Walking upstairs late in the evening, after a sultry warm April day, I am hit by a smell in the air I remember from my childhood. It takes me back in an instant to Saturday mornings, waking up in my single bed with its orange throw and feeling the crisp flat pages of “Tiger & Scorcher” on my bed, left by my father while I was still asleep. The happiness I felt at being able to listen to my little transistor radio and flick through my new comic, enjoying the peace for a while. Simple, but no less magical for it.
Perhaps what amplifies this nostalgia more than anything is the paradoxical context of the memory. Home was not a happy place, yet I was rarely happy to be away from it. Only later did I come to understand that the anxiety felt at insecure attachment made me more desperate to fix it and thus perpetuate an eternal painful cycle.
In her book “Things I Don’t Want To Know”, Deborah Levy writes, “When happiness is happening it feels as if nothing else happened before it”
What she captures so beautifully and succinctly is the unutterable power of happiness. Why then are we content to wait for it to arrive rather than create it ourselves?
I remember a patient in Godden Green Psychiatric hospital once answering the question “what do you want for yourself?” with the sentence, “I just want to be happy”. At the moment the words tumbled out it felt like both a desperate plea and a wild fanciful dream.
In that same place, I heard a therapist use a sentence I have spoken myself countless times. “How do you expect to have an enjoyable life if you never do anything enjoyable?”
Happiness is self-seeding. The more we relinquish our responsibility and control over curating it, the less it appears and the more fundamentally elusive we feel it is.
In my work I meet people who are depressed, and they have lost sight of what happiness is. Those who are anxious are too frightened to look for it, and for the many who have let go of their own self-worth, happiness is mostly something they feel no right to enjoy.
Like emotional resilience, happiness is easy to find when we don’t need it. Like buses after an interminable wait, one moment of joy is followed quickly by two or three more. But when it is absent we wait for something to happen, instead of making it.
Sitting and thinking about the moments of greatest happiness in my life I realise that most of them were, in one way or another, created by me. It’s incredibly empowering and strangely humbling to recognise the power that we have in building a worthwhile life studded with jewels of great happiness.
In the end, it is our personal rules for feeling happiness which dictate how much of it we experience. If I determine that I may only feel happy if I am liked and accepted by everyone, that nothing tragic or sad should befall me, I am likely to feel less happiness than the boy who wakes up in a house short of love but still finds joy in the smell of the sunshine and the pages of a comic.