Rasselas, Happiness, and Mental Health6 min read

As it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to share with you all a novella which I hold very close to my heart and, something which I have always advocated strongly for as a piece of literature which tackled issues of mental health before mental health was even recognised.

*Disclaimer* unlike my normal posts, this post does include spoilers of the book, but as it was written such a long time ago, it’s quite common knowledge anyway, and also the whole plot is imperative to know in order to understand why I think the book is important. Also, as another disclaimer, I want to say that I am no expert on mental health, and so everything below is just my opinion and the way I personally feel about this novella, other people’s opinions may not be the same.

The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia is a book written 259 years ago, so you might be thinking, how could a book that old be relevant to how we feel today? Well, firstly, Samuel Johnson wrote the book in just a week because he couldn’t afford his mother’s funeral costs, and needed to raise the money somehow. So not only did he write the book in such a short space of time, but he was very much fuelled by grief and loss as well.

To sum up the plot, Rasselas is a prince who lives in the Happy Valley. As he is nobility, he and his family are very wealthy, and as such, he gets everything he should desire. Despite this however, he is unhappy. Rasselas often finds himself alone and thinking about his existence in the Happy Valley. When we meet him he decides the best thing to do is to search out people who are happy, find the reason for their happiness, and use it to create his own. He and a prophet called Imlac escape the Happy Valley, along with his sister, Nekayah, and her maid, Pekuah and together, they explore Cairo and the people around them in order to find the solution to happiness.

I honestly have so many feelings about this book, so it is hard to form them all in a concise and organised fashion, but I think the best place to start is with the quotes. They speak volumes on their own and will help me try to explain why I think the novel is so important:

“Do not suffer life to stagnate it will grow muddy for want of motion; commit yourself again to the current of the world.”

Here, Imlac is saying that our lives will grow muddy if we do not keep on moving. The idea that you have to keep going and progressing resonates a lot with me. If I’m not happy with something in my life, why keep it the same? If I wallow it the thing that’s making me unhappy then it can really hurt my mental health. Therefore I try my hardest to be active in helping to improve things I am not enjoying in order to maintain my own happiness and wellbeing. This is what Imlac tells Nekayah when Pekuah is kidnapped. She mustn’t focus on the cause of her strife, but rather come out of isolation and commit herself to the world. Rasselas very much warns of the dangers of isolation and I agree that those dangers are still relevant today.

“Nothing,” replied the artist, “will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome.”

The character of the artist is a bit of an eccentric who believes he can build a flying contraption (he ultimately fails and falls into the lake.) This quote is poignant however, because it illustrates that we would never get anywhere if we constantly feared failing. Yes, things will get tough, and sometimes it feels like the whole world is against you, but the only way it can be overcome is by trying and trying until progress is made. Again, this resonates with me because I sometimes am too scared to do something because I fear the repercussions or even just because my irrational brain is telling me that it’ll only end badly. But I like to remind myself, as this book does, that if I always thought like that, I would literally never get anywhere. Everyone has to do things they’re scared to do, but in my opinion that’s when the best things happen.

The main reason I think this book is important and relevant is that, while the majority of the novella deals with Rasselas’ search for happiness, at the end, Johnson concludes that there is no one solution. The way in which people deal with their mental health differs from person to person, what works for some people, may only aggravate the triggers for someone else. And that is what is imperative to remember. Rasselas is subtle in it’s eloquence and yet ostentatious about how happiness is not a formula that can simply be created. Happiness is unique to every person and even if you have the world handed to you, this does not mean that the pains of the world cannot reach you. Unfortunately poor mental health is not reasonable or logical and, like Rasselas, just because we have all the ingredients for good mental health, this does not mean it is so. It is also good at reminding us that almost everyone struggles with poor mental health and just because someone looks like they’re doing okay because they are successful, or wealthy or popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are. Rasselas himself learns that the happiest people are sometimes those who have nothing.

I actually fell in love with this novella while studying it at university, and I have to say, I always found it strange that there was never any mention of its significance as a book about mental health. Maybe it’s just me who can see this comparison, but, I hope, from the quotes above, and from what I have said, you can understand why I think it is not only relevant, but important. All in all Rasselas taught me that the search for happiness can be complicated and frustrating and that there is no point in assuming what makes one person happy will work for you. But Rasselas also taught me that it can be the small things, the little things, that get me through a tough day, and that is fine because there is no one solution or magic formula for our happiness, we just have to learn what works for us, and do our best to overcome what’s in our way.

Do you have any recommendations for books which tackle mental health issues?

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