“Tthe surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness,” wrote French philosopher Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century. “Be merry,” commands Prospero—perhaps the wisest of all Shakespeare’s characters—in A storm. Yet the impact of cheerfulness – and the strength it gives us to get through difficult moments in our lives – is hard to pin down and easy to ignore or dismiss even as we strive to be happy.

And this is one of the reasons why Timothy Hampton, a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, decided to write a book about it. Vigor: A History of Literature and Culture explores how “joy” functions as a theme in the writings of great philosophers and writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austen, and how it appears in everything from 16th-century medical books to the Boy Scout handbook.

“Fun is a psychological and emotional resource, a way of approaching actions and situations,” says Hampton. “I can say hello to you – but I can say hello to you and have fun. It’s not part of the word ‘hello’, it’s some coloring of what I’m saying.”

The philosopher Spinoza called it “affect. And he says that’s the one effect you can’t have too much of.”

Cheerfulness is different from happiness, Hampton says, because you have some control over it. “You can make yourself cheerful – I can tell you to cheer up, and you know what that means. But you can’t make yourself happy. You can’t even buy it. Happiness is something you have no control over. »

Cheerfulness is not optimism, he says, and it is not positivity or hope. “It’s ephemeral. It comes and goes. It is a resource of the self, a lift of emotional well-being that briefly raises energy levels. It’s not something that’s easy to identify – we don’t really recognize it unless we do it ourselves.”

For example, it doesn’t necessarily show on your face, he explains, as stronger emotions do. “But when you’re doing something, I can tell you’re cheerful, I can see the cheerfulness that comes through in your actions.”

The most important thing is that these emotions are available, even in moments of extreme difficulty. “I spent most of my early life around people who had physical disabilities and had accidents,” Hampton says, “and for whom it was very difficult to get through the day. And cheerfulness, I realized, is a resource – you can make it, manage it and use it in action. And that seemed to me to be a really valuable and interesting thing that we don’t think about as much as we should.”

Hampton decided to find out if cheerfulness is the feeling that people have thought about for centuries, and if our attitudes towards it have changed. “I discovered that joie de vivre is a really modern phenomenon that began to appear in the 16th century, during the Renaissance.”

The word cheerfulness first appeared in the English language in 1530, and its roots lie in an old French word meaning “face.” “Chaucer uses it synonymously with the word ‘face.’ And in the 19th century, the French writer Madame de Staël talked about the fact that if you put on a cheerful expression while talking to other people, it will spread to you. So, even if a person is really unhappy on the inside, the emotional energy emanating from their face will change their insides.’

The idea that cheerfulness can spread from the outside in is common in books and essays about joie de vivre, Hampton says, as is the idea that joie de vivre can spread from person to person and create a sense of community and friendship. “The philosopher Hume, for example, calls merriment a flame or contagion. He says that when a cheerful person enters a room where everyone is subdued, the fun spreads through the room and covers everyone. And suddenly the conversation becomes cheerful and lively. So there’s a sense that at a certain point, being cheerful becomes something bigger than any of us, and it’s about our relationship to each other.”

Partly for this reason, Hampton suggests, Shakespeare is interested in what happens when people lose their spirits. “There are a number of moments in Shakespeare’s tragedies where, just before something terrible is about to happen, one of the characters tells another character: You’ve lost your temper.”

This is what happens to Macbeth before Banquo’s ghost appears, for example. “When you lose your temper, that’s when tragedy happens in Shakespeare’s plays, that’s when a character isolates himself from his community – and is left alone.”

Cheerfulness too seen as an antidote to melancholy: the proper way for a character – especially a woman in the 19th century – to experience a crisis or tragedy in her life. For example, in Intelligence and sensitivity, after Willoughby abandons Marianne, Austen writes, “She spoke little, but every sentence was directed to cheer.” The drive for cheerfulness is what keeps Marianne’s “mental anguish” from turning into melancholy and madness, Hampton says. “It’s not about having a positive outlook; it’s not about the sun always rising tomorrow. It’s about taking small steps at a time.”

So how do we “target cheerfulness”? Hampton credits American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson with some good advice. Emerson writes that no one can be truly a poet unless he is cheerful, because poets “love the world, the man, the woman, the wonderful light that sparkles from them.”

Hampton suggests that if you want to be cheerful, it’s best to start by “enjoying the world… For Emerson, the key to cheerfulness is accepting the beauty of the world.”

For Shakespeare, it is a deliberate decision to “see all things well,” while for Montaigne, a state of cheerfulness is “like things above the moon, ever clear and serene.”

Cheeriness, Hampton says, also involves the ability to rise above insults or challenges and find refuge in humor. For example, the catchphrase of Skinned Dick, a cheerful character in the American writer Horatio Alger’s novel about rags of the 19th century: “It’s a happy thought.” Hampton explains, “Somebody’s going to say to Skinned Dick, ‘I’m going to come and beat your brains out.’ And Ragged Dick will say, “Well, that’s a happy thought.” He has an ironic sense of humor and the ability to distance himself from the situation.”

Cheeriness is also shown by the writers as something that anyone can wear on purpose, like a cloak. U David Copperfield, for example, Charles Dickens tries to show how even the most “wretched and wretched” characters can cheer up when needed. Mrs. Gammage is a woman who rarely makes any remarks other than a mournful sigh – until disaster strikes at the heart of her community and little Emily is kidnapped by Steerforth.

“What a change in Mrs. Gammage in a short time! She was a different woman,” Dickens writes. Instead of regretting her misfortunes, “she seemed to have completely lost the memory of what she had ever been. She kept the same cheerfulness.”

“There’s a sense that in a moment of crisis,” says Hampton, “that the community generates its own cheerfulness, and even the saddest member of the community suddenly becomes cheerful.”

This is one of the reasons why he thinks we need to think about being cheerful in the present moment. “We live in a moment of terrible crisis in our community.” Cheer, he says, is a tool we can use to deal with the instability around us, from the state of the economy to the war in Ukraine. “What doesn’t mean: be Pollyanna or don’t look at the evil in the world. But I think that cheerfulness is a resource that can be used in the moment. And we don’t have a lot of resources – we need to use what we have.”

Psychotherapist Tess Ridgway agrees that being cheerful doesn’t mean walking on air. “Rather, it means that you strive to be a person who focuses on the good, looks for the best in people, and picks yourself up from bad events with stoicism and determination to carry on. He is not volatile and does not depend on luck. It’s a decision you make to go through life with good humor, humility and optimism.”

If all this sounds complicated, there is one last way. Hampton found advice on stimulating cheerfulness in medical books from the 16th to the 18th century: “Good conversation, one glass of wine is not two, because two lead to chatter – good music and a well-lighted room. All these things, we are told, will lead to the joy of self.’

Gaiety: A History of Literature and Culture by Timothy Hampton (Princeton Press, £22), available for £19.14 from guardianbookshop.com

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