I suppose my view on what happiness is stems from a major event that happened to me when I was 60, but first I’ll talk about my life before the event so that you can understand what made it so significant.
When I was younger, I never really thought about happiness. I never asked myself the question, not sure anyone does. Before kids I did what pleased me, after kids I did what paid the bills. I never earned lots of money, I didn’t own fancy cars, I never went on exotic holidays. Did I want those things? Well, I would have liked a bit more money. Was I happy? I don’t know. You see I’ve always lived in the moment, and had you asked me at any moment I would have probably said yes, and my reason would have been different every time.
The landmarks in my life, when I first met my wife and when my kids were born, were beyond happiness. They were the most joyful things I had ever experienced. So joyful that they became touchstones and anchors for my life and the source of what would become my way of living.
But on a day-to-day basis, happiness is relative and complicated by so many other things, not least of all other people’s definitions. We are bombarded with messages; believe this and you will be happy, buy this and you will be happy, look like this and you will be happy. The latest survey says that people of a certain age are happiest, and a particular country is the happiest in the world. Happiness is the holy grail, a product that can be sold to millions over and over again because of one simple (insidious) little phrase “the pursuit of Happiness”
Now I’ll let you into a secret (although a certain Henry Sedgwick discovered it long before me) “If you’re looking for happiness the chances are you will never find it”. Why I believe this to be true is all to do with the significant event I mentioned at the beginning.
It was cancer, bowel cancer to be specific.
I had no idea. I had bad stomach pains and some very strange rumbling noises. I didn’t do anything at first, telling myself I’d be fine and it would pass. It didn’t, so I went to the hospital. It was Christmas 2016.
I’d never been in hospital for anything major, so it was a little scary, but I’ve always been the type of person that likes to get things sorted. So the doctors and nurses came at me with tests, scans and lengths of plastic pipe. One nurse said, “this will probably be the most awful thing that has ever happened to you, so brace yourself,” she was right.
To be honest the whole thing was a surreal experience. I seemed to summon incredible strength. No matter what they did to me I could cope with it. Like the saying “you don’t know you have courage until you need it” and I needed it. But there was something else.
As I said, when I was younger, I never thought about being happy. But as I lay in bed waiting for my operation, all I could think about were the key moments in my life. When I first saw my wife as she walked into the college where I was studying, our honeymoon in Paris, the moment my sons opened their eyes and looked at me, and lots and lots of other “joyful” events. In fact, I was overwhelmed with joy!
The word was never in my vocabulary, but here I am talking about being “joyful.” When you lose someone people say, “remember the happy times,” but the word “joy” is reserved for Christmas. So why did I use the word rather than “happy”?
I think it was because I felt that it focused on the moment, and I lived in the moment. Happiness was the overall state of my life, complicated. But joy was more of a standalone thing, detached from external considerations.
So I’m lying in bed recalling singular moments of joy and smiling despite being in pain.
Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t happy, only a fool would be in those circumstances. But the events of my life had revealed to me what happiness might be.
“A culmination of singular moments of joy”
Maybe “Joy is the seed of happiness”?
All very nice, and the idea of stringing together moments of joy to define our happiness could explain why people say you get happier as you get older.
But I don’t think it’s the right way to look at it. Sure, the joyful events in my life were my strength, but they made me happy at the moment they occurred and as a consequence became my strength when moments in my life were not so happy.
Seeing and appreciating the joy in my life, now, in my past and even in my future, was the true revelation.
So, my journey into “Joy” began. I read numerous books, most of which made it very complicated. Although one book called “Happiness- a practical guide” gives lots of great insights to philosophical and cultural approaches. Well worth a read, but I don’t think it’s that hard. You’re happy or you’re not – simple. However, the components that determine your decision are often complicated, but they don’t have to be.
Cultures and religions all have recipes for happiness and I’m sure many of them work. But to do so they may require unquestioning compliance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but once you ask the question “am I happy” then it becomes your property, you’re in charge and for many that’s when the problems start.
Coming to terms with owning your happiness when it’s often a consequence of someone else’s actions, loved ones, belief systems or society, is difficult. As society has become more individualistic how people have dealt with the issue of their happiness is often to simply buy things, what some might call a more hedonistic lifestyle, although to call it epicurean might be closer to the mark.
My answer wasn’t a trip down to the local car showroom or travel agent, like many people I’ve never been lucky enough to have the money to “buy happiness”. But my experience has shown me that if I had it wouldn’t have made any difference.
The conclusion to my experience is a strange one. When I came round from my operation I felt enlightened, as if I understood the meaning of life and what was important. I wanted to share the good news. Within days I’d defined and shaped my thoughts into what I began to call “the Joy Principle” . I wrote an outline for a course and built an app to measure the joy in your life. But everything around me hadn’t changed and no matter how much I enthused about my “Joy principle” people didn’t really want to know. So perhaps there’s the answer…
“You can’t be happy if you don’t want to be happy.”
Now I live my life by The Joy Principle. There’s joy in every day of my life, no matter what happens. I teach people to make portraits, because making art brings me great joy and I want others to experience the same. I even call what I do “The joy of portraiture” (no I didn’t pinch it from Bob Ross).
So, am I happy?
Have I discovered the secret of happiness?
I don’t know, but my life is full of joy 🙂