For many people, Happiness is a holy grail; longed-for, searched for, but elusive. We invest huge amounts of time, energy and money in the search. We work to be able to buy what we believe we need. We strive to be what we believe we ought to be, sometimes losing sight of who we really are. We despair when, still, the empty feeling inside is not filled. And then we work and buy and strive a little more.
If this sounds familiar, stop a moment; take a step back. What is this magical “happiness” we seek? What does it look like, sound like, smell like, taste like; how does it really feel? Cast your mind back to a time when you were happy, even fleetingly. What were the ingredients? How did you find them? Or how did they find you?
My childhood was, in many ways, not a happy one. But there were moments, long, breath-taking, time-suspended moments, that were pure joy. I didn’t look for them. I didn’t have to. I had only to be open, as children tend to be. I had only to be curious, and fascinated, and touched by awe and wonder. I didn’t have to look for happiness. I only had to look.
When we are children, our hearts and minds and eyes are a different level of open. If you watch a baby discovering the mundane, you realise that there is no mundane. A toddler falls and stands and walks and runs and falls again, delighting in the process, noticing the sensation of ground beneath her feet, muscles beneath her skin and wind ruffling her hair. Children are tiny masters of uncalculated mindfulness!
Noticing is key. As adults, our days are often “busy, stressed, exhausted, repeat”. No time to stop and smell the flowers. A child’s concept of time is different. S/he can suspend it, and bask in endless moments that infuse her with unfettered joy. Those suspended moments do not fit into slots of fifteen seconds or two minutes. They are not limited or capped, and so they stretch, they warp, phenomena of quantum physics in innocent childish hands. What if we could reclaim the superpower of time-suspension?
Actually we can – but we must also suspend our disbelief, our illusions and our self-importance. We must undilute the confidence we had as children in the magic of a moment.
There are two commitments that can help in the pursuit of time-suspended happiness.
1 Keep your eyes open and remind yourself to notice what’s around you. If your home is surrounded by natural beauty, you are fortunate. But wherever you are you can find beauty and wonder. Unless you are incarcerated, there will always be the sky, with its changing colours and fleeting clouds. The colours and patterns in a building’s brick-work may be a work of art if you look a little harder. The plant pushing its way up through a small crack in the road can remind you of life’s glorious resilience. Notice the crinkles around the eyes of the man in front of you in the post office, the music in the sound of falling rain, the feeling of sunshine on your cheek, the miracle of your body breathing in and out, in and out…
I currently live in a rented house in a fairly rough part of a small city in England. I regularly walk into the city centre, through a downtrodden square that has broken paving stones, uniform tenements and a few small trees with tatty trunks. When I moved here, I made it my goal to appreciate this short walk, which at first seemed unappealing. In the Spring the trees sprouted new growth and the colours of the leaves were as vibrant as those in any forest. The tender bliss of stroking one between my fingers, its velvet softness gently pulsing with a life-force as real as my own, took me beyond the moment. So did the sound of children playing outside their homes in the summer, the sight of fallen leaves made brighter by the puddles in which they lay as Autumn claimed the shortening days.
At age 57, crunching through piles of dried leaves as I did outside my grandmother’s house when I was a child ignites a bright flame deep within me. How can a few small trees provide so many leaves for my enjoyment? And there it is … wonder. Then nostalgia, humility, gratitude and joy.
2 If you don’t already, keep a gratitude journal. Buy yourself a lovely A4 or A5 notebook, preferably with unlined pages. Every night before you go to sleep, write down five things you were grateful to experience that day. If you feel inclined, write more than five. Perhaps draw some with coloured pens or pencils to bring them back to life. It doesn’t matter if you’re not an artist. Enjoy the playfulness of your own creativity and the self-compassion of not worrying about the outcome.
Every morning, when you wake, read through previous night’s
list. At first you may log practicalities, such as (relatively) good health, a roof over your head, four limbs, enough to eat. But try to include aesthetic experiences too. A rainbow, a butterfly, an exciting storm. Then how they made you feel; the excitement in your belly. The wonder that caused you to catch your breath.
The longer your list becomes each day, the closer you will come to happiness.
When I work with groups over a period of time, I invariably witness transformation as the gratitude journal works its magic. Participants may start out not believing they have much to be grateful for, but then suddenly they are comparing numbers; “there were 47 things on my list last night”.
Without intending to, they find themselves looking for things throughout the day to list in their journal that night – and finding them in abundance. They don’t have to search; their eyes are open, like the eyes of children. Not only that, they are open to the accompanying feelings. Then they start doing things they previously wouldn’t have imagined, in order to experience more of these. Splashing in puddles for the sheer delight. Dancing, just a little – or a lot – to a busker, for the sense of freedom in their limbs and glory in their hearts. These actions might take moments, but the feelings are timeless.
One of my favourite quotes comes from the 1989 film Steel Magnolias in which Julia Roberts’ character, Shelby, says “I’d rather have three minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special”. Three minutes of wonderful can stretch to a lifetime of happiness if we make it our practice and our goal. Three minutes of wonderful every week, every day, several times a day, suspended to make it timeless; even three seconds of wonderful can make all the difference when we care enough to pause, everso briefly, and really look, and listen, smell and feel.
These days, if I see a pile of Autumn leaves on the side of the road, I will go out of my way to crunch through them (without making a mess of the pile of course). If I hear a catchy busker’s tune, my hips cannot help but sway a little. In a queue, instead of twitching with irritation at the waste of time, I remind myself to discretely peruse the faces of those around me, smile, strike up a conversation, bask in the pleasure of transient human contact. I always find myself marveling at the beautiful, unique creations we all are.
Yesterday, waiting for a friend in a cafe attached to a crafts shop I remembered to stop being antsy because she was late and notice my surroundings instead. Immediately, my senses were delighted by patterns of colourful buttons and ribbons and reels of cotton displayed at jaunty angles, the music of humanity in the voices of those around me. All things I’d been oblivious to a few moments earlier.
These small diversions cost no money and negligable effort or extra time. The secret is to engage with the world around us. It’s simple, but not easy, as we have become used to disassociating and searching for the connection we consequently crave in places where it can’t be found.
Practice makes perfect, as they say, and practice is all we need to turn moments of joy into a lifetime of happiness; a reconnection with our world into an appreciation of its myriad wonders.