A recent poll of 2000 people aimed to make a list of all the simple things in life that make us happy. At number 1 was one of my own favourites, a freshly made bed. I confess I iron all my bedding because I enjoy the lovely cool, smooth feel of freshly laundered bed linen so much. I don’t enjoy ironing at all but it’s worth it for that moment when you slide between the sheets (or between the sheet and duvet) and smile with pleasure.
In the past I suspect that the enjoyment of beautifully laundered bed linen must have been the privilege of the rich, those people who had a laundry and maids to deal with all their washing, drying and ironing. If you were the laundry maid you probably fell into your own bed at the end of the day so exhausted that you didn’t even notice the state of the bedclothes!
- A freshly made bed
- Feeling the sun on your face
- Being thanked/random act of kindness from a stranger
- Finding money in an unexpected place
- Having time to yourself
- Laughing so much it hurts
- Snuggling up with a loved one
- Smelling freshly made bread
- Doing something for others
- Feeling clean after a shower
Further down the list was another of my personal favourites: Listening to a thunderstorm or rain when you are tucked up in bed. I love that cosy feeling when you are all warm and wrapped up and the weather is wild outside. Getting new stationery was also on the list, which is another thing I love and I suspect I’m not alone in that! Files, folders, crisp paper and quality envelopes, coloured pens and so many other items… Bliss!
So would the same simple pleasures have appealed in the past? Certainly some of the things that make people happy have remained the same down the centuries. On the modern list at number 9 is doing things for others and at number 15 is the thrill of personal achievement. And here is Hippolyte Taine, writing about society in the Victorian era in his “Notes on England”:
“Everybody undertakes something, specialises in something, works at some agricultural or scientific improvement, some work of charity. It is always the same question, how to find a use for their abilities or acquire a talent."
Then there is exercise. Doing something active outdoors like a bike ride, run or country walk features in the current happiness index. Back in the 18th century there was a craze for pedestrianism. This was competitive walking with pedestrians from all social classes performing prodigious feats for wagers or the proceeds of a collection from the spectators. Champion walkers such as Captain Barclay 1779 – 1854 were celebrities and household names. Mary McMullen, a working class Irish woman performed long distance walks during the 1820s when she was in her sixties. She could walk 20 miles in 4 hours. Evidently getting out in the fresh air, walking, taking exercise, is something that has appealed for many years.
Now to another personal favourite: Drinking freshly brewed tea or coffee and we only need to look at the popularity of the coffee houses from the 17th century onwards to see that that is a perennial pleasure. Of course in the past the coffee houses were mainly a male domain. From the 18th century onwards tea gardens were extremely popular venues for ladies to meet and chat. Here is a verse from a 1778 print of Bagnigge Wells tea gardens.
This little party sip salubrious tea
Soft tittle-tattle rises from the stream
Sweatened each word with sugar and with cream”
I would say that a large part of the pleasure there comes not only from delicious tea but also the fun of meeting up with your friends for a good chat or as Jane Austen wrote:
“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.”
Further down the social scale the 1837 Diary of William Tayler, footman, gives a great insight into the sort of things that gave a twenty something male servant pleasure. We’ll skip over the visits to low taverns with scantily clad women and concentrate on the wholesome pleasures of a visit to Brighton.
“Had been this morning and had a bathe in the sea for the first time in my life. I like it very much.”
On the modern day list at number 37 is the pleasure of getting a bargain and this seems to have been something pretty universally appreciated for millennia, from the wife of the Roman commander on Hadrian’s Wall writing to her sister to boast of the good deal she got on imported fruit to Jane Austen again, writing in May 1812:
“I was very lucky in my gloves, got them at the first shop I went to… and gave only four shillings for them:- upon hearing which, everyone at Chawton will be hoping and predicting that they cannot be good for anything, and their worth certainly remains to be proved, but I think they look very well.”
So there we are – Some small pleasures change and some remain the same. Is there anything you think is missing from the top 10 and what are your favourite simple pleasures?