Thursday 28 April 2011

Not Pursuing Happiness

Happiness is not something I often think about. But as soon as I put my attention on the word for this post, a motley collection of songlines, advertising slogans and soundbite quotes began to pop up in my consciousness... ‘Happiness where are you, I haven’t got a clue’, ‘I could be happy, I could be happy’, ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...’ and one to do with happiness being a certain cigar named after a tragic Shakespearian prince... that one really showed my age – not sure I was happy about that.

This doesn’t mean I don’t experience ‘happiness’ though I'd probably describe it in different ways depending on the circumstances. Satisfaction on completing a difficult task, for example. Or whatever you call that mix of aliveness, ease and relaxedness that happens when the day is good, when what’s going on inside myself is in tune with what’s going on outside - things are flowing, communications with others work, life feels expanded.

But I think as a term, ‘happiness’ is limited and doesn’t go very broad or deep. Like all emotions it is fleeting, transient. And clinging to past moments of happiness can be a source of misery and stuckness in the present, just as grasping for future happy moments exacerbates dissatisfaction with the now.

And then how far can personal happiness go before we get to the social level? Our present mainstream culture still dictates that happiness is me in a bubble with the latest car, gadget, fashion accessory, gourmet food (or certain cigar). And that happiness relies on underpaid and exploited factory, farm and sweatshop workers, not to mention huge levels of stressful private debt, gross social inequality and the ongoing depredation of the natural environment, which now includes gas fracking.

And this is why the Action for Happiness brief doesn’t do it for me. It smacks too much of a Brave New World opiate of the masses. And we take opiates when we want to escape from the pain of illness, a difficult life or swingeing cuts to public services. It doesn’t address basic issues like social justice, where our civilisation gets its energy from, or explore in any depth what kinds of people we are or who we need to become as we go through this time of transition. Sure, I'll make you a cup of tea (I'd do that anyway) but then let's sit down and talk about this.

In the film The Pursuit of Happyness there is a scene called Running, where Will Smith’s character, a down-on-his-luck but brilliant mathematician, literally spends all his time running – to college, to pick his son up from nursery, to make it in time for the homeless shelter. This type of running will be familiar to most of us even without being in such dire straits. Sometimes the whole world seems to be running. Around in circles. Out of time. After people. Away.

That aliveness, ease and relaxedness I spoke about earlier is the antithesis to this ‘running’. It comes from a deeper place, from having my feet on the ground and being connected to the planet. Sometimes it happens by grace, when the day is right. More often than not I have to remember to make myself stop running, place my feet firmly on the ground and take the time and space to be still. Then life can open up. There are more possibilities. I'm able to communicate with others and they with me. When there are difficulties I can face them better.

And I always feel happier when I do. If happy is the right word for it.

Pic: Stillness and Depth - Water Violets in bloom, Suffolk

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