12. On happiness, and where to find it
Moving on up now, baby
I’m back. It’s good to be here. It’s been a quiet time for putting in the words but I’m ready, again. Since the last time I wrote to you I’ve found some professional help. Every week for the next while I’ll see a man, let’s call him Stan, and he’ll listen to my collected woes for an hour. Stan will help me to work out some goals or something and in some time I will get better. That is the plan. I reckon we’ll do a lot of talking about the gap that lies between knowing the right thing and doing the right thing.
Yesterday, The Muse asked how I was feeling (she’s good like that) and I told her that I was feeling sad. We talked about it then, and again today. It’s tricky to talk about sadness when every thought that surfaces comes up heavy and with a dark spin. But you have to talk about these things, bring them into the light and have a good look at them. Maybe they’ll be less scary in the open, in their entirety.
Anyway, all of this thinking and talking and writing about sadness has got me thinking about happiness, and also about how to think about happiness. Let me try to explain.
About ten years ago I did some training in non-coercive methods of improving interactive attention span and flexibility in communication with Autistic people. A lot of the work was about how we react when we communicate with people, based on their reactions to us. It was good – I met a lot of amazing people and some of what we learned was super effective. Anyway, one of the founders of the training held the belief that happiness is a choice. Pretty bold, right? He believed that our emotional reactions to stimuli – what people do to us, what they say to us, what we see happening around us – are within our control, that we can choose how we feel about everything. Wouldn’t that be grand?
I don’t think that it is true. At least, not completely. We have free will – we can choose how we behave when we’re presented with a situation – but how we feel about it? That’s a gut thing for me. I know how I feel about something before I know what I think about it. And of course, when things get really bad I might not feel anything at all. But then, later, outside of the moment, and with the benefit maybe of a little time, how we feel can (sometimes) change. I can change (choose?) how I feel about something. Just not in the moment.
This week, I read the first chapter of the popular book Atomic Habits. I like it so far. The author, James Clear, tells something of his own story (a bit like I do) and then quickly gets to the point (which is altogether nothing like me, as you know by now). One of the things he talks about how we (us humans) set goals for ourselves, and about how doing that can be limiting, and about the benefit of setting up systems instead.
So, I’m going to give it a try. Instead of seeing happiness as a goal (or a choice), I’m going to work on my system for happiness. Like most things I have the parts I need already, it’s just a case of putting them together. The Muse is exceptional at reminding me of this with her profound appreciation of small things, and my friend Garret offers a great truth: that it’s possible to find as much satisfaction in the steps taken to make a good cup of coffee as in a two week holiday in Tenerife. When I was at university I had a habit of making paper cranes. I’m pretty sure I never made a thousand, but I do remember learning that origami is not about folding paper in order to make something – it’s about folding paper. Hmmmmm.
I’m in the British Library today, and I’m going to write. I’m surrounded by books and people tip-tapping away. This is a good place to do the thing that I’m doing.