I was an anxious child, more fearful of the world than excited about it. I can’t remember not being aware of the threats and hazards around me and the importance of being very careful about everything all the time. I grew up understanding that the important things were to work hard and be good, to learn and be useful. Everything I did I was supposed to do well – mostly I fell short of the mark. Wasting time, mucking about, playing – these were not encouraged.
I have a suspicion that the knack for being happy is to a large extent a learned skill. I suspect it helps a lot to have emotional support around doing things simply for the pleasure of doing them. For children who are always supposed to be learning, practicing and improving themselves, how to be happy is a skill that might not be in the mix. For adults, much may depend on the expectations of the people around us. Are we allowed to have fun? What kind of fun are we allowed to have? Outside of sport and alcohol, the options can be sadly limited.
I’m not terribly good at being happy. There always seems to be something more important that needs my energy and attention. The state of the world doesn’t help with this and it often seems impossible to be happy when surrounded by so much suffering. The question of what I can do that would be good, or helpful always looms large.
At this point, philosophically it all gets a bit awkward. I believe that happiness is a good goal, a needful part of human life. I don’t think we’re going to save the world by martyring ourselves. No one is going to effectively dismantle colonialism, capitalism or patriarchy while working themselves to death. Joyfulness is radical and essential.
I’m fairly good at taking brief delight in small beauties – light on leaves, a moment of cat cuteness, a wildflower, a bee… I know how to appreciate that sort of thing. What I don’t know how to do is how to build a life where gentle, sustainable happiness is at the core of how you live. I’m convinced that kind of life is possible, but I don’t know what it would take to achieve it. I particularly don’t know what that would even look like for me, which is an interesting problem to have.
What is there that would be enriching without having to be focused on productivity? What could I (or for that matter anyone else) do for the pleasure of doing it? Clearly it would be good to do things that do not feel essential, are not economically oriented, and that are intrinsically rewarding. Happiness that doesn’t revolve around work or consumption, would move us all towards more sustainable ways of living. Certainly our current ways of doing things aren’t uplifting or emotionally rewarding for most people.