Thinking about what makes us happy has been the business of philosophers pretty much as long as there have been people sitting around thinking about stuff. The quest for the good life underpins many religious ideas and political approaches. What makes us happy? What is truly good? In our consumer orientated culture, we are sold ideas about the happiness we can purchase, but I’m not at all convinced it’s working for most people.
I’ve realised two things on the happiness front in the last few days. Firstly is that I am happy when I’m working. I have no problem working long hours and having demanding, difficult jobs to do. I need to feel that the work is valued and useful. It’s all about morale, so I am vulnerable to certain kinds of feedback. Given me a worthwhile job you need doing, and I’ll run for you. Criticise me and undermine me, and, faced with the same job, I am half as useful, maybe less. When morale is low, it sweeps across all areas of effort; I don’t compartmentalise. If something really makes me miserable, it can wipe me out across the board.
As a consequence, I realise I am happiest when working with honest and straightforward people who are mostly fussed about getting needful things done well. They don’t have to be nice to me. They don’t have to be gentle, or reasonable in their requests. They do have to make sense and I need to be able to see what the point is. That is all. I can be really happy working for a focused tyrant who has a really important vision and demands the nigh on impossible of me. I like the challenge, the sense of purpose, and the things that can be achieved. I’ll take that any day in preference to dealing with the person who sounds nice, but whose thinking doesn’t add up, or who is more interested in appearance than action.
It occurs to me that the people I like most, are for the greater part, an arsey and difficult bunch. Opinionated, passionate, with high standards around key points. People who ask difficult questions and aren’t afraid to say when something isn’t good enough. People who care enough to be grumpy when things are wrong. People for whom getting it right is more important than upholding the illusion of being right, or the illusion of being nice.
I have also realised that without exception, the meanest, most difficult, unreasonable and selfish people along the way were all intent on seeming nice. Each one of them cultivated an impression of niceness, and were willing to get the knives out, behind backs, to keep that impression viable. People who wish to seem nice won’t be honest, if the honest answer is a tough one. Right up until the whole thing goes too far and explodes. The nice mask crumbles, another face emerges. Then afterwards, you have to pretend none of that happened, or that there was a perfectly good reason to explain why it was not their fault.
Kind people are entirely different. Kind people know that you have to put suffering creatures out of their misery – which is seldom nice. Kind people know about the not-nice puss, shit and tears that come as a side order with genuine care sometimes. Kind people understand the brutality of certain choices, and are often willing to fight for what they believe in. I like kind people, although most of them are not superficially nice all the time.
It gives me a clearer sense of where I fit and what I need. Perhaps more importantly, I’m getting a much better idea of who I need to stay the hell away from, and why. Other people will undoubtedly find they need different balances, and that is as it should be. It is important to ask, not just what makes you happy, but who makes you happy, and why?