Stay Afloat
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Stay Afloat

Happiness: The Gaps Between

My local bookshop has a display of books about happiness in the window. Some of them consist of a number of guidelines that claim to lead you down the path of enlightenment, others are more general while others still suggest that if we were more like the Danes, the Japanese, etc., etc. then we would certainly be happier than we are now.

The problem is that happiness is a slippery little critter; once you finally think you’ve grabbed onto its tail, it slithers away. Indeed, like the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, it appears that the harder we look, the further away we find ourselves.

I recently watched a beautiful film called Expedition Happiness (it’s on Netflix), a documentary about a young German couple (filmmaker Felix Starck and his musician girlfriend Selima Taibi) who decide to convert an old school bus and drive from Alaska to Argentina (with their dog, Rudi). The premise is simple; live off the grid, forego all home comforts and simply immerse yourself in the world. What becomes clear quite early on is that the happiness they yearned for comes in moments; the wilderness of northern Canada and the stunning beauty of Alaska, the friends they made on the way and the invitation to a meal from a family in Mexico. These happy fragments of time were the moments between; between the problems with border crossings, roads so appallingly maintained that the bus seemed to be breaking apart and, the final straw, the failing health of their beloved Rudi.

Expedition Happiness

And this is how life is for all of us, the everyday getting in the way of our ultimate quest, that is, our desire to be happy.

If our lives are goal directed, then happiness is a pretty poor goal to have. Freud believed that humans were at the mercy of their desire for pleasure, that instinctual and uncontrollable force, pushing and pulling us between the primitive id and the over-bearing super-ego. The behaviourists saw us as little more than stimulus response machines, while the existentialists stressed that it is meaning that makes life worthwhile and not happiness per se. Indeed, the kind of happiness the Freudians had in mind was an altogether more hedonic affair, happiness now and damn the consequences or our future wellbeing. But happiness is much more than simple pleasure, it’s about leading a good life, of gaining satisfaction by working towards long-term goals that allow us to flourish, a type of happiness that is less hedonic and more eudaimonic.

I’m not alone in my belief that happiness is a pretty poor goal to aspire towards; American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and the often outspoken and controversial Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson think along similar lines.

One of the reasons why happiness represents a poor goal is, I think, partly due to our ignorance of it. First of all, there is a tendency to few happiness as obtainable, while the very existential nature of our lives would dispute this claim. Life is difficult and harsh and full of loss; there appears little to be happy about. Second, I doubt we would recognise true happiness if we did find it, partly because the quest has distracted us from actually feeling it.

Perhaps I’m being too negative. I do experience feelings that I label happiness, yet at times I simultaneously feel sadness. How is this even possible? How can I feel two vastly conflicting emotions at the same time? When I look at old photographs of my son as a baby or of me in my youth, there is happiness at what was tinged with a sadness of what is. My son will never know his mother (she died when he was only four years old) but I am happy that I have known her; I am thankful for the times we spent together and for the child with which we were blessed, but at the same time my heart breaks because she is gone. My language has no word for this emotion, even though other languages do. Can I feel an emotion that I cannot label? Can I understand happiness if I’m not at all sure of how it feels?

These questions bring me back to Selima and Felix. They certainly found happiness on their journey; the happiness of connection to each other and the people they met, happiness derived from the awe they experienced from the stunning scenery and the feelings of freedom. But this happiness was never all encompassing, happiness entered when the gaps opened; the gaps between all the other stuff.

Should we therefore become collectors of moments, those memories of times when we felt something that we can honestly label happiness? Of course, memories are rarely accurate, but then, who cares anyway?

But I think our choice of memory also matters, for like any collector, some pieces are more important than others. Hopefully, as we journey through life we’re more likely to recall the birth of our first child or that first kiss than the day we bought the latest Smartphone (the one that was out of date six months later). The beauty of our most significant memories in that they tend to last, and our brains (being the clever things that they are) have the ability to travel back in time and recall our past. They can even travel forwards in time to predict our future, after all, is that not what daydreams are made for?

So, forget about the books that promise to make you happy and pay closer attention to the gaps between.




Advice and musings on getting through the day to day

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Marc Smith

Marc Smith

Chartered Psychologist. Behaviour Change. Becoming Buoyant — out now

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