns us to negative politics. I won’t be convinced by Ed Miliband’s eschewal of this until he offers us some positives – an approach I really hope we Conservatives can continue. By listing our achievements honestly, and committing to attainable objectives, we will convince the electorate that we are the positive option: the one mostly like to enable their happiness.