By Prof. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
2020 hasn’t been a happy year for most people. According to the Covid-19 Response Tracking Survey conducted in late May by the University of Chicago, only 14% of respondents said they were “very happy”, compared to 31% from the same period in 2018. That might seem like a pretty trivial fact compared to the pain of someone who is struggling for breath or unable to hug a dying relative. Yet according to Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University who teaches a popular course on ‘The Science of Well-Being’, our levels of happiness can influence both our physical and mental health. ‘There’s evidence that positive moods can boost our immune system and can protect us from respiratory viruses, so it’s not something to feel guilty about; it’s a smart strategy just like washing our hands’.
There’s no shortage of tips on how we can make ourselves a bit happier. Eating well, sleeping properly, taking exercise, practising mindfulness: there’s a standard checklist of things we can do to nudge our mood in a new direction. And for most people one of the easiest of these activities is reading. John Stuart Mill claimed to have cured himself of his depression by reading Wordsworth, and one recent study reports that people felt much less stress and anxiety after just six minutes reading a book-up to 68% less when compared to alternatives like listening to music or having a cup of tea. But could something as simple as reading a poem really help to make us happier? Asking most poets for advice on how to be happy is a bit like asking Donald Trump for advice on humility. ‘What is a poet?’ asked Kierkegaard, before answering that it was ‘an unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that as his sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music’. If that was a job advert, you can’t imagine it attracting many applicants. In the popular imagination, poets starve in garrets and weep at their neglect; they think too much and drink too much; often their lives are stories that don’t even have happy endings. When they do feature in comedies, like the 2010 film The Happy Poet, the joke of the title is that anyone could possibly imagine such a thing.
Flick through the collected works of many poets, and they don’t even seem very interested in happiness as an idea. According to the French essayist Henry de Montherlant, ‘happiness writes in white ink on a white page,’ and poets tend to dwell on much darker thoughts for the bits they choose to write in black ink. In Daniel Nettle’s 2006 book Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, the only imaginative writer he includes in a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ is Philip Larkin—a poet who returns to the word ‘sad’ like someone touching a bruise: ‘sad steps’, ‘home is so sad’, ‘as sad as the sad wind’, ‘sad sound’, ‘sad walk’, ‘sad at our incompetence’, ‘Always to be ashamed of being sad’, and so on. Not much evidence of happiness there.
On the other hand, there are also plenty of writers who know that poetry about happiness doesn’t have to write white. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus telling Lavinia ‘Come, and take choice of all my library / And so beguile thy sorrow’, where the verse itself is in some ways an attempt to beguile her sorrow, or Ken Dodd singing ‘Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess’, where the rhyme of ‘happiness’ and ‘possess’ is like someone cheerfully patting themselves on the back, the form of a poem often adds extra shading and contours to a rather blank idea like ‘happiness’. In fact, a poem might be an especially good way of exploring what we mean by happiness, and what we want from it. I think there are four main reasons for this. The first is the simple fact that a poem is something that can be written down and returned to. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, Keats famously claimed, and of course the point of the comparison is that most joys are far more fleeting. Happiness tends to be a transient experience rather than a permanent state of mind.
Robert Frost plays around with this idea in his poem ‘Happiness Makes Up in Height for What it Lacks in Length’, where the short lines succeed one another like snapshots in a photograph album:
O stormy, stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun’s brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view—
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
Frost’s point is that, in any life, gloomy days tend to outnumber sunny ones, but that doesn’t stop us from holding onto precious memories. And that’s not just something Frost tells us. He also shows us, by describing his ‘lasting sense’ of warmth and light in a form of words that will outlast his experiences of these things. His poem isn’t just a thing of beauty; it’s a thing of beauty—an object we can return to again and again. And in the case of a poem that rhymes, like this one, or has other underlying structures, it’s also a little model of returning. It tells us about the need to keep things in proportion and shows us how.
Another of Larkin’s poems, ‘After-Dinner Remarks’, describes people who seem to be blissfully unaware that, in the words of Private Frazer from Dad’s Army, ‘we’re doomed’. ‘Innocent of impendent grave’, as Larkin puts it, they trundle around town ‘Happy in their patterned groove’.
But of course a poem is also a kind of patterned groove for words, and the fact that Larkin makes ‘groove’ almost rhyme with ‘grave’ lets us imagine what it might be like to be one of these happy innocents. The fact that it’s an off-rhyme, though, suggests that we should probably look at their blissful ignorance with a more suspicious squint. So that’s one way a poem can explore ideas of happiness: it can show how long we hang onto certain memories, or certain habits, and whether we might do better to shake them out of our heads.
The second way might seem counter-intuitive if we think of reading a poem as a private encounter between poet and reader. Yet as many studies have shown, we tend to be happier in company; although happiness can be experienced by individuals, it is better understood within the context of a larger social unit. And here too poetry can be a model of how to reconcile our needs as individuals with our needs as members of a group.
Take these lines, again by Keats
It is a flaw
In happiness to see beyond our bourn—
It forces us in summer skies to mourn:
It spoils the singing of the nightingale.
In other words, if you want to be happy, don’t be distracted by desires for what you don’t have here and now; instead, surrender to the moment. However, the lines themselves work in rather a different way. If it’s a flaw to see beyond our bourn, we might notice how that little word ‘bourn’, meaning a limit or boundary, is placed at the end of a line, and is followed by a dash and an empty space, like someone peering over the edge of a cliff. Yet ‘bourn’ is also a memory of the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in Hamlet—‘The undiscovered country from whose bourne / No traveller returns’, as Hamlet describes an afterlife that may or may not exist—and so reminds us that although we might find happiness by living from moment to moment, we are only likely to find meaning in these moments by linking them together. And while we might be happy looking at a sunset or hearing a nightingale on our own, we might be even happier sharing this experience with someone else, just as Keats uses his line to seek a point of connection with Shakespeare, like one hand reaching out for another in the dark.
A third way to happiness is through poetry’s ability to make the world seem full of unexpected surprises. Most surveys have shown that we don’t become significantly happier when we move into a bigger house or buy a faster car. The so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ means that we quickly become used to more things and better things, which is why even very rich people tend not to be significantly happier than anyone else—although that statistic might put in an extra spring in the step of someone on an academic’s salary.
What does make us happier, it seems, is becoming more aware of what we already have. Whether that’s enjoying a meal with friends, or noticing the play of shadows under a tree, it involves an increased sensitivity to the actual rather than a yearning for the possible. And this is something that poets are especially good at doing: re-educating our eyes and ears to notice what we might otherwise simply take for granted.
That includes words themselves, because if a poem draws our attention to the world in a new way, it also makes us look closely at the way the poem itself is put together. Sometimes it makes even perfectly ordinary words look unexpectedly strange. ‘Ah, happy, happy boughs’, Keats writes in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘happy melodist’, ‘happy love, more happy, happy love’—and by that stage the meaning of ‘happy’ has started to sound oddly unsure of itself. Like all good poets, Keats takes words we usually think of as statements and turns them into something more like questions in disguise.
Finally, a poem might be thought of as a ‘self- stimulation system’. I borrow this term from the psychoanalytical critic Norman Holland, who points out that certain parts of the brain are stimulated by wanting something, in activities like foraging and searching, and other parts are stimulated by liking something, as in the pleasure we feel when we treat ourselves to an evening gin and tonic or an extra ten minutes in bed. What happens when we read is a constant switching back and forth between these two systems of wanting and liking. We want to know what is coming next, and then it comes and we are briefly satisfied; then we want to know what is coming next, and so on.
Norman Holland compares this process to repeatedly reaching for a bag of crisps, an pleasurable loop of investigation and reward, and for him this is true of the way we read all kinds of literature. But it might be especially true of poetry, because as I suggested earlier, repetition and return are the basic building blocks of all poems. Read the opening of a poem, and instantly you are locked into a rhythmical movement from word to word and line to line. It is what psychologists call ‘flow’, the feeling we have when we are so absorbed in something we aren’t aware of having any feelings about it at all.
There’s a lovely description of this in William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, when one of the marooned schoolboys wanders away to the seashore and pokes around in the sand while tiny sea creatures scuttle around him. ‘He became absorbed beyond mere happiness’, Golding writes, ‘as he found himself exercising control over living things’. I suppose that could be thought of as one model for the act of writing, as you try to coax words into a pattern that will make them sing. It’s also a good description of what it’s like to read someone else’s poems. You become absorbed beyond mere happiness, as you find yourself exercising control over living things.
Art by Isabella Lill