Hirayama loves his routine. The protagonist of Wim Wenders’ transcendent new film Perfect Days wakes up each morning and follows the same ritual. He makes his bed, trims his moustache, shaves, waters his saplings, and gets a can of coffee from a dispenser just outside his apartment before he enters a small blue van to head to work as a toilet cleaner in Tokyo.

On his way to work, he fits a cassette into his tape-player and listens to a range of popular musicians – from Lou Reed to Van Morrison, Nina Simone to the Animals. After his shift, he sits alone in a park with his milkshake and sandwich, and takes a picture of the trees and the sky.

Martin Amis’s narrator in London Fields said: “Who else but Tolstoy has made happiness really swing on the page?” Wenders makes happiness really swing on the screen in Perfect Days. And the reason why Hirayama is often so happy – why he so easily and charmingly breaks off into a smile throughout the film – is the sense of constrained routine in his life.

Too much choice is not a good thing. The anxious person is the one who doesn’t know what to do because she can do so many things. The neurotic individual is paralysed by the sense that he can’t make the right decision because another one is always available to him. The apparently limitless options afforded to us by dating apps and social media has not made us more content; it has merely intensified our longing.

The happiest I have been in my adult life was during the first Covid lockdown and when I left social media for three months. The first lockdown was a time of great confusion. But I gave myself a structure that more than sustained me: it made me radiantly satisfied. From daily jogs in a nearby park to an allotted time for reading books and watching films, I found a purpose in doing what I enjoyed without the disquieting sense of missing out on other things.

When I left social media for a long stretch, meanwhile, I zoned in on the things that mattered to me rather than allowing my brain to be beholden to the frenzy of online algorithms. I recently told a young woman I was a fan of her once-active Twitter account. To which she replied: “That’s not a good thing; when I’m tweeting, it means I’m unwell.”

Marrying physical activity with routine is optimal for improving one’s mental wellbeing. David Beckham practises yoga every day to bear the stress of being David Beckham. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal analysed more than 14,000 people from over 200 trials and found that physical exercise is twice as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

The case for greater routine is not to wish for a return to the past: the world with basic technology, no smartphones and only three channels on TV. That will lead to another kind of dissatisfaction. It is difficult to convey how useful a Deliveroo or an Uber can be at a time of great inconvenience. Dating apps have been bad for many, but they have also led to fulfilling relationships. From Amazon Prime to Netflix, the streaming platforms constantly nourish me; I can rent almost any film in the world on YouTube in 30 seconds.

Too much constraint is dull rather than happy, enervating instead of ecstatic. But a life without any kind of routine or ritual is destined for misery. We shouldn’t even see these two things as irreconcilable: the hedonist is often the most diligent in shaping her life. Every connoisseur of pleasure is disciplined about what he wants and ruthless about what he doesn’t.

Compared with many writers of his generation, the American novelist John Updike lived a very sunny life. But what distinguished him in particular was his gleeful work ethic – novels, short stories, book reviews, essays. He was not tormented by anything as banal as writer’s block.

Updike left New York City in his 20s to raise his family in a New England town. He didn’t drink that much; he was not a dilettante. He was a child of the Great Depression. He developed a writing routine and stuck to it. He lived like a happy monk.

And so does Hirayama. He embodies what is now called “monk mode”: focusing on activities and tasks without the distraction of social media sites and other addictive tech platforms. He even owns a dumb phone.

But Perfect Days is not a fantasy. The film dramatises the fact that even the perfect routine is not a panacea to cure emotional turbulence; grief is an inevitable part of being human. And the sad parts of the film are the more poignant for having broken through such a lovely foundation of joy.

Hirayama lives alone but to describe him as a loner isn’t quite right. After work, he goes to the same small restaurant close to the ticket area of an underground train station and is served by the same exuberant man. At weekends he goes to the same bar and is served by the same flirtatious woman. A Harvard longitudinal study published in 2017 found the key to happiness is close relationships. We all have families but we don’t all have close relationships.

Liz Mineo summarised the study for the Harvard Gazette: “Close relationships, more than money or fame,” she wrote, “are what keep people happy throughout their lives… Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

Underpinning close relationships are shared rituals, a shared language, a shared code. Intimacy is produced by habit. To maximise happiness in this age of choices, we need to inject more routine into our lives. We should all aim to be happy monks.

Tomiwa Owolade is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

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