The Happiness Project

Published in Mental Health / Wellbeing / Featured - 13 mins to read

A lot of people have written about their version of a happiness project, and in a way, shouldn’t our whole lives be a personal happiness project? If we, like Kid Cudi, are on the pursuit of happiness, I think a lot of us tend to overcomplicate it, get distracted, or simply lose sight and focus of what we’re meant to be aiming for.

Earlier this week I read a GQ article on happiness, not because I am a habitual GQ reader but because it features Phoebe Bridgers and I will frantically gobble up anything that she puts out into the world. While I came for Phoebe, I stayed for the insight into how a very different group of people, all in different stages of life, had their own unique takes on happiness. I thought the questions that the journalist, Chris Heath, chose to ask his interviewees were poignant and timely but also incisive and personal. They’re very simple, but ones that I’ve never really asked myself before, and am frankly a little scared to answer.

I thought it’d be an interesting exercise to write my own answers to the questions, and perhaps to compare them to the answers given in the article. It’s clear that each person’s conceptualization of happiness is rooted in their life experiences (and their age, I suppose by having more or less life experiences to draw upon), most notably Chelsea Manning’s experience with prison, and so mine will inevitably be influenced by my struggles with mental health. I have spent a great deal of time considering (and talking and writing about) anti-happiness, AKA depression, and far less effort has been spent on happiness itself. All my ideas are about how to be not unhappy, and perhaps part of me assumes that will lead to happiness in due course, but I think it’s more that I’ve spent so long fighting anti-happiness that I’ll settle for mere not unhappiness over happiness itself. Perhaps answering these questions will give me something good to aim for?

What do you think happiness is?

I think my happiness is about peace. It’s not overthinking things, it’s not worrying about anything, it’s being able to forget everything I think about 99% of the time and just being in the moment. What’s going on in said moment doesn’t even really seem to matter so much, it’s just about me being able to successfully detach from both the past and the future. I suspect a lot of my answers to these are going to be similar to Phoebe’s, because we’re the same age and maybe have similar dispositions, and I think she knocked it out of the park with this one, in a far less pretentious way than I tried to;

For me, it’s just what happens in between thinking about shit obsessively. Accidental moments of living in your own body.

I like the use of the word accidental. I spend so much time trying desperately to do things in order to make myself happy, and they almost never succeed. Instead, when I am happy, it isn’t because I’ve strived for something, it’s from some quirk of life, the stars aligning in some way, being in the right place at the right time by pure fluke; it’s an accident.

How important is it?

I used to think happiness was the be-all and end-all, but now I’m not so sure. Like some people in the article mentioned and I alluded to above, I try to strive for contentment these days more so than actual happiness, because whenever I’ve tried striving for happiness it hasn’t worked. You can’t force happiness, and maybe that’s why it’s important. When I said “shouldn’t our whole lives be a happiness project?”, I meant that we should try to give ourselves the best possible chance for happiness, not that we should work at it until we get there, because we won’t. Or at least I won’t. I think those moments of happiness are what makes life worth living, and the idea that I might feel happy again is one that has given me hope in a lot of dark places, so I think happiness is very important.

What does it feel like?

The first images that come to mind are that of being in the ocean somewhere warm and sunny, or being on top of mountain about to ski back down. Those places feel so big to me, they take up so much space that there’s no room for any of my worries, there’s just space for me, the ocean or the mountain, and the moment. Again, I think it’s very peaceful, it’s not euphoria, it’s a rare quietness in my mind.

I love Drew Barrymore’s answer for this one too (who is incidentally the star of one of my favourite moments of cinema ever);

Sometimes like winning the war. I want to know happiness that is free and easy, but I’m not sure if I’m wise enough to recognize it in those moments. I definitely recognize happiness that I fought for. Or that I really, really worried about and then finally got to. I know an effort in happiness.

The kind of happiness I feel after really working for it can be fleeting and hollow, but I completely agree with her, even if I’d frame it slightly different. I’ve worked hard to put myself in a position where I’m able to feel happy, even if not for the happiness itself, and that has felt neither free nor easy. I’ve fought for it, and it often feels like a war. The first few days after a depressive episode I know that I worked really hard for the contentment I am experiencing, and that’s both satisfying and a great relief.

What’s the opposite of happiness?

I feel like this blog is pretty much dedicated to answering this question already, so I’ll spare you from too many more of my thoughts on this. The opposite of happiness is anxiety, worry, fear, hopelessness, discomfort, pain, shame, grief, guilt, a million other things. For me, the opposite of happiness is usually when I can’t stop thinking, about painful things in the past, fears about the future, and dissatisfaction with who and what I am in the present.

What used to make you happy when you were a child?

Playing, whether that meant with my friends, chess or video games. Looking back with admittedly rose-tinted glasses, I was so unburdened back then, and that made happiness so much easier. I have fond memories of goofing around on the slide in the playground with my friends at primary school, or playing Jak & Daxter on the PlayStation 2, or beating my father at chess. Before I could consistently do the latter, chess made me deeply unhappy, and I distinctly remember crying my eyes out every time I lost.

Have you become happier or less happy as you’ve got older?

I was definitely at my happiest before the age of 11, and things went pretty sharply downhill once I got to secondary school. Since then things have been a fairly steady struggle, and if I would say the two most challenging years of my life so far were 2014 and 2020, so it doesn’t appear to be particularly on an upwards trajectory. With that being said, the older I get, the better I know myself, and the more I understand that struggle. Even though I don’t yet feel any happier than I did as a teenager, I’m optimistic that I have made progress, and I’m just not quite seeing the results yet.

What have you learned about happiness, and about what makes you happy and what doesn’t, as you grow older?

I’m very much a striver, as my previous therapist often pointed out. I’m constantly telling myself that whenever I achieve my next goal, then I’ll be happy, but if I reach my goal I just set myself a new one and the cycle repeats. It seems so obvious in those terms, but it’s very difficult to take a step back and see what’s really going on when you’re inside that kind of cycle, and I’ve been trapped in it for years. I’ve heard that “happiness is the journey, not the destination”, infinitely many times in my life, but I’ve only started to believe it recently. I’ve always thought that placing any particular emphasis on gratitude was trite and unbecoming, but with all my goalpost-shifting I’ve been trying more to be grateful for where I already am. I have this thing with some of my friends where I think we experience a kind of mutual jealousy, both wanting something the other person has while ignoring all the other perfectly valid reasons they aren’t especially happy. I often catch myself thinking something like “why can’t they see that they ought to be happy, because they have [thing]? If only I had [thing], then I’d be happy” which is a perfectly useless thought to have. Some might take issue with Tracy Morgan’s answer, but it’s something I’m coming to believe:

I’m beginning to think happiness is a choice that we make every day when we wake up.

If the chemicals in your brain are balanced well enough, maybe that’s all there is to it. Perhaps the rest of it is just a scam to get you to buy self-help books or gym memberships or a fancy car.

I’ve also learned more and more that people are what make me happy. As David Foster Wallace pointed out, depression is incredibly self-absorbed and leaves its victims spending an inordinate amount of time staring inwards rather than paying attention to anyone around them. I know I have done that a lot in the past, and still do, but now I know that I cannot pull myself out of dark moments, and it’ll be connecting with someone else that’s the helping hand I need. Even when I’m not in a bad place, the moments of accidental happiness I stumble into are largely moments of connection.

How much of the time are you happy?

I guess everybody would say something along the lines of “not as often as I’d like”. I would also say not a lot of the time, when I’m depressed I can go months without really feeling happy, but things have been pretty good lately. Everything with my new job has made me happy, climbing has made me happy recently, I’ve found some moments of happiness with other people. My mental health fluctuates in pretty long cycles, so it depends where I’m at with that really.

Are you happier than most people, or are most people happier than you?

My knee-jerk response is that most people are happier than me, but maybe that’s not true. I think my pattern of striving and not being satisfied is pretty common, especially amongst my generation, and now we’re all so connected, it’s never been easier to feel inadequate. I feel like a lot of our society is built to make us feel unhappy and then sell us a solution to our problems, and I think if you go on the internet or watch the news, there is a neverending stream of reasons to be unhappy. As Roxane Gay bleakly and beautifully puts it;

It’s hard to balance happiness and reality.

Obviously I hope I’m wrong, and that people in general are happier than me, as I think I set the bar pretty low, but I imagine that I’m probably about average happiness at the moment.

What do you do when you’re not happy?

I feel like I’m just going to be quoting straight from the DSM, but in saying that it’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone in what I do when I’m not happy. I isolate myself, I stop making an effort to talk to my friends, I eat too much or too little, I drink too much, I play video games or watch Netflix all the time, I stay up late and then sleep in late. At least, that’s what I used to do, and that’s what I always have the urge to do, but now I know all that I try to do all the “right” things whenever I’m unhappy; talk about it, exercise, get up at the same time every day, clean my surroundings, eat vegetables.

Are you more creative when you’re happy or when you’re unhappy?

The people in the article are all a lot more creative than me, and I think all the creativity in my life manifests itself subtly at best, but still, I am 100% more creative when I’m happy. When I’m not my brain is so full of fog and loud thoughts, there’s no room for anything novel or exciting.

Do you think about happiness much?

Like I said in the intro, I certainly think about unhappiness a lot, but its antonym less so. I don’t think I have many rational thoughts about happiness, although it’s something I crave, I often find myself lying awake in bed longing for a particular memory in which I was happy. The point of this post is to encourage me to think about it a little more, as I think it’d be good for me.

One of the silver linings of my mental health issues has been that it’s made me really, really value happiness. I never take any moment of happiness for granted, and force myself to savour it as much as I can while I’m in that moment, and I’ve got pretty good at consciously doing that. Happiness seems rare for me, and I never know when I’m going to get my next hit from, so I always make sure to fully give in to this one.

Can someone be too happy?

I don’t think so, at least not in general. I think you want to try to maximise your happiness over your whole lifetime, which is why we’re all so focused on planning for the future, and often postpone our happiness in the now for promises of future happiness. You’ve got to plan a trajectory for yourself, but it’s a really tricky balance to strike, especially the younger you are. I know a lot of people who are miserable in very well paid jobs, telling themselves it’ll be worth it for the future financial security, but there’s so many unknowns; what if some tragedy befalls them and they can’t cash in on their future happiness? I have the same with food a lot too, I forgo ice cream so I can feel happier about my body in the future, but what if I get hit by a bus tomorrow? I’d be pretty sad I didn’t make the most of my last day on earth by eating ice cream.

So maybe someone could be too happy now if it was going to lead them to a lot of unhappiness in the future, sure, but I think they are just taking a different risk to the rest of us - they’re shorting their happiness I guess. If we’re looking at things not across the long-term then no, I don’t think anybody can be too happy - happiness is what we’re all here for, we should all be as happy as we possibly can be.

In closing

Having written all that, I do feel a little happier. It seems it was good to focus on what happiness is and what it means to me for a bit. As always, I’d be very curious to hear anybody else’s answers, or if you think anything I’ve said is patently wrong. I want to end the same way as the article does, with a final quote, once again from Drew Barrymore:

Even though I don’t know what it is exactly, it’s what I wish for everyone.