Bill Bailey: in search of happiness

Bill Bailey / 01 November 2016

Comedian Bill Bailey on seeking out simplicity and clarity as a corrective to anxiety-inducing news chatter.

In 2015, I reached the milestone of a half-century of years on Earth. I found myself becoming more reflective than usual in my stand-up writing. One of the subjects that bubbled up from the geo-thermal gloop of my thoughts was the nature of happiness.

I was intrigued to read an article in which some scientists claimed to have found an equation for happiness.

I remembered a maths lesson at school, where equations had made me feel anxious and a bit hot round the temples, and this one was no different.

The ‘get happy’ gravy train is a monster of an industry worth $11 billion in America alone. Most of it consists of high-sounding concepts like ‘The Soul of Now’, ‘The Art of Then’, ‘You Are The Person You Will Be in a Couple of Minutes’, and other unconscionable twaddle.

The perception is that now we are less happy because the world has become a more uncertain place of wars, terrorism and uncontrollable diseases, and this leads us to worry more, and seek out ‘equations’ for happiness. But hasn’t the world always been a place of wars, terrorism and disease? And what has changed is the technology that makes us instantly aware of these events.

When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, the immense ash cloud drifted around the world causing brilliant sunsets for months after, and the sound of the explosion was heard thousands of miles away.

But this cataclysmic event sent shock waves in an altogether different way. It made the headlines in countries around the world, and is often seen as the first global catastrophe.

For most people at that time, international events seemed distant and vague. Knowledge of scandal and disaster was limited to the town, the village, even the street you lived in. Now the unblinking glare of the internet serves us an endless buffet of peril and death, which I think skews our perception of disaster so unconsciously we end up in a constant state of low-level anxiousness.

The heart-rending and depressing stories about the world are served up side by side with some showbiz flummery.

A paragraph about the latest fighting in Aleppo opposite a full page about Celebrity Big Brother. ISIS vs. Strictly. The natural reaction to this is a combination of outrage, horror and tutting indifference. But constant changes of emotional gear become wearying, so eventually, worn out by our eyebrows going up and down and a tongue ulcer brought on by excessive tutting, our reactions become dulled. News is reduced to the white noise of unprocessed information, unfiltered raw data, what Germaine Greer calls the ‘unsynthesised manifold’.

As a corrective to trying to work out an appropriate response to complex issues, I crave simplicity.

Simplicity and clarity are a good combo, but often tricky to find. The actions required are straightforward, but the opportunities less so. Walking in the outdoors is a good start.

The simple pleasure of boiling a kettle on a primus stove and making tea in the open. Glorious!

Here’s my equation for happiness. I was camping with my son on the South Downs. We set up the tent, and built a fire.

We played ping-pong on the outdoor table provided.

We cooked up some sausages and ate them in a roll.

And then, we went exploring.

Back at the camp, and I realised my car keys had fallen out of my pocket.

So we retraced our steps, went on a mission. And found them. HA!

We danced about high-fiving in the woods, crashing about in the bracken like demented weasels.

Outdoors, campfire, sausages in a roll, finding your car keys = happiness.

Next month: Bill considers happiness on two wheels

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