“First Autumn morning,
the mirror I stare into,
Shows my father’s face.”
When I was young all time seemed to stretch on forever. Summer days lasted an eternity, the 4 months between my birthday and Christmas seemed a year in themselves and the idea of ever being as old as thirty was as likely as being one hundred and thirty and seemed further away. And then you get older and all those things you thought you could fit into the forever of your childhood face the possibility of growing into regrets because we can’t fit them in around our responsibilities as adults. There are books and TV shows and podcasts and radio programmes and Instagram influencers (apparently that’s an actual thing) galore telling us how to be happy. Eat this, buy this do this, get rid of this, have more, have less, find a tribe they say, often contradicting each other and leaving our brains befuddled as we try to make sense of it all.
At the core of these promises is, I believe, one central misunderstanding about what happiness is. If you read up on the psychology of happiness, psychologists are talking about what might be better defined as a steady state of contentment, where more is going right with life than is going wrong. You and I on the other hand think of happiness as that ecstatic moment when things are just perfect. Those are great moments but if you go through life expecting to achieve that as a permanent state you are going to be disappointed. It is important to look to do things that make you happy, in both senses of the word, but seeking contentment is achievable in the long term because it requires you to allow space for the things you cannot change and the things that make you unhappy. Chasing happiness as a moment of ecstasy that lasts constantly only leads to a feeling of failure and beating ourselves up for not achieving our goal.
My wife and I are very different people in some respects, I like to be surrounded by books and my art materials, she likes everything tidy and pretty with her books on her Kindle app. If we each pushed for the thing that makes us happy we would not have been together after two years, never mind the twentieth anniversary we’ve just passed. So we have tidy spaces and book spaces. I try to tidy up after myself and she tries not to beat me when I don’t. We’ve achieved a common ground, a compromise, where we are both content.
Time does seem to go faster as you get older and we worry subconsciously that time is running out for us. and we can get far too focussed on achieving that which makes us happy but we need to learn to be gentle with ourselves, to stop striving constantly for more, for better, and to relax into contentment at times.
It is important to pursue those moments of Joy and accept those moments of sadness as a one note life of contentment could be very boring. The pursuit of happiness is a good thing The art is in finding joy in the small moments rather than searching for it perpetually. One of the things I enjoy occasionally is writing poetry. Japanese Haiku like the one at the top of the page were a doorway into poetry for me. It’s a little thing but it relaxes me with no expectation of anything to come from it. And maybe that’s the thing to seek out, small pleasures.
The Bible says in Proverbs
“Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.”
A reminder to us that life has ups and downs and, perhaps, to set our expectations accordingly.
So seek those things that bring you joy but don’t make those your main focus. Look to be content in your life and let those moments of happiness be seasoning. Salt and pepper, that bring flavour to your world.