Richard Smith: A French recipe for happiness

Richard SmithÉmilie du Châtelet, the French aristocrat, philosopher, lover of Voltaire, and interpreter of Newton, had highly original (and possibly even correct) ideas on the route to happiness. Those who are tired of the drab and soulless maxims of today’s self-help guides might like to try her more exciting advice.

Something that conflicts immediately with today’s thinking is that she insists that gambling is essential for achieving happiness. And she doesn’t mean a flutter on the Grand National or doing the football pools weekly; rather she means betting your house or entire savings in a game of chance. She did this regularly, gambling all night for night after night. Her logic is simple: “The soul,” explains Nancy Mitford in Voltaire in Love, her book on the long love affair of the two philosophers, “needs to be shaken up by hope and fear. Gambling brings it within range of these two passions and keeps it in a healthy state.”  Du Châtelet notes that it’s an advantage to be poor as it’s easier then to gamble your whole livelihood. Perhaps this is why billionaires like Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, seem so miserable.

(Graham Greene must have had similar ideas. He liked to play Russian roulette, although primarily to stave off boredom rather than achieve happiness.)

Du Châtelet propounded her ideas in her book Réflections de Bonheur, explaining that her formula for happiness is not for everybody, but rather for les gens du monde, an epithet that surely applies to all BMJ readers. “In order to be happy,” writes Mitford, summarising  du Châtelet’s philosophy, “we must be virtuous, get rid of our prejudices, enjoy good health, have strong tastes and passions, and keep our illusions. Most pleasure comes from illusions, and he who has lost them is seldom happy.”

Lots of gambling and illusions may not have a strong evidence base, but it’s a formula that does seem to be enjoyed by many modern gens du monde. And I should explain that du Châtelet’s ideas on virtue differ from modern ones in that she saw nothing wrong in simultaneously having a husband, an impotent but endlessly amusing lover (Voltaire), and a potent lover to compensate for the impotent one. Voltaire agreed that his impotence justified her taking an additional lover, but he managed to be potent with his second mistress, Madame Denis, his niece.

Du Châtelet didn’t agree with moralists (and most Eastern gurus) that we should free ourselves from passions and desires as she thinks that happiness comes mainly from satisfying them. People wrongly have the idea that passion is harmful because poets write only about unhappy not happy lovers.

We are all born healthy, believes  du Châtelet, and we will live our full span if we do not succumb to overeating, late hours, and other excesses. She didn’t seem to worry about consistency and thought greed “a wonderful source of happiness.” And there was clearly a gap between her “talk” and her “walk” in that she gambled all night, became pregnant by her lover in her 40s, and then died of puerperal fever.

For happiness we must know what we want, and we must avoid committing blunders and then repenting. “Repentance is one of the most disagreeable of all the feelings that assail us.” We shouldn’t dwell on the past, but must “go on from where we are…and always substitute agreeable reflections for disagreeable ones.” She clearly discovered cognitive behavioural therapy some 250 years before modern psychiatrists.

Study rather than love was her greatest pleasure, but she also valued highly acquisition of new pieces of furniture and snuff boxes, regular visits to the privy, and keeping warm in very cold weather.

Where I depart company from Madame  du Châtelet is over death. I’m a follower of her French predecessor Montaigne who urged us all to think on death regularly and be “booted, spurred, and ready to go,” but  du Châtelet tells us that “it is foolish to dwell upon death, whether our own or that of other people, a sad and humiliating thought which does us no good at all.”

Voltaire thought that he could no longer live when  du Châtelet died, but he actually managed another 29 years, all of them with Madame Denis, who after Voltaire’s death married a man 10 years younger than herself.  Du Châtelet’s husband was guillotined at the age of 66, and no doubt  du Châtelet would have been as well had she lived. Perhaps the revolution made us ignore many of the prerevolutionary sages, but I have a feeling that in 2013 Madame  du Châtelet’s recipe for happiness could catch on. Indeed, maybe it is the predominant recipe already without us recognising the contribution of du Châtelet.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.