Several times recently I have been asked about happiness: “will I be happy?”; “is my daughter happy?”; “which career would make me happy?”; “will I be happy in my relationship?”. The thing about happiness is, it’s an inside job; it isn’t entirely dependent upon circumstance (partially dependent, but not wholly and completely – thank goodness). Let’s face it, we all know people who appear to have everything they need, but yet remain dissatisfied and ungrateful. No-one, not even God himself, can guarantee that a person will be happy. As I said, it’s an inside job.
But, it got me pondering (again) about what happiness actually is – and if anyone really knows. Do only two possibilities exist: happy or unhappy? If we aren’t feeling one, then we must be feeling the other? I asked myself if I am happy, and I had to admit that, whilst I wasn’t about to throw myself under a bus (good job, too, given the sporadic service we have to put up with around here!), neither was I jumping for joy. I am genuinely grateful for my life; I not struggling excessively for anything, and I have plenty going on: my intuitive work, a developing writing career, and kickboxing classes (currently live-streamed online!), not to mention all of the usual domestic stuff. And, on top of that, a long-term dream recently became a reality when I was finally able to buy the motorcycle trike that my partner and I had wanted for years. Compared to a lot of poor souls on this planet, I am living the dream. But am I happy?
Writing this has allowed me to recognise that I am engaged in my life, and that I am excited about my goals and aspirations. I feel that I still have a very long way to go, but at least I am in the process. Does all of that equate to happiness? I honestly don’t know… but I do know that if I was merely meandering along in my life, and if I didn’t hold out any hope of getting fitter and slimmer, of writing more books and reaching more people, and of continuing to learn new things, then I would be unhappy. I would feel purposeless and adrift… my life would be draining away, and time would be running out! So – even if I can’t say for sure that I am definitely happy, I can at least recognise when I am unhappy… and what lies behind that unhappiness!
The big problem with the idea of happiness is that, for many people, it’s merely an unexamined and idealistic notion. That’s the version of happy that I am most resistant to… it feels empty and meaningless to me. Throughout the years in which I gave face to face consultations, literally thousands of people told me that all that they really wanted from life was “just to be happy” (the word ‘just’, used in this context, is a minimiser – it means, “I only want to survive“). I asked many, many of those to define their version of happiness – and almost none of them could. “You know… happy. Secure… content… that kind of thing.” Okay, so what specifically would have to be occurring in your life in order for you to deem yourself happy, content, and secure? “Well, just having no problems, and no money worries, and everyone around me being happy.”
You can see the problem, can’t you? As a goal, it is about as achievable as jumping to the moon and back would be. It’s like a body with no bones and no muscles – limp and formless. But, at the same time, it’s easy; it requires no real thinking, no engagement, and no effort. And, when we look back on our life and say, “well, it was okay, I suppose…. even though I can’t say that I was exactly happy”, it won’t be our fault: it will be life’s fault, because we had problems, and money worries, and the people around us weren’t happy enough. There was nothing we could do about any of that.
There is another version of happy that does more harm than good; the version that says we should be thrilled to bits with life at every turn, eternally smiling and excited. I know someone who works in a shop, and she is sick to the back teeth with people (mostly strangers) saying things like, “smile, it might never happen”, or, “you look grumpy today, what’s bugging you?” She isn’t unhappy, but she is an introvert, and she doesn’t feel the need to perform. She is polite and helpful, and all she wants is for customers to buy their groceries, pay the bill, and leave. A pleasant hello and thank-you-very-much-goodbye is all that is required. She works at the shop on a part time basis, whilst she studies for a degree and runs evening fitness classes. Her resting face is quiet and inscrutable. But, a lot of people are uncomfortable with that, because their minds are jumping around all over the place, and they constantly crave gratification and attention… even from the girl who works in the village shop. If they were genuinely at peace with their own lives, they wouldn’t have a need for others to appease them. And, of course, there is the all-singing-and-dancing version of happiness which is perpetuated by social media; ‘they’ are all living wonderful, fun-filled lives, with perfect relationships and families, whilst we are not. I am convinced that, behind some cases of depression and anxiety, there lies an unrealistic understanding and expectation of happiness.
Unselfconscious happiness is for the very young (and the slightly crazy!), and it is a wonderful thing! My son sent me a video recently, showing my three year old grandson seeing his toy police motorcycle for the first time; he squeaked with joy and leapt on it, heading toward his mother, where he stated, in a very firm voice: “hey burglar, I’m here now” (he is obsessed with catching baddies), before jumping off and proudly shouting, “hello, my name is the police!” Now, that made me smile from the centre of my very being… who wouldn’t kill for that kind of spontaneous, unadulterated joy and imagination! Where does it go? And it isn’t just us human beings who become a muted, toned-down version of our former selves -it happens to sheep, too! I live in a rural area, and right now the beautiful little lambs are playfully leaping and frolicking around the fields, whilst their unanimated mothers look on with bored faces and munch on the grass. What happens between lambhood and sheephood (I just made those words up, I think)? The same thing that happens to us, I suppose: the passing of time, and the realisation that the sun doesn’t always shine – and that the grass really does appear to be greener on the other side!
A thought just struck me; surely, in order for us to experience happiness, first we need to have experienced unhappiness… otherwise, how would we know? Anyway, ask yourself this, right now: “would I describe the way I currently feel as happy?” I have just asked myself the same question, and my response is, “I have definitely felt worse! I am not unhappy, although I do feel under a certain amount of self-imposed pressure. I want to finish and publish this blog, do some research into Facebook ads for my latest book, go to the chemist, buy a birthday card for the boy next door, and do some stretching/exercising… whilst watching the clock to see how quickly time is passing.” I am happy to realise that I am not unhappy… which probably means that I am happy! That could change at any moment, of course, if I allow it to; something could occur that would cause me to feel stressed or annoyed, and then my mood would change. I might not be unhappy as such… but neither would I be happy. I’d be in that no-man’s-land between the two – flatlining, as they say. It’s a seductive place in which too many of us get trapped, becoming hypnotised to see it as ‘normal’…. you know, just the way life is.
So, it is clear that happiness is many things: overrated, misunderstood, misrepresented, overestimated, easily let go of, easily forgotten, taken for granted, desired, feared, and resented. It is also life-affirming, grounding, encouraging, gratitude-inducing, and as important as breathing. It isn’t completely natural to us – it isn’t our default setting. Many of us have had to learn how to understand happiness and allow it into our lives – because it wasn’t in abundance when we were children. Developing our own personal relationship with happiness is probably always going to be a work in progress. We will all have minutes, days, weeks, when things are going our way and we feel happy (contented, secure). But, they won’t last, because they can’t. We will all tell ourselves that we will be happy when; when we have a new relationship, when we have more money, when we have lost weight, when we have a new job, when we have a boob job, when we have another baby, when we move house etc. And we all know that those things will probably cheer us up… for about five minutes, until the next when! We shouldn’t be disappointed with ourselves because we aren’t jumping for joy; we shouldn’t be making a huge deal about happiness, and what it is supposed to look and feel like. We should allow it to just creep up on us every now and then, wrap its arms around us from behind and deliver a delicious cuddle – before letting it go again until next time!
One last thought: if you are struggling to believe that life is doing you any favours, and that you are constantly being let down, you might find my blog, “NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENS TO ME!” YOU DO NOT WANT TO THINK, SAY, OR BELIEVE THIS!, helpful. If, however, your unhappiness has it roots in a sense of futility about life in general, or as a result of loss and grief, you might find my book, Our Life Beyond Death – An Incredible Journey, to be comforting, reassuring, and encouraging. Don’t feel that happiness is always for someone else, and never for you – and don’t fall for the ‘happiness’ b******t that some people will try and sell you!