So I’m back in the UK after an awesome week in Austin, Texas, at South by South West interactive (SXSWi). And I’ve finally come out of a time of intense busyness. Today is the first Saturday in … maybe a year? … that I woke up after 9am.
During this quieter week and a bit, I’ve been thinking about happiness. One of the first talks I went to at SXSWi was a talk/book reading from Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. And that, along with being around some wonderfully happy people like Pace and Kyeli, has pushed me to start giving happiness a bit more thought. What makes me happy? What makes you happy?
What Does “Happy” Mean, Anyway?
I come from a literature background, and so I like to be clear about what words mean. “Happy” doesn’t mean the same as, say, “contented”. I suspect that our experience of happiness differs because of our definition of happiness.
Is happiness an absence of bad stuff – or a presence of good stuff? Is happiness a mood? Is it an emotional state? Is it something that happens to us, or something which we do?
I’m asking questions because I don’t have clear answers yet – and because even if I did have answers for me, I’m not sure they’d be the answers for you.
The closest I can get to explaining happiness at the moment is to say that it’s what makes me come alive.
I’m happy when I get to write, when I get to hang out with awesome people, when I’m immersed in my own imaginary worlds or imaginary worlds created by other people. Happiness means doing something worthwhile (to me). By that, I don’t mean what the world might call “worthwhile” – but simply finishing the day and thinking I did some great stuff today – whether that’s working on a cool project or partying or seeing an awesome movie or learning something new.
What does “happy” mean to you? Or, to put it in a more concrete way … What kind of day makes you happy?
Stuck? Start With What Makes You Unhappy
I’m not always good at figuring out what makes me happy. Sometimes, I just want life to run smoothly. Other times, I want the people around me to be happy. But even when I’m stuck on “happy”, I’ve usually got a pretty good idea of what makes me unhappy.
Here’s an example. I don’t like clutter and mess. If you’ve ever played Sims, you’ll know how messy rooms make your little Sim people cranky. It’s kinda like that with me. If I walk into the kitchen and it’s piled with empty dishes, I can feel my mood bar taking a dive from green into red.
(Complete digression – if you’re a Sims 3 player – or if your kids play it – then read Kyeli’s awesome post Everything I need to know I learned from tiny pretend people.)
I’m far from being a neurotically tidy person. I like my space to feel lived in, not pristine. But I feel happier, lighter and mentally clear when my desk is reasonably tidy, and I can relax and rest best when my bedroom isn’t strewn with clothes. I feel on top of things when my physical space is neat and when I don’t spend ages hunting for that one vital bit of paper.
In her talk at SXSW, Gretchen said that clearing clutter often has a disproportional effect in raising people’s moods. We tend not to think it’s a big deal – so we don’t get round to tidying up – but spending just 10 minutes doing a quick pick-up can really make a big difference.
What makes you unhappy or cranky or frustrated? What’s the opposite?
Celebrate Your Quirks
I don’t believe that you can be truly happy when you’re focused on conforming. I think we lose our intuitive understanding of what “happy” means for us because of all the people who keep telling us what should make us happy.
Whether from friends, parents, colleagues or society in general, we get a lot of messages about happiness. These don’t generally come explicitly – but they’re shown in all sorts of cultural assumptions. How many of these look familiar?
- More money makes you happier
- Eating “naughty” foods makes you happier
- Buying the latest gadgets makes you happier
- Having a “good” job makes you happier
- Being romantically involved makes you happier
- Going to university makes you happier
…and so on, and so on.
I’m not saying that those things can’t make you happy. In any collective wisdom – even distorted by greed and advertisers – there’s some level of truth. But there are plenty of things which make you happy and which Joe Bloggs down the street couldn’t care less about.
This is obvious, of course. Maybe you’re bored by football – but one of your workmates would love tickets to a big game. Perhaps you hate drum’n'base music – but your neighbours love it. (I kinda wish ours didn’t…) There are all sorts of things which interest you that society in general probably doesn’t care about.
There are loads of things I love. Some of them are, frankly, pretty weird by society’s standards. I love writing fiction – and most people don’t even read novels regularly, let alone want to write them. Some of the things which make me happy are probably a surprise even if you know me well. It still surprises Paul (my fiancé!) that I like Metallica
There are plenty of things which I don’t particularly like, despite society’s say-so. I dislike most popular music. I can never work up much level of caring about the Olympics. I don’t buy shoes until my current pair is falling apart. I rarely wear make-up. I find all beers disgusting.
And, you know what? It’s okay to accept what makes me happy – and what doesn’t. Life isn’t high school. There are plenty of folks who are happy for me to be happy however I choose. As the wonderful Charlie explains, being a weirdo is okay:
There are people out there who are just as weird as you who will value you and your gifts because they’re uniquely yours, not despite them being yours. You don’t have to hide yourself to be loved and accepted – let go of the thought that being authentically happy and being seen, loved, and valued are mutually exclusive.
(Charlie Gilkey, Do You Have the Weirdo Syndrome? on Productive Flourishing)
(Note: you can find a huge bunch of these people at South by South West and similar geek fests…)
Celebrate the little things which really resonate with you. And stop trying to justify it. You don’t need to explain your interests: you can just enjoy them! If you love playing computer games, don’t let anyone guilt-trip you about it. If you enjoy writing, don’t let people intrude on your time or sap your creative energy.
What quirky things make you happy? Why aren’t you embracing them more?
But … Don’t Automaticaly Ditch “Popular” Stuff
As a teenager, I had a big chip on my shoulder about stuff which was “popular”. I generally thought it was going to be stupid, shallow and pointless. I decided I didn’t like Leonardo diCaprio just because all the other 13-year old girls were going mad about him. Yeah, much of the time, popular stuff isn’t gonna make you happy. Yet, it’s all too easy to start defining yourself as a rebel or outsider and actually miss out on some good stuff.
I’ve been resisting the idea of getting an iPhone because, hey, everyone has them. I’m too cool to get in on a trend, unless I’m there at the start. I’m not sure I’d be on Facebook and Twitter unless I’d been a fairly early adopter of both.
And if I was picking from some abstract list of obsessions, I wouldn’t have Sims 3 as my favourite computer game and Metallica as my favourite band. Because, you know, they’re just way too popular.
Except, there’s nothing automatically wrong with something being popular. Of course you want to avoid trying to force yourself to be happy through doing the stuff that society says you “should” do … but you don’t want to go denying yourself happiness because you’ve got a non-conformist streak.
If you love tiny, independent bands, awesome. If you’re into indie games and unknown authors, fantastic. But forcing yourself to hunt for happiness outside the mainstream is just as much a mistake as forcing yourself to always go with the popular vote.
So. What makes you happy? What do you love doing, reading, singing, celebrating? I’d love to hear about your quirks (or conformities!) here in the comments…