“Life is made of moments, small pieces of silver amidst long stretches of tedium. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them and to live, really live . . . to love the journey, not the destination.”
Are you happy?
Not madly, deliriously, skipping-around-like-a-loon happy all the time, of course. Who is? (I’m slightly alarmed at the thought of this Pollyanna. Even she had down time.) But ‘on the whole’ happy?
And where do you find happiness? In your partner, family and close friends? Your garden? Your home? On a beach in the middle of nowhere (admittedly, there’s a fairly limited scope for happiness in this situation, lest you happen to live on a desert island)? In the measure of your success in life – in work?
What truly makes one happy has been preoccupying me of late. I have a dear, lovely friend who has a very ill child. Terribly, seriously, heartbreakingly ill. Just thinking about her weighs me with sadness; I simply cannot imagine what it must like to be her parent. How do you feel happy? Do you snatch moments of it, greedily, in the face of terrible adversity? Or does it become subsumed, for now?
I lie at night, one hand on the child in my belly, willing my children – all the children I know – to be healthy and happy; thinking it is at once so little and yet so much to ask. And it is a pretty straightforward wish (although, I appreciate, less than straightforward in execution – dependent upon many factors).
For, when I think about it, I am happiest at the simplest of times: weekend breakfast in the garden with the two loves of my life. By the sea with my family. A quiet house and the beginning of a promising book. When my daughter tells me she “loves me soooo much”.
And yet we often pursue happiness through other avenues. We value and measure our lives by our work (hands up, I have done this) – by what we do or what we achieve rather than who we are. This is the argument in Anna Quindlen’s Short Guide to a Happy Life – based on a commencement address she gave at Villanova University. “Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work,” she contends. “The second is only a part of the first. You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”
“There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.
People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes “prognosis, poor”.
So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house.
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.
Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.
Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.”
I have in the past laid greater store by work. Now? I love my job. I adore writing. I’d love to build W&W into an empire. But I also love living my life. Building my family. Myself.I love the idea of slowing things down to find more moments of happiness. I am not good at slowing down – I know that. I am too fast-moving, impatient, whizzing from one thing to the next. I get frustrated when there is an agenda (bedtime, somewhere we have to be at a certain time) and my daughter is doing what I know three-year-olds do: dawdle (she is a master bumbler and procrastinate (yesterday evening she told me we should “just put that shopping in the fridge” as I was trying to usher her upstairs for bathtime).
It was (as it so often it) my Mum who pointed out that little children just love being able to go at their own pace. I try now not to plan our every moment together – because sometimes she just wants to be. And it’s when I let go of a plan or a schedule that I notice things. This last sunny Sunday morning my husband had a lie in and C and I went for a walk by the river. We spotted boats, watched the seagulls swooping, discussed at length that it was very quiet, and then C spotted some goslings and clapped her hands with glee, “Quick, Mummy! Come and see the baby chicks! They’re with their mummy and daddy like I’m with my mummy.” It was so little and yet so much. It was one of Quindlan’s moments of happiness. I grabbed it in my mind so I can replay it at will.
What about you? How do you measure happiness – and has that changed over the years? ‘Soul building’ suggestions – and all other thoughts are – as ever – welcome.
Image: US Vogue. Shalom Harlow styled by Grace Coddington and photographed by Bruce Weber