A few years ago I was asked by a magazine to write about happiness. This is one side to two pieces of writing I created around the idea. This piece was never published, but it pushed me to pitch and write and pitch and write. And writing makes me the happiest of all things, so, in the end, I'm really fond of this piece.
"The small rituals of life- the drinking of tea and the eating of cake-are really big things in disguise.”
Alexander McCall Smith writing for The Observer, 2006
I've had this quote taped to every diary I've used since I was seventeen. It's from an article written years ago about the pleasure of small rituals, daily life and I think in the background, the kind of happiness worth realising is all about us.
Here's the thing: we've been oversold on happiness. It isn't everything, it shouldn't be your be-all-and-end-all, and when it stops being that, a general state of fair-to-middling contentment becomes far easier to locate.
Travel back just one hundred years and happiness still had the connotations of luck, good fortune and being blessed that has been written about since ancient Greece. But with the gradual rise of modernism and a secular, highly individualised culture, came the appropriation of happiness. In its current state, happiness is perceived as something within our control, a place we need to reach, a journey where we can pave the way.
Essentially, why pray for something when you can buy it at the local store? Long gone is the time when we left these things to forces of chance, religion or nature. Now we're supposed to be able to locate it within ourselves. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something that is getting needlessly obscured. But if you recognise the things that bring contentment, joy and satisfaction to your life, happiness is likely to be found mingled in-between.
How will you know? Well, for starters, if you’re lucky enough to have time to care, you probably have the tools available to be happy. It doesn’t have to be about life goals or five year plans. In fact, the individualised ‘agentic’ views of happiness can be really simple. It can be about sitting still and being okay there. Break away from all those feelings of unattainable targets and FOMO (thanks, social media) and it’s easy to see happiness is simply about not really needing anything at that moment in time.
It does not mean success, it does not mean popularity, it does not mean notoriety or fame, or being recognised for doing anything. It means you are able to take a good look at your lot in life and be pleased. It means when you finally get into bed each night, you're able to be thankful for a bunch of stuff. We've already spent too long exchanging words like 'fulfilment' and 'satisfaction' for 'happiness'- and the difference isn't just semantic. By placing so much on an idea that's so hard to pin down, we're just making things more difficult for ourselves. Happiness in its nature is fleeting: one day it's all-consuming, the next day gone in a breath. But building a life around achievements, relationships, contentment - that's got to be a better place to set down foundations for how you will construct your days.
Better than being on some badly sign-posted road to nowhere. Because there is no trajectory or journey. The only thing that does change over time is wising up to what it is that makes you happy, and making sure those things, whether they're people, the right city, the right philosophy or the right way to spend your day feature as often as possible. Forget bucket lists and anything else that takes the focus away from reality, because happiness isn't something taking place ten years from now, and it's not going to arrive with your first pay check at your dream job. It needs to happen today.
We grow old and everyone around us dies. And that's if we're lucky enough to grow old. The point is to find your little groove and savour it. Learn to live with your life, live it well, consciously teach yourself to enjoy the experience, and there will be happiness.