Caecilius is at his desk, dressed in a wrinkled toga (the iron takes ages to heat), searching for his (wax) tablet’s (wooden) stylus. It’s 54 BC and the last quarter’s results are in. The numbers are big. Mainly because they’re Roman Numerals.
It’s Luni morning and a long week stretches out ahead. Caecilius isn’t smiling. He hadn’t had a morning coffee. Because the effects of caffeine are yet to be discovered. He’s trying not to think about the journey home. The traffic’s awful in Rome. He sometimes wishes they’d never invented the wheel. And they should do something about all those unlicensed chariot drivers.
Above his desk, chiseled into the stone, is an inspirational quotation from Aristotle.
‘Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and the end of human existence.’
Is Caecilius happy? As long as the gods let him get through the morning without Agrippa hassling him about visiting the public baths, he thinks that he is. But the gods have a cruel sense of humour.
Now where is that stylus?
Samuel sits at a rough wooden desk in the mid-1600s. In London. He’d cheer himself up with the thought of going to the theatre later, but it’s been banned. The Puritans ban lots of things. H.L. Mencken said that Puritanism is ‘the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy’ but Samuel doesn’t know this because Mencken’s not yet been born.
They’ve even banned Christmas. But following the last set of presents from the in-laws, Samuel doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. His cow-hide trousers have sat in the bedroom unworn for months now. Is he happy? Perhaps. He is going to heaven, regardless of his project manager’s ridiculous performance management targets.
Whisper it quietly: the life of the godly is hard work. It’s like taking a long boat trip down the Thames to Richmond. The whole journey is stinky and unmemorable and you’re only going there because you’ve been told it’s wonderful. It’s best not to think about happiness. Not until you’re dead, at least. Probably best to work.
Sometimes Samuel thinks the whole protestant work ethic thing is the only reason he was employed in the first place.
It’s over a hundred years later. Sarah’s an American. It’s supercool this side of the Atlantic. Everything’s bigger. Even the rats. Her boss isn’t supercool. He’s a slave-driver. And he wants Sarah’s report on the effect on the price of coffee of tea being thrown into Boston harbour on his desk by lighting up and her quill’s broken.
MOR rock hasn’t been invented yet, so everyone has a favourite philosopher. Sarah’s is John Locke. Because she’s a hipster and Locke said the stuff that was supposedly only cool to like when Jefferson ripped it off in the Declaration of Independence. All that stuff about liberty and freedom and pursuit.
As she attempts to fix her split quill, she recites:
‘Happiness is synonymous with pleasure, Unhappiness with pain.’
These are Locke’s words and she wonders what really gives her pleasure. Unfortunately, much of it jeopardises her chances of getting into heaven.
It’s 2017 and you’re at your standing desk, reading this article while pretending to do some work. You wonder what the point of it is. This article. Not life. You reserve those thoughts for Sunday nights. How, you ask yourself, can you learn to be happy from the Romans or the Puritans or the newly independent Americans?
It’s easy, for as talent imitates, genius steals:
From Rome, we take Socrates’ view that childhood is key to happiness. From Puritanism, the sense that immediate pleasure needs to be balanced with ultimate fulfilment. And from Revolutionary America, consider Locke’s understanding of happiness as synonymous with pleasure.
If you’ve time before your PM Slacks you with a request for that overdue piece of admin, you may even want to consider research from the immediate past.
Ed Diener (or ‘Dr Happiness’ to his friends)’s 2002 study on happiness found:
‘the most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.’
So, if you want to be happy, consider what made you smile the hardest when you were young, grab your nearest and dearest and spend time with them doing it again.
If this doesn’t work, remember how much personal hygiene has improved since Roman times.