Could do better

Room for Improvement

A friend asked me today if I was happy. No big deal. A straightforward question to which the easiest answer is of course ‘yes’. Naturally, that didn’t enter my head for a second.

I suppose for many this is a relatively innocuous enquiry akin to “how’s it going?” or “all good?” or “how’s tricks?”. Something that can be answered with a stock reply. A pat deflector designed to nudge the conversation quickly onwards. Unfortunately for my coffee companion today, I seem pathologically unable not to regard those three words as an existential throwing down of the gauntlet. It makes me feel as if I have just been tapped on the shoulder by a Pantegreulian soul assessor and ordered to account for the state of my very being. In short, I find it impossible not to answer this question honestly.

Just three words. “Are you happy?” What possible answers could there be?

The cynic: “Is anybody?”

The romantic: “Happiness is waiting for me everywhere.”

The pessimist: “Not since I was a child. And not even then, really.”

The philosopher: “What is happiness?”

Now, what I specifically offered forth by way of an answer is not relevant because after all, to concede that you are not happy is not the same as saying you are unhappy, a mistake made by many who believe we can lock ourselves in to a fixed emotional state. Our emotions are surely a by-product of how we are rather than us being a by-product of our emotions. Or is there truth in both ideas? Perhaps when we let our emotions define us then the latter is true. Do you think children are more easily and incessantly ruled by their emotions? When does that change? When do we start controlling our emotional responses? Or more accurately, when do we start controlling the outward expression of our emotional responses? Perhaps when we realise society doesn’t leave a lot of room for it. When we err on the side of caution and propriety for fear of humiliation and judgement, I suppose. Imagine if that wasn’t the case – imagine a world saturated with a deluge of expressed feelings. Would it be bloody awful? Potentially. But I wonder would people be happier?

In spite of my having offered some thoughts on the pursuit of happiness before, whether through the prism of energy or authenticity, it continues to dwell on the outskirts of my reflections and on the in-skirts of my subconscious. In this I do not think I am different from anybody else. One way or another we are all engaged in carving out our little corner of happiness in the universe and I believe that process is far more concerned with the inner life of the carver with the outer life being merely reactionary and procedural, maybe even systematic. We are choosing courses of action in direct response to our core emotional needs.

For example, I have a core emotional need not to get depressed because when I get depressed I negate myself. When depressed, I submit to the darkness and allow myself to be pummelled into a state of total invalidation. This is emphatically an unhappy state. The course of action I choose in response to this is to do a lot of exercise which results in the production of endorphins which help keep at bay and in perspective the subconscious triggers of self-destruction. Am I crazy about doing sport? Not necessarily. But does doing sport make me happier than I would be otherwise? Definitely.

So, recognising things that are good for you and actively pursuing them is one arguable definition of happiness. Obviously, the things that are good for X may be the complete opposite of what is good for Y so we acknowledge that we are in very subjective and personal territory. And why is that? Because it comes back to the inner life. And whose business is that but the person themselves. Why should any of us know what motivates the person next to us? We shouldn’t. And there’s no need anyway. Be patient and you will find out eventually. The inner life always find a way to get through to the external world. It feels a great compulsion to reveal itself and it avails of those opportune moments to do so such as when we’re drunk, when we’re stressed, when we’re elated, when we’re relaxed, when we’re angry or when we feel safe. So, where does this deep need to express ourselves come from? What’s driving it? Permit me a little delve into the past by way of teasing this out.

A long time ago when my older brother and I were the only children living in our little house on a little road beside a little river, he came out with a surprising statement for one so young. He looked at me with a most determined expression and said “You’ve got to justify your existence.” He repeated it a few times like a mantra as if it was a realisation he’d only recently confirmed but his exhortation exhibited no evangelical zeal nor was it accompanied by back slaps or fist pumps. And as much as the words suggested a call to action, what I recall feeling was something very much earthbound. Something the momentum of which had been checked. I remember thinking to myself “Jaysus, that’s a bit heavy”, not that I was capable of expressing even that to my brother. I was perplexed and said nothing. But maybe he was tapping into his own inner compulsion, albeit prematurely. Maybe he had already come to the conclusion that some validation would be required further along the road.

I suspect many of us assess our happiness adhering to a similar idea of existence-justification which takes the form of a stock-take or a progress report along the lines of “How am I doing?” or “What have I done?” For myself, as much as material progress seems increasingly important I still attach far more weight to immaterial progress. My checklist includes questions like:

  • “Have I grown as a person?”
  • “Am I a better man than I was before?”
  • “Am I learning from my mistakes?”
  • “Am I being faithful to my inner life?”
  • “Am I any better equipped to live with Acceptance?”

If I can answer yes to those questions then all the logistical, external stuff will be taken care of automatically. Happiness? I think it’s elusive yet ever-present and as much as it will never be something we can grasp in a concrete sense it is something which is shaped and nuanced by what is going on in our heads and hearts at any given time. Think of it like this. Perhaps we are the sea and happiness is the land. Sometimes the tide is in and sometimes it is out. The sea changes temperature and condition constantly and the land responds accordingly, but passively.

What do you think? Were the comments good on your last report? Or is there room for improvement?

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