Happiness eludes me, so now I’m looking for meaning

I confessed to a man with a heart of stone in a midlands bar that I’m rarely happy nowadays

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


Before Christmas I spent three months touring the country, doing readings in arts centres, and sleeping in the de-luxe rooms of various hotels. It was a great adventure. I watched the universe unfold every night in a different lounge bar or in a different late-night takeaway.

One night I met a man with a heart of stone. He was in a bar in a midlands town and he leaned on the counter as he sipped his drink, nursing his grudges.

I listened to him for a while as he spoke of his mother and how she had hurt him. When he was finished his litany of neglect I said, “That’s awful.”

“No,” he said, “it’s all in the past. I’m happy now.” He clenched his fist around his glass of whiskey and he looked into it as if he was gazing at a knife that some day he might plunge into an unseen enemy.

“Yeah,” he repeated with a grimace, “I’m happy now.”

I confessed to him that I’m rarely happy nowadays. At a certain age, “meaning” becomes more necessary than happiness.

The dogs in Leitrim are happy. They’re well minded. They yap cheerfully and run around with excitement when the farmers head up the hills with fodder for cattle. The horses are happy, apart from the one that lives near me in a field of rushes. I see him shivering in the freezing fog.

And there are sheep in a field beside the main road that are fed fodder from a round metal feeder. The spot where the feeder stands has turned to mud and the sheep have turned black from the muck and their hoofs are probably rotting in the soft slurry, so I wouldn’t be too sure about their happiness.

Mongolian beef
But mostly it’s true to say that animals, if well minded, are reasonably happy. They fit into the natural universe in a way that I don’t. I sit uncomfortably in the world, aware of myself, uneasy that the universe remains silent and refuses to reveal its secrets to me.

One wintry night in December, with heavy rain and cold winds lashing the jeep, I checked into the Plaza Hotel in Tallaght. I was hungry.

A young man in the bar told me that his mother worked in the Chinese restaurant across the street and he recommended the Mongolian beef. “It’s her speciality,” he said. So we phoned her, and he spoke to her in a strange language and shortly afterwards the food arrived and I ate it in the half-light of the bar with a pint of cider to wash it down. It was delicious, although it didn’t taste at all like the food I ate when I was actually in Mongolia.

People over there were poor, and lived in circular white tents. And I remember a woman smiling at me one day, as she chopped meat into slices and flung it into a steaming pot that sat on the stove. When the meal was ready I slurped the soup and sucked up the noodles as happy as any well-fed Mongol and it struck me that maybe food is what makes humans happy. And then sex.

Encounter in the Joinery
I was in the Joinery in Smithfield one night to give a talk about Buddhism and orgasms and horses’ milk. The Joinery is a small arts centre that offers creative resources to young artists.

Afterwards I chatted to a psychiatrist. She was drinking mulled wine and she had a beautiful Ulster accent. I would have been happy to converse with her all night, but I needed to push on. I had a gig in west Cork two nights later.

I drove as far as Portlaoise that night, thinking about psychiatry and mental health and the capacity of chemicals to inject happiness into the human skull.

I checked into a hotel where a few teenage girls wearing pink tiaras hung around an empty dance floor in the lounge, and a DJ played music so loud that it was impossible to talk, and a few unruly boys sat at tables slobbering their drink and shouting into each other’s ears.

I went upstairs with a pint of cider and watched Jeremy Paxman talk to Russell Brand on Newsnight. I felt alone, like the man with the heart of stone, except that I don’t pretend I am happy any more. Food, sex, and belonging in a tent were moments on the road of life. But I think meaning is further down the track. Maybe it will come later.

And in the meantime I’ll keep travelling.

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