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I’ve always had difficulty answering when asked if I’m “happy,” because I’m not sure I know what happiness feels like.
If it means having a big grin on my face, that’s not a sensation I’m all that keen to have because experience tells me that before long it’ll be replaced by a vague feeling of sadness that the smiley feeling didn’t last longer, and of emptiness when it’s gone.
If being happy means “I got what I wanted,” I can be pretty sure that before long it’ll turn into the frustration of wanting more. Young children (and greedy adults) often oscillate between those extremes.
I prefer to be in a state of curiosity: interested in whatever is happening and open to what comes next, trying not to label it as either good or bad. Because when I’m free of hopes or expectations, I can also let go of fear (that things won’t turn out as I’d hoped) and disappointment (when they don’t).
I’ve dipped my toe in Buddhist philosophy over the years, and the core message I got from it is (if I’ve understood it right) that if we move beyond being attached to things turning out a particular way and focus on accepting things as they really are, we can appreciate what actually happens rather than being upset when things go “wrong.”
This accepting stance gives me a nice sense of calm when I can find it, because there really is nothing to worry about if I’m open to accepting whatever happens and committed to finding it nourishing in some way. Hearing from people who have not only survived what, on the surface, seemed to be a terrible disaster but have thrived and grown as a result, even expressing gratitude for what happened, teaches us that it’s primarily how we respond to what happens to us, at least as much as any plans we make, that determines the kind of life we’ll have.
Which means that with practice, we can decide for ourselves what “happiness” truly means and how to find it.
In Wales, where I live, rain makes a regular appearance; we like to say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. (In France, apparently the equivalent is that “only idiots get wet”!) When my appreciation of being alive is unconditional, instead of trying to find something (like the rain) to blame for an absence of happiness, I can pay attention to an ever-changing parade of events and experiences which happen—none of which need to be labelled as bad.
This open and accepting stance is easier said than done if we are trudging through life with the weight of past trauma on our back, which can prevent us from looking up to enjoy our surroundings—or look ahead to the horizon, which is always retreating from us. However much we try to put it down, that pain from the past can remain resolutely stuck to us. This is where some kind of counselling can really help, an outsider who knows how these negative beliefs about ourselves become ingrained in our world and has techniques for helping us let go of them piece by piece, until we can feel the freedom that comes from living fully in the present moment.
The teenage tennis star Emma Raducanu recently explained her approach with a beautifully simple wisdom when she was asked what her state of mind was as she was playing in the U.S. Open final (that she went on to win). She replied that she took it one point at a time, with no thoughts other than to play her best and enjoy it, and no anxieties about whether she would win or not.
That’s the way I’d like to live: not worrying if I’m doing “enough,” or doing it “well enough,” but taking each moment as it comes and feeling at peace from knowing I’m doing the best I can. I may not always have a big smile on my face, but when I can achieve that state of mind, it’s the closest I can imagine to happiness.