Happiness is a bench on a railway platform on a Sunday afternoon dropped in the middle of fields. Waiting for something that will happen but not too soon. Birds are singing to one another in trees out of sight, the air is thick with the ease of a summer afternoon of inconsequence. The train will come, and move off again, and life will continue along its sinuous path. But for the moment not a lot is up to very much.
Right now happiness is the inhibition of dopamine reuptake through norepinephrine and dopamine transporters found in the prefrontal cortex of my brain. Each morning I sodastream some refrigerated tap water and wash a little white pill down my throat and it goes to work. Five weeks I’ve been doing it now.
But happiness isn’t the right word exactly. I wouldn’t say I’m happy this minute. I don’t know what happiness means today. I thought I knew yesterday when I sat down to write. But it isn’t here now, it must have got bored and moved on someplace else. I feel okay but I’m not euphoric.
It turns out writing about happiness is harder than writing about its opposite.
My doctor said he thought my depression was endogenous, that it came from inside me rather than being brought about by external events. He would say that wouldn’t he, said my mother. That’s what all therapists want you to hear. But your mother would say that, said my girlfriend. Accepting you have an illness is harder than reasoning you’re idle and uninspired.
As the meds went to work I noticed things becoming a little easier. Doom didn’t last as long. I’d wake up okay and go to bed okay, and things might get bad but I wouldn’t fall so far. Things were good, or at least better. Things were moving in the right direction. And I figured something out. The opposite of feeling shit isn’t happiness. The opposite of feeling shit is not feeling shit. The pills weren’t magicking up happiness, they were softening the blows. The floor of my mood was more a paddling pool than a dank black sea.
And I realised the happiness was up to me.
When my despair began to unseam itself it made me think of the parity between physical and mental health. You take good health for granted until it’s taken from you. And when it returns you feel incredibly thankful, to have something back you never realised you might be without. Increasingly I had my health, and all things twinkled in the gloaming.
But happiness is a bullshit word.
Happiness is wonderful but it’s also kind of stupid. It is camp and fleeting and unfaithful. It seems strange to see it as the bullseye. Happiness can be a high, but I don’t think it can be a state. The world is too twisted and gnarled and unstable for us to be hung up on the pursuit of it, maybe the best we can ask for is an absence of misery.
Lincoln said folk are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be. What he meant was we have agency over it, that perhaps happiness can be the by-product of things within our control. If you have the cud of an engaged life ruminating in your gut, now and again you’ll fart out some happiness.
Those are only happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.
John Stuart Mill
Happiness for me means coming back to life. It’s the sunlight of the early morning turning my plants translucent. It’s cycling through strange back streets in Lewisham at midnight listening to hiphop in the hurling rain. It’s the golden half-minute window propping up the bar as your pint gets poured. It’s the crema on the espresso from my expensive new coffee machine. It’s the clean feel of the street after rain. The line in the book that makes you freeze. The honeysuckle by the canal, the smile from the bus driver, the interrupted dream that finds its way back.
It is like the world has been illuminated.
It’s the feeling of strength that comes from a trust that when this happiness subsides there isn’t this darkness waiting to envelop you. And not being the hostage of the next thought that comes careening into your head. More than anything happiness is just not feeling like shit.
Perhaps there is a deeper longer-term happiness. The happiness in realising everything you already have is all you really need. I don’t think I’m there yet. It could also be having children. Last time I checked I wasn’t there yet either. But when you spend a very long time feeling apart from the world, seeing it through a glass darkly, to realise it’s still there and you are a part of it again and you have a role to play, and the people you love are still around and they love you and all is waiting to be resumed.
It’s pretty cool.