Surprised by happiness: Why are the middle-aged happier than the young?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 April 2005)

Nine years ago Psychological Science published an article that's since been much quoted, mainly because it seemed so original at the time. Under the title "Who is Happy?", David Myers of Hope College in Michigan and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois argued that attention should be paid to happiness, an aspect of human psychology that affects all public and private lives.

Myers and Diener left the impression that everyone cares about this subject except psychologists. "Books, books and more books have analyzed human misery," they wrote. "During its first century, psychology focused far more on negative emotions, such as depression and anxiety, than on positive emotions, such as happiness and satisfaction." Couldn't psychology discover something about happiness?

Since then, researchers have been trying to explain the state of happiness in various countries and age groups. Why are the Dutch quantifiably much happier than the Portuguese? Why are the middle-aged happier than the young? Something called "positive psychology" has produced several popular books aimed at increasing human happiness.

But who in the world would have expected to come upon a serious and widely praised novel focused on this subject and linked to contemporary geopolitics? Not me. Novelists normally write as if happiness were immoral, as well as unlikely. Still, this season's most discussed novel, Saturday (Knopf), by Ian McEwan, concerns happiness --where it's found, who has it, what it feels like.

There's much else in Saturday, but no one will miss that theme. McEwan even has his main character's thoughts echo the Myers-Diener essay:

"For the professors in the academy, for the humanities generally, misery is more amenable to analysis: happiness is a harder nut to crack."

Psychologists who try to crack it often end up arguing, like Buddhists, that happiness comes from subduing the self, mentally moving to a place where self-consciousness vanishes. That place, for many people, is work.

McEwan set out to write a novel about work and selected neurosurgery as his hero's profession. He wanted his man involved in such intense, demanding, exotic activity that it produces a kind of "paradise-on-Earth feeling of total absorption." In this kind of work, time disappears along with the self, and no one thinks about being happy or not.

Happiness also requires luck, of course. Henry has earned his place in neurosurgery but he knows he's lucky. He was born clever, with a sunny disposition, in a country where his profession has become so developed that it can make its expert practitioners almost sing with joy at their accomplishments. (McEwan's plot, such as it is, springs from the appearance in Henry's life of someone who is neither happy nor lucky and would clearly like to make Henry miserable.)

Henry has reasons for sadness. A mother with Alzheimer's, for instance, and a father-in-law who is a fine poet but a mean drunk. But Henry has a loved and loving wife; his 23-year-old, Daisy, writes promising verse; and his 18-year-old, Theo, has survived a rebellious adolescence and turned into a dead-serious blues guitarist whose band at one point inspires in Henry's mind several of the most eloquent sentences on music that I've ever seen in fiction. But if complacency tempts Henry, the news reminds him of the post-9/11 anxieties he shares with much of humanity. Awakening in the middle of the night, standing at his bedroom window, he sees a plane on fire above London and assumes the worst.

Henry, of course, stands in for McEwan, perhaps the most skilful writer now working in England. Clearly, McEwan grounds his own happiness in craft and accomplishment, just like Henry. His book suggests that he's demonstrating literary skills that parallel the skills a neurosurgeon needs in the operating room. McEwan again and again proves his virtuosity -- he makes a squash game fascinating, he takes us deep into blues technique, he convincingly reproduces the words of an Alzheimer's patient living in an eternal present.

McEwan works within a grand modernist tradition. He makes everything happen on one day, Feb. 15, 2003 (just before the Iraq war). He tells much of the story in stream-of-consciousness, and he moves Henry across London as James Joyce moves Leopold Bloom across Dublin in Ulysses and Virginia Woolf follows in detail the progress of Mrs. Dalloway. In McEwan's hands, and Henry's mind, wars and politicians and terrorists mingle with private satisfactions. And as all that happens, McEwan appropriates the subject of personal joy, brings it back into serious literature, and makes it, for the moment at least, his private literary property.

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