Poet offers blueprint for modern fulfilment

FOR many years, researchers in the Kingdom of Bhutan have been conducting a gross national happiness survey.

And last November, Prime Minister David Cameron launched our own �2million probe to measure the UK’s wellbeing.

In The Age Of Absurdity (Simon and Schuster, �7.99) novelist and poet Michael Foley argues that not only is it tricky to define happiness, but the peculiar conditions of modern life make it difficult to achieve.

The West Hampstead author sets out to extrapolate the collective wisdom of scientists, religions, philosophers, psychologists and teachers throughout the centuries to come up with a template for contemporary fulfilment.

“This completely crazy idea came from a conversation with an old friend pondering our confusing lives.

“We got to wondering if there was any consensus about human nature and how to make the best of it. We said, ‘My God, the research involved in that, you’d need 20 lifetimes to do it.’

“But the idea stuck and I dragged out my old Penguin classics, as liver-spotted as myself, and started to reread them. The ideas were surprising, it was lively stuff. I started to find correspondences between people from all eras and disciplines.

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“Some ideas kept coming up, but so did my thought that everything these people were recommending has become more difficult to put into practice in our modern society.”

Foley reels off a list of milestones along the road to contentment, including personal responsibility, detachment, humility, pursuit of understanding, acceptance of difficulty, attention to the here and now and awareness of mortality.

“Take the first one, no-one takes responsibility for their own lives any more, everyone blames everyone else. People in failed relationships blame the other person, even after five in a row they don’t begin to think they might be doing something wrong.”

Foley cites the prevailing culture of entitlement which leads British youth to expect more while putting in less.

During his career as an IT lecturer at Westminster University, he observed UK students becoming “lazier and more demanding”, while overseas students from less affluent areas like Eastern Europe were enthusiastic, committed and grateful for the opportunity to learn.

Foley worries disillusionment will set in in later life as our teens discover that everything from relationships to careers requires more effort than expected.

“Acceptance of difficulty may be the most important requirement for a fulfilled life. Sales of oranges are plummeting because no-one can be bothered to peel them. Young people want to be rich and famous without the tedium of putting any effort in or even having any talent.

“But everything worthwhile is difficult and every worthwhile thing has to be earned. If you are not prepared to work, you won’t be able to achieve anything.”

Detachment is also vital for contentment – the knowledge gained from a perspective and understanding of yourself and your society – although Foley accepts “we are all influenced by our age, there is no way to be immune from it”.

“Detachment is increasingly difficult because of all the distractions we are subject to, being bombarded by emails, text and Twitter messages makes it very hard to stand back. But it’s like standing back from a piece of art, you can paradoxically engage more closely with what’s going on and see the bigger picture.”

He adds: “You have to understand yourself and your age to make the most of your life. To avoid the pitfalls, you need to become aware of the conditioning of modern life.”

Foley’s book is emphatically not a self-help tome – in fact, he believes the prevalence of such things simply foster the chimera that life can be boiled down to a set of rules or bullet points.

“Everyone wants to be told how to live but they don’t want to hear that life is complex and random, striving is endless and that almost all kinds of success are based on an element of luck and lots of hard work.”

He also decries the pop psychology that all we need is confidence to be ourselves.

“Everyone is told that that the secret of living is to boost your self-esteem but the opposite is true. You should be aware of your limitations and your faults as well as your qualities, awaken your inner dwarf.”

Friends, he says, no longer want you to be honest but just to support them in whatever they do. “When really, friends should be people who tell you things you don’t want to hear.”

And, in relationships, too often people believe that once you’ve found your ‘soul mate’ you’ll be in love for the rest of your life.

“Far from all your problems being over, they’ve only just begun,” says Foley, who’s been married for 40 years.

“The paradox is that the people who are good at relationships are the people who are good at being alone. You have to bring something to your relationship, have a strong sense of self rather than expecting the other person to give you all the answers.”

The Northern Ireland-born writer subscribes to the “U-bend” journey of life. Where we start off feeling great in your youth, hit crisis in our middle years, then find contentment in later life.

“Youth is an ingrate, age is a thanksgiver. Between 35 and 50, everything’s rubbish and you realise, ‘This is it. No person or opportunity or change of environment is going to let you become yourself.’ But as you get older, you start to accept that ‘this is it’ is not so bad and you enjoy what you have. Awareness of mortality makes you grateful instead of the constant dissatisfaction of your younger years.”

Foley warns that setting a goal to become happy is a red herring.

“Just as you can’t set out to be original, you can’t set out to be happy – it’s self-defeating and can only be achieved indirectly. But the essential absurdity of the human condition is that we are programmed to search for meaning by being aware that there is no meaning.”

He adds that he hopes the book won’t be seen as a rant about modern life.

“I hope people don’t confuse the sceptical, mordant tone with cynicism. I don’t just want to sound like a grumpy old man.”

o Michael Foley’s New and Collected poems is out later this month published by Blackstaff Press. He is at Highgate Library in Chester Road on April 7 to talk about The Age Of Absurdity. The free event starts at 7.30pm and includes a talk, Q&A and refreshments.