Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Up-Blips of Emotion: Exploring the Strange Things That Make My Weird Little Heart Happy

There’s a joke in my family when talking about treating oneself to something: “You’ve got to have some pleasure in life!” The required response, of course, is “You don’t have enough pleasure already?!” I was thinking about this the other day after posting my piece on loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week. In the article I explored Mark Rowland’s notion that we feel lonely when there’s a mismatch between the connections we have and our social needs and wants. If that’s true, I wondered, what about our other needs? What do we feel when those go unmet? Sad? Angry? Frustrated? Empty? Unhappy?

More generally, why do we find some activities and experiences pleasurable and not others? Why do we yearn for happiness and pleasure? What does it mean to be happy, anyway? What about all the times we’re not happy? Do they have value too, or are they merely to be lived though until our next fix of happiness? What’s the point of being happy if you’re only going to be not-happy again afterwards? I was tangled up in these thoughts when I came across a quotation by American journalist and author Elizabeth Gilbert.

Don’t ever be ashamed of loving the strange things that make your weird little heart happy.

It brought a smile to my face, not least because I’m almost certainly overthinking things! I’m not sure pleasure and happiness are meant to be rationalised to this extent. Analysing — over-analysing — is something I do, and on the whole I’m okay with that. But it can be good to just let things happen without trying to figure them out logically. I shared the Elizabeth Gilbert quotation with my friend Brynn. We agreed there’s a lot of social pressure to be happy, or at least to present as being happy, despite the fact it’s not possible to be happy all the time. She observed that connecting with people seems to make me happy. I didn’t disagree, although I wasn't sure it was quite the right word for how good connections make me feel.

What else makes you happy, Marty?

I thought a moment before answering.

Hmmm. I’m not sure. I don’t know that I’m “happy” very often. I don’t mean I’m flat or low all the time, although I do get that way sometimes. I’d mostly describe my good times as feeling positive or engaged, rather than “happy.”

So you don’t consider yourself a happy person?

No.

I know how you feel. I have moments of happiness but in general I’m not a happy person either.

I don’t see it as a negative thing or an issue.

Me neither. It is what it is.

Happiness is just a word and different people will use it in different ways. What I call being positive or engaged, someone else might call happiness. Semantics aside, I’ve always been suspicious of the need to be happy because to me it’s a fleeting, or at least a temporary, state. I’ve enjoyed many moments of happiness, but the longer term has always seemed more important to me. For much of my life that long-term state has been wholesome and positive. Maybe that’s why I’ve not felt the need to pursue those up-blips of emotion called happiness: if and when they came along, it was a bonus. The icing on the cake. That all changed last year, when I became aware of a significant downward shift in my baseline mood.

I’ve always believed my emotional and mental health baseline to be essentially positive and healthy. Things might happen at times to upset my equilibrium, but after a shorter or longer period I return to my place of stability and wholeness. Lately, though, this model has been turned on its head. Instead of events and situations disturbing me from an essentially healthy baseline, it feels as though my baseline itself has shifted downwards. Positive events and situations such as meeting up with a friend, or feedback on one of my blog posts [...] can lift me up, lighten my mood, or provide an alternative focus for a while. But, once the distraction has passed, I’m pulled back to this low mood baseline.

Things that used to bring me pleasure seem less worth pursuing now. What’s the point, I find myself asking, when I’ll return to that lower mood afterwards? I used to take myself into Newcastle City centre almost every Saturday. I’d visit my then favourite coffee shop for an hour or so, then wander round the shops, calling in at the art gallery or museum, or perhaps venture down to the quayside. I stopped doing all that due to covid, but even though restrictions have lifted, I’ve felt little urge to return. I’ve been into Newcastle twice this year to meet up with friends, but have had no interest in exploring on my own as I used to.

Instead, I spend Saturday mornings in my local Costa coffee shop, writing, then head home for the rest of the day. There’s nothing wrong with changing my habits and patterns, and I look forward to “coffee and scribbles” at Costa. It’s become the highlight of my week. My “happy place.” What’s arguably unhealthy is that I have little to no desire to explore or plan other things. That “what’s the point?” is not a good sign.

What is the point, though? It sometimes feels as though “doing happy things” is little more than a distraction from however else I’m feeling or whatever else is going on for me. This is something I’ve discussed many times in conversations with Fran and other friends. If we’re feeling low, sad, or depresed; if we’re going through hard times of any description, why wouldn’t we want to distract ourselves or escape into moments of happiness — whatever happy might mean to us. I’m reminded of the words of author J. R. R. Tolkien, in response to the accusation that literary fantasy (which he refers to as fairy-stories) is an escape from reality.

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used [...] Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. (J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories)

Thinking about it in this way, maybe the point of happiness is precisely to provide temporary relief or escape from whatever else is going on for us. Both Tolkien and Gilbert suggest there’s nothing weak or shameful in this. I needn’t worry, then, that doing things that bring me pleasure provides only temporary distraction.

That word temporary is important. Happiness can take us out of our present situation for a while and allow us to recharge our physical, mental, and emotional batteries. I’ve shared some of my distraction techniques previously, in posts such as Ten Ways to Turn a Bad Day Around, Nine Ways I Distract Myself When I'm Feeling Down, and Notes for a Happy Life. However, it’s not — and must not become — an excuse or strategy to ignore or avoid our problems.

Elizabeth Gilbert choice of words — her strange things and weird little heart — reminds us that happiness is intensely individual. The things that lift my heart may be very different to the things that lift yours. And that’s okay. So, what strange things make my weird little heart happy? Let’s start with some things I enjoy doing.

  • Writing on good quality paper with a fountain pen with an extra fine nib.
  • Sending my friends a good morning message.
  • Setting out my writing station — phone and tablet on their little stands, keyboard, notebooks and pens — in my local coffee shop as I settle in for some quality me time.
  • Working creatively in my Traveler’s Notebook.
  • Completing the draft version of whatever blog post I’m working on.

Those all bring me pleasure, but I wouldn’t say they make me happy. They’re things I can consciously choose or decide to do. My happy moments are far fewer in number and much less frequent. They are also unplanned. Unpredictability is an important aspect of true happiness for me. To misappropriate the words of Tolkien’s Oxford contemporary C. S. Lewis, happiness for me means being surprised by joy. Unexpected feedback on my blog posts or books, especially where it’s clear they’ve had a significant impact on the reader; news of a friend’s achievements or success; unanticipated hugs; crowd karaoke — these are a few of my favourite happy things. (That last one is a few year’s old now, but it’s still the first thing I think of when I think of happy!)

Where does all this this bring me? If true happiness isn’t something I can plan for or anticipate, maybe the best I can do is hold myself open to its appearance and appreciate it when it occurs. More practically, I can build more opportunities for pleasure and meaning in my life, and embrace “distractions” without feeling as though they’re a waste of time, focus, and energy. What’s the point? may be the ultimate unanswerable question, but maybe asking it is answer enough.

After all, you’ve got to have some pleasure in life, right?

Over to You

I’ve shared a few thoughts and ideas about happiness, but what does it mean to you? What makes you happy? Would you call yourself a happy person? If not, do you wish you were? When was the last time you were truly happy? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

If you’re interested in further musings on the Elizabeth Gilbert quotation, check out this post by Ella at LaWhimsy.

 

Photo by Stan B at Unsplash.

 

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