By and large, I am pretty happy that Bastille has their second top ten hit with their collaboration with top producer Marshmello in “Happier.” To be sure, it is not nearly as good a song as the group has been putting out for years since their hit success with the quirky “Pompei” , but all the same, the song captures an intriguing and often neglected mood. The singer/narrator wishes for a loved one to be happy, even if she cannot be happy with him. Sometimes this sentiment is a cop-out, a desire to escape blame for failing miserably at a relationship, but by and large this sentiment is one that deserves a great deal more respect than it often receives, even if many people who think others will be happier without them are very wrong indeed. Indeed, given the somewhat tortured nobility that Bastille has shown as a band in their song material, one wonders why someone would be happier without them, even if it is not hard to understand at all how a tortured soul would believe themselves to be a net drain on the happiness of those people who are around them.
How often do people really want those around them to be happier? I don’t mean merely happy as a result of immediate entertainment, for it is fairly common to find people who are humorous and entertaining company, but I mean happier as a regular aspect of life, of joyful and positive disposition in general. If we, as a general rule, want others to be happy, we have a strange way of showing it. I do not think in general that we necessarily think badly of people as individuals, but rather I think it is more often that we do not think of people or are concerned about their well-being at all, but are rather consumed with our own longings and our own frustrations, and think about others only insofar as they are involved with either or both, as objects of our agency rather than as subjects with their own agency. I do not say this merely to criticize other people–it is a tendency I fight against myself as I struggle to put myself in the place of others and understand why they behave as they do, so that if I may not be more satisfied with their conduct towards me or others at least I may understand it better. I simply note that even trying to see things from the perspective of others appears to be increasingly rare in our increasingly self-absorbed world, and I do not think we are made any more happy by being increasingly focused in and even absorbed in ourselves.
The subject came to my mind this morning thanks to a brief interaction I had with my roommate as I was on my way to work this morning. After getting ready, as I headed out the door I said hello to my roommate and he replied in kind. Wishing to have this be a slightly longer interaction than most of ours, I asked if he had any exciting plans for the day, and he replied about what he wanted to do and also that he was wearing a belt to help with his back pain and wished he had worn it yesterday. I nodded my agreement as I tend to do, and then, having so far managed a rare positive interaction with my roommate, I was irritated and mildly annoyed by his parting comment as I was about to dart off to work that I must be an executive for leaving for work when I did. I replied mildly that this was not so and left. What had been a positive interaction marked by an interest in someone else’s activities had been turned into a more typical negative one by an entirely unnecessary critical comment. And although I was annoyed by it, I was also led to think about it in greater detail as being a worthwhile reminder as to some of the more negative aspects of my own highly critical nature, and a reminder that others could find my own critical tendencies to be equally bothersome.
According to a 2013 study published in the Harvard Business Review, the average ratio of positive interactions to negative ones is about five to one in successful relationships. When we make critical or negative comments more than 20% of the time we interact with someone else, we are basically ensuring that the relationship is a negative one. How well do we do in this? I tend to think that I do a better job in this personally than I do in my writing, but I have noticed that this rule applies even in my book reviews. For example, I once gave a review that I thought of as mostly positive but which the author whose book I was reviewing saw my review as a mortal threat to his own good name, and enlisted dozens if not hundreds of his friends and acquaintances to troll me and bother me. Clearly my review was not 80% positive, but it was at least 60-70% positive, and that was not nearly positive enough in the author’s estimation. I would clearly say that my roommate and I do not have 80% positive interactions, perhaps not even 50% positive interactions at least by my standards, and it is therefore entirely unsurprising to me that I avoid interactions as much as is possible for people who share the space of a home, or that others have previously made the same decisions.
This is not to say that wanting someone to be happier or better means that we only have positive interactions. At times, criticism is necessary. And in many cases, people in institutions do not make necessary criticisms because they are (rightly) afraid that criticism will lead to the abandonment of those institutions by those who have been criticized. But at the same time we earn the credibility to make criticism by virtue of the bank of goodwill we have earned with others. We do not have the credibility to criticize others until others know that we do want others to be happy, and that we do seek their happiness and enjoy it. If every interaction with someone has some sort of critical and negative aspect to it, other people get the idea that we are simply negative and critical people that they simply do not want to be around, and they will unsurprisingly not want to be around us. Only some of this is due to being too sensitive and thin-skinned, but a great deal of it comes down to the fact that we want to be around those who build us up rather than tear us down. Life is hard enough without other people considering their job in life to be the bearers of only unpleasant truths without any sort of positivity whatsoever. And that is why I feel, in general, positive about Bastille’s song and its desire that someone be happier. At least it wants happiness for others and thinks about their well-being, even if the singer appears mistaken in thinking that someone would be happier without them. Tortured souls may not have a lot of fun, but their concern about others and the world around them at least makes them kinder souls than those who only think about themselves and their own desire to be givers of burdens to a broken and overburdened world.
 See, for example: