*As featured in Psychologies Magazine
Are you Happy?
Wikipedia describes happiness as an emotional state of wellbeing characterised by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.
It does not describe it as an emotional state of wellbeing characterised by wandering around your parents house for months on end, crying constantly, wearing the unwashed clothes of your ex-boyfriend. But that is where I found myself on the eve of my 30th birthday. Happiness had left my building.
It wasn’t that I was unhappy before. I was happy. I was living with the man of my dreams in a wooden chalet on top of a mountain. We fed each other pieces of cheese and drank glasses of red wine surrounded by snow-covered mountains and Swiss chocolate bars. I sniffed his French neck. He sniffed mine. Then we both experienced Wikipedia’s version of happiness. But that was before the bitter end, the final fight, the last goodbye. by then, Happiness had definitely left my building. If someone had asked me if I was happy, I would have broken down right there on the floor and cried. I wasn’t happy. Not even close.
The Happiness Stutter
Are you happy? It should be an easy question to answer but it leaves so many of us squirming on the spot. Ask someone if they are happy and they’ll respond with “I suppose so’ or ‘I think so’. Maybe they will stretch to ‘I am ok’ ‘Things are good’. Even those who break convention and respond with a definitive ‘Yes’ follow it up with a flinch, a twitch, a visual display of doubt.
Now ask someone what makes them FEEL happy and you’ll think you are on a silent retreat.
Of course there are the normal responses – my wife / girlfriend / husband / boyfriend makes me happy – I was exactly the same. But in the absence of that special someone, do you really know what makes you tick? I didn’t have a clue so I needed to approach the problem from a different angle. It was a change in direction that helped change my life.
Small Dry Steps
Initially, the plan was just to stop crying, just for a few hours. Then maybe I could apply a bit of eye gel, moisturise my face, place a couple of cucumber slices on my puffy eyes so that I didn’t look like I’d been testing cosmetics on myself.
Then the plan was to kill time, because all my future plans had involved my ex – the places we were going to travel, the houses we were going to build, our unrealised wedding anniversaries, our as-yet-unborn-children – I’d been part of a happiness pair. Without him I was time rich in a terrifying sense. And I’d done my research. I knew the average life expectancy of a British female was 82 years old, so I had approximately 50 empty years slowly unravelling ahead of me. They needed to be filled with something else.
What didn’t I do because I fell in love?
That is the question I eventually asked myself. Not, ‘what will make me happy?’ which left me feeling paralysed and incomplete. I asked myself ‘what didn’t I do because I fell in love? What didn’t I get to do because of my last relationship? What hobbies, ambitions, secret dreams were put on the back burner the day I fell in love?
The answers to those questions became my dry-eyed starting point, because I decided to go out and do all those things. I was going to take back what love had stolen. If I didn’t discover happiness on the way at least I would have evened the score with heart-breaking love. It was my first step towards happiness.
The Hidden Book
Everyone has a book in them, that’s what they say. Well, I think everyone has a secret dream in them, something they always thought they’d do but just never seem to.
For me that happened to be an actual book. The book. The book I’d been trying to write the whole time I’d been in my relationship. But who wants to prioritise sitting alone in a quiet room when you have a tall dark-haired Frenchman to play with? So I let that dream slide. I substituted French kisses, cuddles and quite a lot of French cheese for the happiness reaching my literary potential would have given me. If you can you must. Its one of my favourite Goethe quotes. And I could but I hadn’t.
So that became priority number one. I started writing, about a heart-broken girl who goes out to do all the things she didn’t do because she fell in love. It was a work of pure fiction, obviously, and it was the best thing I have ever done for myself, a true dream realised.
The Love Stolen Dreams
Then there was the snow. Not just the fact that I loved sliding around on skis or a snowboard but that I wanted to teach other people to do that. It was the profession of my ex. In fact he had a lot of talents I wanted for myself, a lot of qualities I admired, a lot of skills I yearned for. After we broke up I wondered if perhaps I had been living vicariously through him, as if proximity to these qualities, skills and achievements was enough of a fix. It was time to make them my own. So I saved up for 18 months and sent myself to Canada to qualify as a snowboard instructor. I got certified, in a sporting sense. And it felt great.
But what if you don’t have huge Love Stolen Dreams? What if you just want to feel a little happier? Well it was actually some of the tiniest changes that had the biggest impact on my daily life, and in the depths of sadness I needed to start with the small stuff.
Three Small Happy Steps
1. I like sunshine. Not just a little bit. I love sunshine. When I made a list of things that made me happy ‘just because’ sunshine was the top of my list. I could bore you with facts about melatonin and serotonin or we could both accept that sunshine on my face makes me joyfully inexplicable happy. Whenever possible I made sure I got a bit of sun on my face, even if it involved running up to the roof of my office on a freezing November morning just because London for once had blue skies.
2. I love swimming and saunas. So, when I was on my way home from work and missing my ex so much the ache made me nauseous, I would get in the pool and swim the sadness off then lie in the sauna and let the heat kiss my aching soul better.
3. I missed France desperately so I started listening to French radio when I got home from work.
These small things, these dedications to myself became my foundations, they became my habits, they became my commitment to myself. They showed me not only that my happiness wasn’t dependent on the existence of another, but that the happiness I could build for myself, just by doing things I enjoyed, would eventually make me happier than I could ever have imagined as I drifted like a sedated mental health patient around the house of my poor old parents.
The Happy Ending
Neil Armstrong said that ‘Every man has a finite number of heart beats and I don’t intent to waste a single one of mine’. Now I feel the same way.
Having my heart broken was without question my ultimate road to happiness. At the time I felt like I’d lost everything. In truth it was the beginning of me. As I sit here writing this, a published author, on a sunny mountain in France, a mountain where I could teach you to snowboard, I realise I have given myself a level of stability and contentedness I had never experienced before, with anyone. I have given myself roots, giant happy roots.
My Happiness List – the things that give roots to my happiness tree.
Sunshine – on my face, my skin, in my hair. Sunshine is my ultimate friend.
Coffee in the morning – I make it in an old Italian coffee maker. It is the first thing I do for myself every single day.
French – music, language, film, food, people, as much as possible, preferably enjoyed with French wine.
Exercise – sliding fast on skies, whizzing through forests on a snowboard, running in the mountains, relaxing with yoga.
Beautiful Views – whether it’s the London skyline or a mountain range, beautiful visuals make me happy.
Mountains – they make me feel grounded and peaceful. It’s where l belong.
Daily Presents – a happiness expert went on record to say we should treat ourselves more often, so I buy myself flowers, or treat myself to special dinners, or maybe buy myself a new nail varnish, or an espresso from my favourite coffee shop. Personal daily presents = happiness.
Double Check Your Happiness
Rebuilding your life in the wake of sadness or just deciding you want to feel a little happier can be a daunting goal. It puts pressure on us ‘be’ a certain way, to perform, to avoid Happiness Impotence. If you are not sure what makes you happy I find asking myself the following helps,
“If you knew for certain you were going to live the rest of your life alone, you would never fall in love, never settle down, never have children, what would you do? What would make you happy? What would fill up your time, your heart, your soul for the rest of your days? Are you currently doing that thing?”
Then look at your response. When I assume that no one will be contributing to my sense of happiness, in any way, I suddenly have a much clearer idea of the things that will bring me happiness, the kind that isn’t connected to anyone else, can’t be taken away by anyone else, isn’t dependent on anyone else – true, sustainable, healthy, freestanding happiness. It is your happy birthright.