Happiness, we know, is hard to come by, even in the best times. And if we agree on nothing else, we might agree that these are not the best of times. An air of gloomy dread and outraged alarm prevails for good reason. There have been many other times in history to justifiably feel this way. In 1944, German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno—exiled for ten years from his home and sojourning through a U.S. he found increasingly fascist in character—resigned himself to quiet despair.
“There is no way out of entanglement,” he wrote in his trenchant, gloomy collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia. “The only responsible course is to… conduct oneself privately as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.”
Adorno’s absurdist melancholia came from many places: his assessment of capitalism’s inescapability, his survivor’s guilt, his generally morose temperament…. He rarely confessed to having happy thoughts even when things were going well. Another thinker of the period, philosopher of the absurd and a writer for the French Resistance during World War II, had a very different take on the question of happiness in dark times.
Albert Camus reminded us that all times are dark times for someone. Speaking after the war in 1959, he castigated the idea that we should be shamed into misery. “Today happiness is like a crime,” Camus sneered, “never admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” One pertinent question both of these very different perspectives address is whether happiness is morally responsible.
Former Talking Heads frontman, record label maven, and frequent cultural critic David Byrne has answered the question in the affirmative with his project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, first an online compendium of news stories, now a curated online magazine designed to be a “tonic for tumultuous times.” Reasons to Be Cheerful starts with the premise that we are subjected daily to “amplified negativity” that wildly skews our view of events around the world.
It’s an old complaint; we’ve all heard, or voiced, a version of why don’t they ever show any good news? Byrne put his creative energy and resources behind the criticism to do something about it, “collecting good news,” he says, “not schmaltzy, feel-good news, but stuff that reminded me, ‘Hey, there’s positive stuff going on! People are solving problems and it’s making a difference!’”
In their blurb for the introductory video at the top, the Reasons to Be Cheerful team describe the site as “an online editorial project” that is “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” The site’s “stories of hope” don’t shy away from sentiment, but they are “rooted in evidence” and purport to show “smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.”
A sampling of articles currently on the site gives us a story about how lawyers might “end up saving the world” by taking on polluters the way they took on the tobacco industry; a piece about how cheap solar in China has “fueled the world’s green-energy revolution”; and essays about education in prison and the creation of a public waterfront from donated private property on Lake Erie. This being a David Byrne project, there is also, of course, a story about “the way to a two-wheeled utopia.” The current edition features several articles by Byrne himself, and another by Brian Eno.
Byrne and the editors and writing staff make no explicitly political statements, but they clearly value things like quality public education, clean air and water, a sustainable climate, and the creation of more public space—all areas that are now vastly under threat. Whether or not you find your own reasons to be cheerful in this commitment to positive journalism may depend on who and where you are, and whether you tend to see the world more like Adorno or Camus.