It had reached that stage of the evening when the food and wine had done their work and the guests felt relaxed enough to share confidences.  Harold MacMillan turned to  Madame De Gaulle, who was seated to his left and said. ‘Madame, you and M’sier le president have lived such an interesting life, is there anything else you could possibly wish for.  Madame thought for a moment, seemed to find what she was searching for and replied, ‘A penis’.  Macmillan coughed, harrumphed, searched his memory for something Sigmund Freud might have written,  ‘Yes, yes, hrrrmmph ….’  But before he could embarrass himself any further, the President leant across and said, ‘What madame means is ‘appiness’.  


But what is happiness?  What do we know about it?  it seems that as soon as we try to define it, to pin it down, it escapes in paradox.         


Happiness is a state of mind – a feeling of peace, contentment, freedom, but it is also a trait, a state of being that is informed by what has happened in the past. 


Happiness is a social construct – a feeling of connection, a sense of belonging, being valued for ourselves?  But happiness is also about the capacity to be alone, the confidence that if things go wrong, we can manage.  


Happiness is having the confidence to take risks, to try things out, having the freedom to play, to be creative, to laugh and enjoy ourselves.  But it is also a capacity to tolerate reflection, quiet introspection, to feel a sense of peace and  hope.    


Oh, to hell with it all.  Happiness is feeling good about ourselves and that, of course, has many facets.  


So how can we feel good about ourselves?  The nearest I can get to it is to quote the concept first coined by the paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, ‘The capacity to be alone in the company of others.’ This implies the self confidence to express ourselves, to be accepted for who we are and to exist contentedly with our family, friends, colleagues and the wider social network.  We need to feel happy in our own skin before we can find long lasting happiness with others. 


So happiness depends on how others treat us and on whether we can feel accepted for who we are.  It is a social construct.  Even the tyrant can feel happiness when he is supported and adored by others, though his is a fragile contentment that does not allow him to relax his defences for too long.  And anybody can feel deeply unhappy if he is ostracised, even wrongfully, for some perceived misdemeanour. We are social animals.  Without the companionship and support of others we become apathetic and ill.  


But happiness is more than how we are treated in the here and now, it is a more enduring quality, an attitude to life.  I know it is fashionable to regard everything as inherited,  but I can’t believe that applies to happiness. Neither do I think it is some God-given quality.  The 80-year-old comedian,  Ken Dodd calls happiness, ‘the greatest gift that I possess’, but he isn’t a person I would immediately regard as contented.  If a capacity for happiness is bestowed on us by anybody, it is our parents.   


A safe and loving environment that encourages children to be curious and explore but prohibits behaviour that may cause us or others harm sets them up for contentment.   If our parents are too strict, their children grow up feeling they are in some way bad and that may compromise their confidence for the rest of their lives.  On the other hand, spoiling a child by parenting that is too liberal or too conditional may lead to an over-weaning confidence, which is out of kilter with the rest of the world.  Such children soon learn that the world does not always react as their parents did. Honesty may be regarded as naivety, hard work is too often taken for granted, being pretty or  cute may encourage envy or exploitation.  Unless modified by life experience, conditional or liberal love can all too often lead to disappointment and unhappiness by incurring society’s disapproval and sanction.     


But life lasts a long time and change is always possible.  A good marriage,  a successful career,  the love of one’s children and the admiration and regard of friends can build self confidence and trust.  And if one aspect of life is good, the chances are that confidence will spread and influence other aspects too. 


So happiness can be instilled in us from our parents, can be learnt by experience later in life or we can just get lucky.    


But perhaps the nub, the crux of happiness is living an authentic life.  This goes back to the notion of being yourself in the company of others – being true to oneself and others and caring for others as you would to yourself. 


There are few of us who can put their hands on their hearts and say truthfully ‘I have always been authentic.’  The best most of us can say is ‘I have tried to live a good life – the intention was there, but I haven’t always succeeded. I have learnt from the experience and will be more authentic in the future.’  While not unequivocal happiness, this is at least work in progress.    


But if authenticity is the key, how could any politician or even any politicians wife, let alone President and Madame de Gaulle ever achieve happiness?