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The misery of unrelenting happiness

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happiness is breaking out all over. Again. Alas. Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates announced the appointment of a Minister of Happiness, whose nebulous duties will include raising the country’s standing in the nebulous United Nations world Happiness Report.

The UAE, an oil-rich sheikhdom given to eccentricity — it is home to the world’s largest breakfast table — would doubtless like to crack the report’s top five. To do so, the 20th-ranked Emirates would have to lower the temperature considerably. The five purportedly happiest nations on earth — Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Canada — are all places that require a down jacket just to walk to the 7-Eleven.

While the UAE was bureaucratizing happiness, The New York Times Magazine published a bizarre cover story, “The Happiness Code.” Like any code, the article was hard to crack. It described a group of Silicon Valley super-nerds willing to pay $3,900 for a weekend reprogramming course at the Center for Applied Rationality that would help them stop reading Reddit and actually do their jobs. Or teach them how to enjoy a bike ride.


“The vibe [at the seminars] was just a little strange,” writer Jennifer Kahn reported, “what with the underlying interest in polyamory and cryonics.”

Now my health care plan is spamming me with HappyTalk. Insisting that I “cultivate more happiness in [my] life,” United Healthcare sent me “Eight Satisfying Secrets of Happy People.” They are inane, of course, but my favorite is: “Look on the brighter side.” It’s hard to hear that phrase and not think of Graham Chapman’s funeral, when his Monty Python colleagues led a rousing chorus of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” a blasphemous ditty from Python’s blasphemous 1979 movie “Life of Brian.”

If my health plan had any real interest in making me happy, it would take its sickening ads off national TV and use the money to reduce my premiums and eliminate the huge deductible that applies before any coverage kicks in. It makes me ill just to think about it.


What’s so great about happiness? I can’t think of anyone I admire who was happy. I’m reading “Vile Bodies,” the wonderful Evelyn Waugh novel that introduces the character of Mr. Chatterbox, the gossip columnist who makes things up. (Can you imagine?)

While writing this gossamer, light-hearted book, Waugh was as unhappy as a man could be. In the middle of composing “Bodies,” his wife Evelyn, or “she-Evelyn” as he called her, left him for another man. “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live,” Waugh wrote to his friend Harold Acton.

And yet he wrote a wonderful book. As always — paging Herr Kafka! — happiness is the enemy of great art. Misery worked for Evelyn Waugh. The Modern Library says he wrote three of the hundred best novels of the 20th century. Maybe it can work for you.

I know it works for me. I’d hate to live in happiness-obsessed Bhutan, a “remote and impoverished Himalayan kingdom,” as the BBC calls it. Bhutan has been touting its “gross national happiness” since 1972, and currently claims that 91.2 percent of the population is “narrowly, extensively, or deeply happy.”

I’m happy living in Massachusetts, where, mercifully, no one cares if you’re having a nice day. Which you almost certainly are not, because either some fritzy Amtrak signal has ruined your commute or the wretched Mass Pike is a parking lot from the State Police barracks all the way to the supermarket underpass.

Dirty water, foul language, and a general indifference to the human condition: Boston, you’re my happy home.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at