The movie Hector and the Search for Happiness was most interesting in the big question it raised, and the spectacularly horrible way it answered that question. Hector (Simon Pegg) is a psychiatrist in London who tires of listening to his patients squabble over minutiae, his girlfriend whine about whether motherhood fits into her lifestyle and career, and his own general cynicism and over-satiation.
Diagnosing himself to be unhappy, Hector takes off for China, Tibet, a strange country called "Africa" (where smiling, costumed natives run to greet him and feed him exotic food) in search of happiness. He finds it and eventually returns to make babies with his girlfriend and presumably to be happy forever and ever.
This is a story many Trinis, especially those in the tourist trade, might get all misty-eyed over. Metropolitan man escapes his technologised, over-developed landscape, and comes to our "organic" part of the world to reconnect with his primal self. Just like Robinson Crusoe, or Prospero, or Johnny O'Halloran. This is the crux of the ideas of distinguished professor Milla Riggio proposed at a UWI lecture ("Carnival Crossroads") last year.
Fortunately, North American and British critics were more perceptive, recognising the atrocious bigotry of the perception that the primitive, underdeveloped world was, yet again, reduced to backdrop in the solipsistic dilemmas of mediocre metropolitan man. Hector also, almost mandatorily, manages to engage in sexual congress with women of various ethnicities, while finding the meaning of happiness through a series of aphorisms which he writes down.
Aphorisms aside, the question itself remains–what about happiness? Last week's installment ended saying that T&T is a very unhappy place. Clearly this isn't a popular conclusion. After all–land of Carnival, right? Trini love to fete, Trini love to party, Carnival, that kind of thing. There's even a small subset of the international culture industry pushing this for us, from Milla Riggio, and Jocelyne Guibault (who wrote a book, Governing Sound, about Trinidad's Carnival music) to Amber Rose and whoever else Machel brings down.
But could it be that Trinis are simply taking others' word for it about what makes them happy? Could happiness could be somewhere other than in the approval of the metropolitan tourist? Could the whole "good time" frenzy of Carnival be something else? Has anyone given any serious thought to this?
CLR James in an essay, The Struggle for Happiness, catches the dichotomy: "Every age has two facets–the one on the surface, the framework within which everybody or nearly everybody works, thinks, writes, and lives in general; below is another intimately related to it but sometimes for generations unrecognised."
James was describing labour relations in the US, pre-WWII, but these observations resonate, as he continues that men's (and women's) attitude to their work define their "deepest responses to life and whole outlook on the world." Needless to say, we've got it backward, thinking the fete defines us, and work is an evil to be "resisted."
Naipaul, the supreme psychologist of Trinidad, went at it from another angle, calling it the Mimic Man syndrome. The surface mimics images and attitudes from history; the inner life remains empty, filled almost involuntarily with suppressed emotion, resentment and anger, irrupting from time to time, as in labour protests, from 1937 to 2015, road rage, police action and in schools, government offices, hospitals. Edgar Mittelholzer, two decades before Naipaul, sketched out the meeting of those inner and outer worlds in his indispensable Morning at the Office.
So James's inner world, it seems, is starved of the material it needs to make us complete. This material comes from, along with a commitment to work and being productive, additionally deep bonds with family, loved ones, and a rich inner life of ideas and beliefs. By believing the surface is all, Trinidadians seek to fill the emptiness with debauchery, noise, religion and flight, via emigration, alcohol and frenzy.
But this existential lacuna is merely one process in a dynamic system: add to this the contemporary uncertainties of growing economic inequality and the attendant dislocation, the breaking up of family networks, where they existed at all; and a general collapse of institutions, schools, security and justice, and even health. Then add the involuntary conditioning from television, pop music, the darker corners of the Internet.
Cumulatively, you have a giant, endless machine for creating stress, unhappiness and sickness and no counter. The ultimate consequence of this unhappiness is an environment which produces mental illness. (Not to discount genetic factors, but it's established that environment can mitigate genetic destiny.) There are actually data that support this. I spoke to Prof Gerard Hutchinson, head of psychiatry at UWI, and a few other members of the psychiatry/psychology team, and they agree, the rise in mental illness is sharp and pronounced. In the midst of all the fun and gaiety, people are going crazy.
To round this off, it behoves one to ask: what to do about it? The answers are surprisingly simple, and it begins with the one word Trinidadians seem to fear more than anything: silence. Meditation is now listed in psychological treatment schedules as a treatment for mild to moderate depression. None of this is further away than YouTube, where you can hear hours or rainfall, sounds of nature, or view free meditation guides. Simple strategies can improve the general environment of the nation and bring about sea changes in the emotional atmosphere. But it needs a change in the general thinking about public culture.
This (happiness) will be the subject of a more detailed article to be published in the Guardian in the next few weeks, and hopefully the launch of an initiative to disseminate this message.