Happiness lecture

· life ·

I attended the Baggs Memorial Lecture on Happiness at the University of Birmingham on Monday, which this year was given by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. As memorial lectures go, the 'Happiness Lecture' is a quirky one. Thomas Baggs was born in Birmingham in 1889, and subsequently got a couple of degrees at the University. When he died, he left a bequest providing for an annual public lecture on happiness, specifically "Happiness -- what it is and how it may be achieved by individuals as well as nations." You could argue that a large sum of money would be better directed towards more directly practical purposes, but I love the fact that he left money for an academic lecture on happiness.

Andrew Motion started by saying that -- while he was honoured to be asked to deliver the lecture -- he did rather wonder whether someone on the committee had put his name forward for a dare. Poets are generally not renowned for their happiness, and he freely admitted that his own poems tended towards slight gloominess. Anyway, he did a great job, surveying the opinions of writers and philosophers throughout history about what makes people happy. He also -- as you might expect given his profession -- read a few poems illustrating his points. There were two in particular that I had never heard before and found completely ravishing. I love it when you hear or read a poem, and find some imagery that is totally unexpected and yet precisely captures the way you feel about something. I loved the following lines from 'Postscript' by Seamus Heaney and 'Coming' by Philip Larkin:

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans

A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.

Motion's own opinion was that you find happiness through the fulfilment of other things like creativity. Thinking about it on the way home, I also think that you can't find happiness directly. Like the pursuit of love, the pursuit of happiness is doomed to failure. Instead, (and like love) it tends to turn up when you are least expecting it, but you have to be open to its possibility and recognise it when it arrives.