English novelist Jenny Diski offers a fairly scathing review of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, pointing out that originally ‘happy’ meant something more like lucky, as in ‘happenstance.’ The pursuit of happiness is a fairly modern project, consisting, it seems, largely of positive thinking and to-do lists (what about to be lists?).
Rebecca's comment prompted me to think about what constitutes happiness in the fictional worlds of different authors, Shakespeare’s in particular. Even though most of Polonius’ advice is meant to be derided, his memorable line “to thine own self be true” seems to strike a chord with Shakespeare's own thinking. In the world of the plays, happiness seems to be constituted mostly in the idea of individual freedom and personal authenticity. So argues my doctoral supervisor Peter Holbrook in his recent book Shakespeare's Individualism.
Acquiring or relinquishing happiness is not necessarily the nerve centre of a story, but it seems ubiquitous enough to be worth studying. So what about others - Tolstoy? Hardy? Faulkner? Woolf? I just have this hunch that literature is a better clue to happiness - getting it, understanding it, understanding that we can never really get it - than the projects of pop psych.