‘I don’t mind what you do with your life as long as you are happy, because that’s all that matters.’ How many kind hearted, liberal minded and gentle thinking parent shave said this to their children, and unwittingly triggered off an overwhelming sense of pressure even as they try so hard to reduce demands. Because, what on earth does this mean?
We live in a time where everything is quantified, tracked and tested – including our emotions. There are right ways to live, and wrong ones, data points and measurement tables, and so, it is safe to assume, that there must be some formula for happiness. At least that’s what Eden, the main character of The Happiness Project, is worrying about when we find her, sitting alone on a stage, reading the dictionary – fixated on the word happiness. All mum wants is for her to be happy, but she does not quite know how to get there.
Born out of a response to the 2007 UNICEF report An overview of child well-being in rich countries, which raised concern over young people’s wellbeing in the UK, The Happiness Project is an intergenerational piece of personal theatre devised by young people, scientists and academics to explore what happiness is. So we have a group of teenagers alongside professors and doctors slightly mocking self-help books and the rigid expectations we have around happiness, and the subsequent feelings of disappointment that result. Young people are facing greater than ever demands. Schoolwork increases, grades must be perfect, university for all, whilst jobs become more scarce and being able to move out of home almost impossible. And at the same time the expectation to be happy, and all the potential aspects of this – excited, enthusiastic, gleeful, smiling, successful, flourishing, achieving, positive, popular, healthy and euphoric – becomes such a weight that this fantasy weighs them down.
Questioning whether it is a commodity to be bought and sold, a scientific fact to be proven, a solution to be found, or something all together less concrete, the play uses personal life experiences and scientific research to try to find an solution. Where do we find it? In the bottom of shopping baskets, high grades, and winning teams? One resonant motif repeated throughout is an almost Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes demonstration of where in the body it can be felt. But even if we know where the emotion is felt in the body, that doesn’t provide the answer as to where we find the stimulus. What is happiness, and what makes us happy?
The answer they find is the one we all know. There is no secret; no magic key. Everyone’s formula is different – no formula actually exists. It’s a lovely piece, not slick or fancy, but the mumbling through braces and occasional nervous glances to others only adding to the authenticity and tenderness of it all. The creative team have the set spot on – a simple blackboard which becomes slowly filled with examples of what causes that feeling of happiness – long walks, mum’s shepherd’s pie, days under the duvet, my dog Rosie etc – and is a testimony to the changing and personal nature of happiness.
Happiness isn’t a project. It’s a state that when we’re in it we don’t even recognise, we don’t take the time to identify and analyse as happiness, because it feels such a natural state of flow to be in. It does not matter whether you believe that what we have commonly come to define as happiness is neurological activity, physiological sensations, social constructs or psychological narrative, there is no universal route or ultimate method to reaching it. Don’t come to The Happiness Project expecting to work through a well formed argument resulting in a grand conclusion. It’s not a thinking piece, but a feeling one. We leave reminded that it’s in the simple moments that the warm, fuzzy and comforting sensation of happiness can be felt. Like the last seventy minutes.
The Happiness Project is produced by the Roundhouse in collaboration with Glas(s) Performance and Emma Higham, and runs from 3rd – 14th November.
Photographer credit: Jack Sain