What does ‘Happy’ even mean?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nearly every parent in this world at some stage will say that they just want their child to be ‘happy’. It is usually counter posed to a discussion about exam results, future careers, choice of partners and implies that even in the event of your child making a bit of a mess of their life, that if they are ‘happy’, it will be ok. There are qualifications – telling your parent that you just went on a shooting spree in the High Street but, hey, you feel great, probably wouldn’t be met with a contended sigh and an affectionate hair ruffle. Or, that you have found this great new stuff called heroin and you finally feel your life has meaning. No one wants their child to be that kind of happy. Similarly when L tells me her recent weight loss made her happy, I know this is her illness and her ‘happy’ is my ‘ill’.

But what do we even mean by ‘happy’? Wanting your child to be happy implies it is a state of being. Like ‘tall’. L is tall. She is always tall and probably will be tall for every day of her life. But no one is happy every day. Happiness is a response to an event, a person, a development in your life. No one is permanently happy, even heavily medicated people. And if they were, it would be intensely irritating for the rest of us. Or even quite sinister. Clowns, for example. Everyone knows the happier clowns are, the more likely they are to be secretly evil.

I thought about this a lot recently – wondering when am I ‘happy’? These are some times:

1. When it snows and I am home by the fire with wine and chocolate.

2. After purchasing a really lovely handbag or new shoes.

3. When spring arrives and it becomes warm enough to open the French doors in the kitchen.

4. When I have completed work after protracted procrastination.

5. On arriving home on Friday night and not having to work at the weekend.

6. Waking up and realising I have a day off

7. Decorating a room and putting all the furniture back

8. Trying on clothes and thinking that I look pretty good.

9. Knitting with new wool.

10. Baking and eating cake

Some are pretty shallow – actually, these are quite deep compared to the ones I didn’t include. some of them make me feel a bit depressed that this is what makes me happy – e.g. No. 2. And sometimes I feel joy at the monotony of life. A weekend when I clean the kitchen My Way, clean out drawers and polish things so that everything is Tidy and In Its Place, makes me happier than potentially any cure for OCD ever could. But this leads me to a further thought – when we say something makes us happy, is that really what we mean? Or is it more that this is a thing or an event that we like and we choose to be happy as an emotional response?

I become as infuriated as anyone else when a person with depression is told to Cheer up. Especially when accompanied by It may never happen. That really hacks me off. But, sometimes we can choose a specific emotional response to a certain event. I suffer from depression, but some days, I can still choose to respond to a difficult event by shrugging, or deciding this is someone else’s problem and ignoring them. I can also seek out something that will result in me feeling happiness, like tidying a drawer out, or looking at House Porn on Rightmove. Or knitting. There is always knitting. I know there are times when I can’t do that, when someone else may need to grab me and make me watch trash TV wrapped in a blanket. When L sobs after a meal, I try and comfort her, but increasingly I am using distraction. Online window shopping, watching The Killing, helping her find something that takes up the space in her mind which is being used to think about eating or not eating, big or small, fat or thin.

The opposite of Depression is not Happiness. It is Equilibrium. When L recovers from anorexia and depression, she will still have days when she is sad, when she is tired, frustrated and despairing. Balanced by days when she feels joyful, pleased, content and all other versions of happy. More important than the battle to regain weight will be the greater understanding she needs to gain of being able to experience every emotion we feel as humans and to accept them, deal with them and move on to a place where Happiness might be waiting around the corner.

Update: I knew there was something else I wanted to add and that provoked this post. Today, in town, L and I saw a new shop front. Attractive lettering spelled out The Happiness Project. How lovely, I thought, a community mental health service, perhaps they run mindfulness classes, tai chi or sell knitting wool. But it wasn’t. Do you want to guess what it was? Do you? It was a cosmetic surgery service. Yep, that’s right, a f***ing shop where you can have poison injected into your face, or fat pumped into your lips. Or tattoos on your eyebrows. Because that is what will make the ladies happy. And the world calls the mentally ill mad…..


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