The other night I stumbled across a video of a short lecture given by a former lecturer of mine from university. Dr Richard Schoch is a historian and lectured me in Shakespeare and performance through history at Queen Mary University of London last decade. Although he will very kindly say otherwise, I was not a great student. I’ve never been good at history as I have a wild and avid imagination. My GCSE history teacher told me my problem was that I creatively elaborated on facts, until they were no longer facts but sheer fiction. At University I was no different; combine that with the fact that, like most 18-21 year olds, I was largely still figuring out who I was, how to live in London independently and what made me happy. Today I often feel I am still working out the latter.
It felt very apt to discover Dr Schoch’s lecture at this time, in that January seems to be a month dominated by people making changes to try and better their lives and add to their ‘happiness’. I found comfort in his words:
“Today we think of happiness as a birthright… We have reduced happiness to the narrowest possible dimension, the thinnest possible shape, that maximises pleasure and minimises pain.”
All around me I observe people in pursuit of happiness, by trying to get thinner, richer, fitter, ‘healthier’, although on this last one I am largely cynical about what society deems as ‘healthy’ and more often than not, personally, I believe our efforts at gaining in ‘health’ are very UNhealthy indeed. On numerous occasions over the last week have I wanted to scream with suffocation of weight, shape and image obsessed status updates and advertising ploys. The ignorance about the negative impact on people this has astounds me…but I’ll spare you my rants about that (for now). We talk about making changes in the new year to feel ‘better’ in our bodies and (apparently) therefore our minds…but what about our hearts?
This is where I personally am struggling. Dr Schoch went on to say that “happiness is a much, much higher concept than feeling good, or wellbeing or positive moods. It’s really your life, where it’s heading and the decisions and actions that you take and if they’re getting you where you want to go.” This is an infinitely bigger agenda than dietary regimes, exercise, putting in more hours at work and rearranging your social calendar. This is the ultimate, infinite question of ‘Why Are We Here?’ Is it any wonder that so many of us experience ‘the blues’ in January? The media suggests this is due to a come down after Christmas merriment, but I would go further and diagnose the problem as follows:
- A sudden change to what our bodies and minds have come to accept as ‘normal’, often in the form of restricting food / alcohol / nicotine intake, to which our bodies and minds, quite naturally, respond with “Hey! What the hell are you doing?!”
- The saturation of change, goals, achievement and success within social media, bombarding us at every angle.
- The deeper, unanswered question being constantly alluded to and prodded at, digging beneath the surface, challenging our purpose.
No wonder we feel dank, dull, dark and lifeless, when all we know and understand is called into question and we are quite literally forced to ask ourselves “What makes you happy?”
Our materialistic, human nature reaches out to ‘stuff’ to inject ourselves with a dose of ‘happiness’, depending on what our personal idiosyncrasies are. Amidst writing this I have downloaded 4 new albums onto my iPad, sat in the pub where my husband and I met, with the new headphones he bought me for Christmas on my head, drinking wine and have shut myself off from the growing gaggle of punters. In this small moment, I am happy…but for how long?
The other day I was asked a different version of ‘are you happy?’; “What (truly) soothes you?” Immediately images of wine, shopping and television jumped into my mind. Shameful and rather sad, I know, but for me, I recognise these things as anaesthetics to pain. At least temporary ones. There has to be science behind why so many of us turn to these sort of superficialities for comfort; The chemicals produced when we drink a sip of wine, focus on a moving image on a screen, the rush of new stuff that we are attracted to.
I am soothed by my husband. He has a remarkably calming effect on me that my family and closest friends have often commented upon. But I have always been aware that he alone can not be responsible for my comfort, my peace, my happiness. Only I can be responsible for that. But, my, what a responsibility it is.
Over Christmas I realised that really, truly, deep down, making others happy really does make me happy. But what I forgot is that I am not responsible for their happiness. So when I fail to make others happy, no matter how hard I have tried, because my own happiness has become dependant on it, when I cannot make them happy, it makes me very unhappy…do you follow?! I am sure others have this same problem, in fact I have heard people declare that the solution is to, next time, only focus on what makes them happy. But surely, for people who have even a modicum of genuine care for others, this can’t be completely fulfilling?
Which leads me to ask, are we ever truly happy?
We tell ourselves we will be happy when we are thinner. We lose a significant amount of weight and find that we still struggle to face ourselves in the mirror, or if we like what we see reflected, we still do not know how to behave and are at war with what’s within.
We tell ourselves we will be happy if we can have financial security, provide for a family and retire early, but find we don’t know how to function without work and find life meaningless without it.
We tell ourselves we will be happy if we have a baby, then discover the hardships of parenthood are often more than we can bare and we miss the freedom of a childless existence.
We tell ourselves, we tell ourselves, we tell ourselves…and forget to breathe and Be.
As far as I can see we will all always be in constant pursuit of happiness. Both our own and other peoples. I am battling to find the measure of my own happiness, through supposedly ‘healthy’ means and otherwise, and as I do so I want to be aware of the challenges along the way…in that no person can be wholly responsible for my happiness, no thing can sustain my happiness and that my happiness is an ever malleable concept and ever evolving journey, which I must constantly reassess and seek to realign. But within that, I do not wish to compromise the happiness of others.
I hope that throughout this year as I continue on this constant journey, I can write about more things, activities and people that make both myself and others, truly happy.