Can you be happy all the time?
What does it mean to be happy, and can we be happy all the time?
This year’s International Day of Happiness on March 20 falls at a particularly poignant time to ponder these questions, as we reach the one-year anniversary of going into lockdown (March 23) – and with it our lives changing dramatically.
Dr Dwight Turner, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP; psychotherapy.org.uk), agrees it’s an interesting time to be thinking about happiness.
“Especially in terms of what we’ve all been going through, [being happy] could be simple things such as being able to see family. A lot of people are feeling quite isolated and sad, so happiness could be as simple as that.
“Going out, being able to sit in a pub or see a film – simple things we took for granted beforehand, I think people now see these things brought them happiness a lot more than they realised.”
More than one way to be happy
For many of us, real-life interaction and closeness is what we’ve missed most this past year – social connections play a huge part in human happiness. And things like going for a pint with pals, or to the cinema, remind us that ‘happy’ can be something we actively engage with, invite in, even if just for short, mood-boosting bursts.
But that’s not the only ingredient that matters, and lockdown may even have created more space for happiness, for some.
“I wonder as well about those people who’ve loved being in lockdown, because [nothing makes them] happier than being able to sit and read a book, or listen to music,” says Turner. “There’s still an element of activity attached to it, but it’s being in one’s own space, and there’s a level of happiness that goes with that.”
A lot of it, says Turner, is down to contentment – that sense of “we have what we need”. And what we need might be lots of different things, that look different at different times. Your needs on an energised Saturday vs your needs on a stressed Tuesday afternoon. Your needs at 25 vs your needs at 45. Our job is to notice them.
“I love it when my daughter comes to stay, for example, and she’s busy playing around and stuff and I’m just sitting and watching, and it brings a level of contentment,” says Turner. “I’m just watching my child in that happy space, doing what she needs to do, and I feel happier.”
Scales of happy
There’s big, shiny, ecstatic happiness tied up in special events – weddings, dream holidays, crossing the finish line of that marathon – and quiet, steady contentment in small pleasures and the day-to-day. The latter may sound easier to achieve, but in reality, truly connecting with it might take time.
“And that’s the – I’m going to call it the beauty – of the current age we live in, where people are being drawn back to those smaller more meaningful things. If I imagine 10 years ago, sitting on a beach in East Africa, getting the most joy in the world. Right now, just being able to sit on the seafront in Eastbourne where I live brings a level of contentment and happiness,” says Turner.
“It’s not that one matters more than the other, we’re just readjusting to what actually makes us happy. We can be very drawn into media and adverts on television that tell us we should have this or that in order to be happy, and I think lots of this is about looking at what happiness means to us. And we’re discovering the gaps in what really makes us happy, and where we were maybe compromising.”
The aspiration trap
Outsourcing happiness – or seeing it as a destination we’ll reach once we have X, Y, Z – is a tricky one. We don’t need to demonise goals and aspirations, but is there a fine balance with not pinning too much happiness on reaching targets?
Aspirational happiness, Turner says, “implies happiness is just down the road – but we never get to it. We always get to a certain point and then move on to looking to something else that might make us happy. That externalisation of happiness is a massive trap for lots of people.”
But, can we ever be happy all the time?
Say we do get it sort of figured out: a healthy balance of goals and curiosity, alongside soaking up those small joys day-to-day when we can – can we be permanently happy then? For Turner, it might not be a question of whether we can be happy all the time, rather whether we need to be, or if it would do us any good…
“Happiness is one of the beautiful emotions, but you can’t have it in isolation. You have to have it alongside some of the others,” he says.
“We often pin judgements on certain emotions. Like anger or irritation, they’re seen as ‘bad’. But they’re not, they’re just emotions – we have a range of them, and they inform us about where we are in the world and how we experience the world,” adds Turner.
“Things like anger and frustration are actually really good indicators of when psychologically we’re being compromised, that we’re not happy about something. It’s our emotional way of informing us that something is not quite right for us, and then we have a chance to address that.”
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