The contentment gene should be patented. But if not born with it, is there other ways to acquire it? Some have called it the happiness set point. Looking at our expectations might be a good place to start. Sometimes we need to be vigilant to ensure that our expectations are not fueling our unhappiness. Expecting little can ironically lead to a happier life as one doesn’t suffer constant disappointment. In our Western world we often grow up with a sense of entitlement. We expect to do better than the last generation. We expect to own a fashionable home, we expect to be able to have the most up to date fashions, we expect to get a well paid job and drive a modern car. It can come as a shock to us if we do not get these things when we want them. Such expectations do fuel unhappiness and make it difficult to be content with what we have got. Throughout the Austen Six, in each of the novels there are characters grappling with contentment. Some succeed whilst others do not.
In Pride and Prejudice, Colonel Fitzwilliam, is a very minor, inconsequential but insightful character. He is a younger son and cannot expect that he can please himself in the romance stakes and because he expects this and consoles himself with his lot in life, he appears to be much happier. He says to Elizabeth, “A younger son, you know, must be inured to self denial and dependence”. Low-Expectations-Colonel Fitzwilliam has made his expectations match his reality and hence is not suffering disappointment for his position in life.
A more central character, Mild-Mannered-Mr Bennet, has married for love only to find that the partner who had captivated him by her youth and beauty does not age quite so well. He finds that affection is lost. Mild-Mannered-MrBennet was “captivated by youth and beauty and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give” when he married. His endurance of his nightmare wife is his penitence. It is as if Jane Austen implores us to give each potential partner the age test. What will this person be like in 30 years time? It is sad for the Mr and Mrs Bennet that the “respect, esteem and confidence had vanished forever”. No doubt that with the fresh vitality and prettiness of youth amongst a country view of hills and dales (and a steady stream of sensuous music of a film set) Mrs Bennet, thirty years earlier, would have appeared every bit the heroine. But thirty years on, the reality of a poor choice of partner has sad repercussions in Regancy England. He must find compensations: “he was fond of the country and books; and from these tastes had arisen his principal enjoyments”. This is not to advocate that one should remain in unhappy relationships but one can find other pursuits. Many people find themselves single after an unhappy split but this does not mean they will be unhappy for too long. Even without the advent of a new partner pleasure is to be found in other areas. Mild-Mannered-Mr Bennet does not lament the state of affairs but withdraws into the pleasures that do still exist. As Jane Austen’s authorial voice can be heard, “where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given”. In other words to find the contentment gene we must look to other compensations – to be content with what we have, rather than lamenting what we have not.
I wonder what the happiness conference in my city, Melbourne, will suggest?