The Discomfort of a Happy Life

path towards happiness2.jpg

Chalice Lighting

Life is never as easy as advertised.
No matter what the stories say, no one lives happily ever after.
And yet, happiness runs throughout life -
Sometimes obscured by dark clouds,
Sometimes subterranean - in need of painstaking excavation.
May the light of happiness shine through all obstacles,
And illuminate the beauty of your life.

Reading: On Those Days, by Charles Davies

On those days
where everything is lost
where no bird comes to the window
where I am not sitting on a volcano
where the wind is not with me,

On those mornings
where I am sitting in a hole
in the ground unable even
to contemplate contemplating my navel,

On those nights
where the dark and empty of the world
can hardly summon the necessary
to whisper an echoed song of loss
to a dark and empty soul,

I can do well to remember
that a falling tide
flows all the way out
to the horizon
twice in every day
and twice in every day
a rising tide flows
all the way back to the shore.

Why be happy when you could be normal? By Jeanette Winterson

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and still do, is not at all the same as being happy - which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine. If the sun is shining, stand in it - yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass - they have to - because time passes.

The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred. What you are pursuing is meaning - a meaningful life. There's the hap - the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn't fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use - that's going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else's terms.

Talk by New Unity member Elizabeth Slade

I started planning this message on a day when happiness felt far away.  One of those days when you think maybe you could start again, with a new identity in a new country. Or maybe put your phone into aeroplane mode and just never switch it back on again. One of those days when it feels like you heart is in a ditch, and you can’t quite believe that it could be anywhere else. When you rationally know that there are people who love you, but feel that if they had a view into how you were feeling right now, and what was inside of you, they would wrinkle their nose up and walk away.

We all have those days. And that’s something it took me a long time to recognise - that when I have feelings of tired desperation, they are not unique to me. That the inside of everyone else’s head and heart aren’t continually full of bluebirds and rainbows.

Three years ago, I lit my first candle here. I said it was a candle of joy, but I don’t think that fooled anyone. (You lot are pretty smart.) I talked about how I’d been having a hard time at work, how I felt lost there, and how I felt like I couldn’t be myself there. The pretend, surface joy was that I’d just been on holiday, and away from the work stress, in a new exciting environment, I’d felt alive and happy. That moment of expressing that when lighting the candle - and the wave of support that came from this community afterwards - was an important step at the start of what has been a lurching stumble towards happiness.

It may alternatively have started ten years ago, the first time I saw a therapist, who, in our final session shared a gobsmacking secret with me - ‘you have the right to be happy’. I’d never heard anything like it, and walked away from that final session with him like I’d been visited by angels.

It may even have started twenty years ago, when I started studying neuroscience at university - hoping to understand the secrets of the human mind. Turns out there’s a bit more to learn about that than is possible in a three-year degree. I did get to learn a bit about what was going on inside my brain when I was unhappy though. And I guess I’ve been looking for the rest of the answers ever since.

But back, three years ago, in the job that felt like it was smothering me, I think part of the problem was that I was ticking the boxes that I thought were *supposed* to make me happy. I had a ‘good job’ with a good paycheck, that meant that I could go on nice holidays and eat out often and buy nice shoes. I had an important sounding job title and sometimes went on business trips to exciting locations. But the eight or ten or twelve hours I worked each day were hours when I didn’t really feel able to be myself. And that doesn’t leave a lot of energy. Especially when it felt like the appropriate response to making it to Friday was to get enthusiastically drunk.

At the time of the candle lighting, I’d felt this way for a good few years, and the circumstances meant that I’d run out of steam. It was clear something needed to change. I had an opportunity for a different role - one with much less stability - and after a long and painful decision-making period I took it. I also found a new tribe. I started seeking out and gathering around me other people who recognised the feelings I had about work, and whose ideas about life resonated with me.

It helped, finding other people who were also seeking a way of working that felt more like flourishing than suffocating. Because it turned out that the steps were hard - just hard in a different way to the suffocating job. When there’s so much in our culture pointing us to the nice-holiday-and-new-shoes mode of happiness, it’s easy to get a bit lost or confused if you’re trying a different mode.

I soon found another new job, one that was in a wilfully joyful place. One where I genuinely loved my colleagues, and there were daily hugs and high fives and even office singalongs. And I found that the same old pain of work crept back in. Many of us spend half our waking lives at work, and so how you feel when you’re there can have a huge impact on how you feel in your life overall. So I am a big advocate of seeking work that doesn’t hurt you. And I’ve learnt that quite often whether the work hurts or not is less to do with the office environment, and more to do with how you treat yourself.

I’ve just come back from spending much of the last month in Dorset, where I grew up. I was in a flat that had a view over the sea, and while I had grand plans of spending my time there walking the whole of the coast path, and reading and writing, and having exciting rural adventures, I mostly just gazed at the sea. And what I found, having the space to spend time with the sea each day, was that it’s constantly changing, and it can’t really be predicted, and it definitely can’t be changed. Sometimes the waves would come crashing over the sea wall, covering everything with spray, and sometimes the whole bay would be like a millpond. There was high tide when it sloshed against the cliffs like the water in a dirty mop bucket, and there was low tide, when children would look into rockpools.

And some days the air was clear and I could make out the detail of the cliffs and coves all the way along the coast, and other days it was so murky I couldn’t see a thing. And there was a reassurance in knowing that the shape of the coastline was the same behind the fog - it didn’t matter at all that the day was grey and murky, the cliffs behind were still there. And the same reassurance in knowing that the waves would just keep rolling in and rolling in whatever else was going on. I could zoom in and get caught up in the drama of a single wave, rushing along, kicking up foam, breaking too soon, not reaching the land like the one before it… and I could zoom out and see that looking to the horizon, however choppy the waves are, the sea is always flat.

And this is how I’ve learnt to look at my emotions. (Or more accurately I should say this is how I’m learning to see them. And I forget regularly. And re-learn it again. And again.) I will feel bad. I will feel sad and hopeless and lost and lonely. And I can zoom in like the crashing wave and get caught in the drama of that - and feel bad about the fact I feel bad. Or I can zoom out and notice that even though yes, I feel pretty shocking right now, out at the horizon all is calm.

Remembering not to feel bad about feeling bad is a gamechanger. Knowing that some days all you can do is stay under a blanket and eat crumpets and stick on the telly and watch four more episodes of the Crown, and that’s exactly the right thing to do. Noticing it’s a bad day and gently taking care of yourself. Not adding the ‘woe is me, I shall never be happy again’ layer of self-punishment on the top.

It helps to have gathered around me plenty of people who can help remind me that feeling bad is ok, when I forget and start adding the other layer. So much in our culture seems to tell us that we’re *supposed* to be happy. Constantly. That if we feel bad it’s because we need to buy some new shoes or book a holiday or buy a cheesecake. But also that if we feel bad there’s something wrong with us. That we’re a bit broken or there is something shameful about us. Something to be spoken of in hushed tones.

A lot of the figures in our culture that we’re supposed to look up to seem to be having a pretty happy life. Celebrities are beautiful and smiling and moving about the world with ease. We don’t see them covered in tearful snot eating crumpets in front of the telly. I’m sure they do though. Even Beyonce.

And even the stories of Jesus that I grew up with seemed to suggest he was always happy. Well-balanced. Calm. I wonder how different our culture would be if we carried the stories of Jesus having some days when he was proper grumpy, like all the other humans. If we carried stories of the days when he felt hopeless and alone, or full of anxiety.

It often feels like our culture has set us up for failure - as soon as we feel anything less than radiantly happy we have failed. So I welcome grumpy Jesus and snot-covered Beyonce - it helps to me feel that even these super-human figures have days when they feel like they need to just start a new life. And I have also started understanding what happiness looks like in my life. I’ve learnt that although of course there is pleasure in taking nice holidays and having nice shoes, it’s not really a deep-reaching sort of happiness. More like scratching an itch.

Thinking about the things that I do associate with the full sort of happiness that really reaches through me, I’ve realised I am happier the more that I am being myself. Not the version of myself that I *think* people want to see, or expect to see, but when the outside of me truly resonates with the inside of me. Expressing that version of myself, and connecting with other people who recognise and understand it, brings an easy flowing happiness that I’d choose every time over a fancy restaurant. And I’ve realised that part of expressing that version of me in the world is accepting it myself - that self-acceptance feels much more than a cause of being happy, but part of being happy in itself.

And I’ve found that being in nature, up a hill, or looking at the sea, or leaning against a tree is a really handy reminder or short-cut to happiness. Not just ‘oh isn’t that a beautiful view’, but a reminder that we are each just a part of nature. Just a part that has evolved to have a brain that in all its cleverness can get in its own way sometimes. So the discomfort of the path to happiness feels ok. It’s a helpful reminder to remember that behind the fog, everything’s just fine. There are times when the tides will roll out, and if I sit patiently, they will roll in again.

Closing Words

Becoming happy is not about sewing together moments of pleasure.
Happiness is not simply lying around for us to collect like nuts and berries.
It must be cultivated like potatoes,
And pulled filthy from the ground.
May you plant and water and weed,
May your back ache from the effort,
May you be happy.