On happiness. Some thoughts prompted by someone asking me how they could be happier, when they were feeling miserable.
Are you happy?
Happiness is something we all strive for.
But we don’t find it by looking for it. Happiness is rarely gained through its pursuit.
We can make choices, though, that make it more likely to happen. Just as we might prepare a flowerbed before sowing seeds, we can create the conditions in our lives that encourage happiness to grow. But just as with a seed, its growth is beyond our control.
One of the problems is that the map our culture gives us, showing the way to happiness, is flawed. We follow it as well as we can and then we are surprised when we end up in the wrong place. We question ourselves; we feel upset; but we never question the map.
Another metaphor. So often, our struggle to attain happiness resembles someone wrestling with the assembly of complex flat-pack furniture. Several hours of cursing and frustration precede the realization that they have the wrong set of instructions.
Often we think of happiness as being the result of arriving at a particular destination. The present is merely a journey taking us to these various destinations. But the journey is where most happiness is to be found: living in the present. Sometimes the destination doesn’t matter. True happiness is fuelled by the joy of simple things. As we engage fully in the present, and savour the immediate, happiness often follows.
To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, life moves pretty fast, and we need to take time to stop and look around, or we will miss out. We need to live in the present. This is reflected in the oft-expressed sentiment that we’d like time to stand still: we’d like to engage more fully with what is happening right now for us.
One factor that fuels happiness is a sense of gratitude, which leads to contentment. This sounds horridly trite and pious, I know, but if we are thankful for what we have, rather than focusing on what we think we lack, then we are in such a better place. Being content with our lot does not preclude healthy ambition and desire; it’s just such a more solid foundation to build on.
A further contributor is recognizing and moving with the seasons in our lives. Nothing is forever, and we cannot preserve the present, however hard we try. Things change. Knowing that our life is built of seasons – some longer, some shorter – is wise and healthy. It helps us to put everything in perspective. We need to learn to recognize the season we are in and to be prepared to move on as the seasons change, letting go of what we need to let go in order to grasp what comes next. Change is not to be feared, nor is it to be pursued for its own sake. But we need to welcome it as a friend at the right time.
We often say one thing but actually believe another. What we believe is best discerned not from our words, but our actions. Many people say that they don’t think money brings happiness, but then their behaviour suggests that this is exactly what they believe to be true: they spend their time and make choices to maximize income, even when it forces them to take a job that makes them miserable, or which leaves no room for leisure or family. A great example of this would be wealthy people who become tax exiles but end up not being free to live where they really want to. Of course, being poor doesn’t make you happy, and having financial worries can make you miserable. But many people strive for more money because they have upgraded their lifestyles, not because they haven’t got enough to live on.
This is a wine blog, so I should mention wine. Does wine make you happy? It’s hard to answer. If you were miserable and alone, then opening a bottle of wine might not be a great idea: you might end up dwelling in your misery. Good wine – wine that engages us and makes us think a bit – can certainly help us shed inhibitions and think more widely. Shared with friends, I think it complements the uplift we get from positive social situations. We are social beings, and a lot of the unhappiness in the world stems from loneliness and social isolation. If wine can help create positive social situations, then it can contribute to happiness. I find great joy in sharing bottles with friends, and they joy is greater is the wine is interesting enough for us to talk about it.
So, happiness. It comes along once in a while. It can be persuaded to visit. Sometimes it stays for a while. If we are grateful, wise, and live in the present, and understand the sorts of things we really need (rather than just think we do), it is more likely to be at home with us.