Tuesday, 7 October 2014

On happiness...

Whenever I go home to visit my family, I find myself taking stock of my current situation.  I reflect on my decision to move to Germany, and the life I've built for myself there.  And the same question keeps coming back to me.

Am I happy?

It's a funny thing, this word "happy".  We're all taught that it's something we should want.  The Americans even go so far as to put it in their Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Happiness is something we chase, covet, and put on display.  But what is happiness, really?

A few months ago I joined this online project called 100 Happy Days.  The idea is that for 100 days, you post a picture every day of what makes you happy.  People who've participated in this project say that it's helped them to feel joy and gratitude in their life.  To appreciate the little things.  To notice the things they were taking for granted.  Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

When I started 100 happy days, I was in a bit of a funk.  The freelance lifestyle was really grinding me down.  I was tired, frustrated, and burnt out.  I thought something like this might improve my day-to-day life.  Maybe it would help me feel better about the world and myself.

And at first, it did.  Having to choose something positive in every day can really change your outlook on things.  I noticed things like sunshine and good cups of coffee.  I felt grateful for cute dogs and long walks.


It didn't just change my outlook – it changed my whole approach to life.  You see, these days my life seems to take on a sort of all-or-nothing approach.  When I'm on a project, I work and socialise very intensely.  But when I'm at home between projects, I become something of a recluse.  I sit at home drinking tea and watching terrible German television.  Of course, a bit of rest is necessary after long weeks of travelling and singing.  But then that bit of rest always tends to drag out a little too long.  And before I know it, my time at home becomes a long string of "nothing" days.  I do nothing special or nice.  I do nothing memorable or worthy of notice.  I get up, I practise, and I rinse and repeat.  And the time ticks away, meaninglessly.

Once I started 100 happy days, I couldn't have any more nothing days like that.  Every day I had to take a photo of something that made the day special.  And there are only so many photos you can take of the television screen, or your favourite pair of slippers.  So I had to get out there in the world.  I had to be kind to myself, and seek things that made me feel good.

All in all, the project seemed to be good for me.  I was appreciating little things, and finding little things to appreciate.  Surely that would make me feel happy, right?  If I kept looking for happy things, and pointing out happy things, then I must, by default, feel happy myself.

The only problem was, I wasn't happy.  At the time, I was frustrated with my career, which seemed to be going nowhere fast.  I was putting in long tedious hours of rehearsal for very little money.  And I had crippling back pain which just wouldn't go away.

At first I thought putting a smile on things would help.  Finding something to be "happy" about, even though I wasn't able to walk that day.  Isn't that the kind of stuff motivational posters are made of?

[Insert cheesy you-can-do-it quote here]

But it didn't help.  In fact it seemed to make things worse.  On days where I was feeling miserable, the last thing that I needed was a reminder that I was "supposed" to feel happy.  The 100 happy days project began to feel like a guilt trip.  Look at this wonderful thing – shouldn't it make me feel good?  Shouldn't it make me feel thankful?  How could I possibly stay unhappy despite its existence?

The answer, it seemed, was that I must be ungrateful.  I must be spoiled.  What kind of miserable person would refuse to feel happy in a world full of sunshine and kittens?  Surely I had to look on the bright side.  Surely I had to see the good in everything.

And so this project – which was supposed to help me enjoy my life – became a burden.  It was an annoying daily chore.  I resented it.  I dreaded it, the way I used to dread doing my math homework in school.

And yet I kept pushing myself to do it, every single day.  Why?

Like many people in our society, I was obsessed with the idea of happiness.  I believed in positivity and "looking on the bright side".  And I felt an immense pressure to present a smiling face to the world at all times.

"I'm... so... happy!"

After all, nobody wants to hear about unhappiness.  Nobody wants to hear why your life sucks.  Why would I unload that kind of emotional baggage onto other people?  People like to hear about the funny things, the exciting things, the enjoyable things.  They certainly don't want to hear about doubts, anxieties, frustration, sadness, anger, or loneliness.  I felt I owed it to the world to stay bright and cheerful.  To avoid polluting the air with my discontent.

And of course, there was an element of pride in there too.  If I admitted I was unhappy, it meant I was weak.  It meant I was a failure.  I had taken big risks moving away from home and pursuing a singing career.  And I so wanted to prove to others that I was right.  I wanted to be a success story.  I wanted to show that the risks I'd taken had been worth it.

Like many people, I often used social media to present a skewed, overly-positive version of my life.  And in return, I saw skewed versions of my friends' lives.  I felt a need to measure up, to show off, and to out-happy them.

The crazy thing is, for the longest time I thought this was healthy.  I thought that positivity and optimism, in any measure, at any cost, had to be good.  And if I just kept "looking on the bright side", my life would improve.  I could make myself feel happy.

"Always look on the bright side of life..."

It took me a long time to understand that I was playing a game of deception.  This kind of relentless "positivity" was not good for me.  It was a toxic lie which I was trying to sell to myself and others.  And dishonesty is never healthy for anyone.

The truth is, not all days are going to be happy ones.  Some will be good, some will be bad, and some will just be "meh".  And that’s the way it's meant to be.

Can you imagine if every day was wonderful?  It would get pretty boring after a while.  In fact, it wouldn't feel wonderful at all, because you wouldn't have any point of comparison.  You can't appreciate happiness if it's the only emotion you ever feel.  It would be like living in a world where the only colour is yellow.

"...Dave..?  Is that you...?"

Instead of holding every day to some impossible standard of "happiness", why can't we just accept where we are at the given moment?  Maybe you're feeling a bit sad right now.  That's ok.  You're also allowed to feel angry if you like.  Sometimes life really does suck.  And it's important to let yourself feel that, just like it's important to let yourself enjoy life when it's good.

At some point, the 100 happy days project fell by the wayside.  Party because I didn't have internet in my new apartment, and it was too much hassle to post every day.  But also, it didn't sit right with me anymore.  I didn't want to force myself to feel one emotion all the time.

The strange thing is, once I stopped being so self-conscious about being happy, I felt happy a lot more.  I still had my ups and downs.  And some days still passed by with nothing really special happening.  But when the good times came, I really enjoyed them.  And when the bad times came, I didn't worry that I wasn't enjoying them.  I let them pass over me.  I let myself feel what I was feeling.  And everything was ok.

What is happiness?  It's what happens to you when you stop trying to chase it.  The minute you start wondering "am I happy?", you can pretty much guarantee that you won't be.  Happiness isn't meant to be pursued, or examined, or gripped onto.  It's something that arrives without warning and leaves just as unexpectedly.

Happiness: the ultimate ninja.

It's been over a year now since I moved to Germany.  And yes, I am happy.  I'm also sad, angry, confused, pensive, anxious, and many other things on top of that.  And you know what?  I think that's ok.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Brynne. One of the chapters in Gabor Mate's "When the Body Says No" is called "the power of negative thinking." It's all about allowing yourself to feel and express negative emotions. Lines up with this well. Worth a read.
    Looking forward to hearing more about your good, bad, and "meh" days.
    Lots of love,