Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Such happiness, such bliss

Happiness; it's on my mind a lot at the moment. Partly because of the time of year, that mandatory happiness sentence at Christmas, and partly because a good chunk of my 30s has been spent scrabbling around trying to make sense of it all and find out what actually makes me happy after... well what feels like a long time of just wandering aimlessly and finding out what only offers disappointment. 'All that glitters is not gold', as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, never seemed so apt.

The thing about happiness is that, like humour, it's a very personal thing. What makes one person happy doesn't another, and sometimes it feels like it's hard balance to get right, sometimes almost impossible; especially where groups of people are concerned. For instance, reading books is one of the things that makes me happy and fulfilled. A friend only reads comic books (which I have no problem with - I'm happy to quote the Tenth Muse idea to anyone with five minutes to spare and an open mind), and can't read anything novel shaped to save his life. He just gets no enjoyment out of books at all. I'm the same way about television, the idea of staring at a screen doing nothing but watching isn't pleasurable but hellish, which would confuse another couple of friends who seem, from their conversations, to live their lives through what they watch to the extent that it shapes their reading and they rave about Game of Thrones, whereas I'll happily endorse Fevre Dream and am rather ambivalent about the thick doorstep fantasy series.

On a societal level, it feels as if the party line is that fun and happiness have been boiled down to a few very fundamental things, shopping, getting drunk and going very fast. If you like a smidgen of violence too then you're winning, to judge from films and computer games. All these things feed capitalism of course, you have to spend money to do them, and I wonder if we genuinely expect them to make us happy or if we're just indulging in status games. Are we just polishing up our egos to make ourselves feel important or special in the same way that games like Candy Crush feed us affirmations to enhance the sensation that playing them is fun, subtly using them to get us to play more.

The other thing is that all these activities invariably lead to us acting like children to an extent, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As a species we're at our best when we play and, honestly, grown ups are a bit of a myth aren't they? I don't know anyone who's really, truly grown up, they're just pretending because they have to. The problem is that things like shopping, drinking etc, aren't really about play or creativity the way that something like doing crafts or fixing up old cars are, they're about consumption and denial - pushing the world away. They feed the addictive parts of our brains, encouraging us to associate consumption with  pleasure. In many ways it feels like the easy way out, making things is hard and after a long day of work most of us don't want to think, but feel; that's what consumption relies upon.

It makes me sad that so many of us shut off our creative sides when we 'grow up', somehow associating it with being stupid or childish in the bad sense and not with expressing themselves and letting our true selves flow out into the world. There's a reason for the 'I'm a child that survived' meme that circulates Facebook every few months and unfortunately, the wider world works to tell us that if we don't consume, but create, then there's something wrong with us. The size of your television is more important than your ability to write a sonnet. Which, frankly, is a pile of horse dung that, to use internet speak, needs to die in a fire.

If anything the more we consume the less happy we seem to be, because the more choices we have to make. I hesitate to suggest that we'd be truly happy without choice but I think most of us would like say, a limited number of options of washing powder or television station rather than what feels like the scene from the Matrix with the guns - just with consumer goods instead of weaponry.

Reflecting on what makes me truly satisfied, deep down though, produces the predictable answer 'making things up'. Sure, writing can be frustrating but I get a real sense of satisfaction from doing it, sculpting the world into a story, creating my own mythologies and establishing a narrative that explores the world as I see it (no matter how screwed up that may or may not be). It's like having the world's biggest toy box and you get to play with all the toys, which is great, but you get to do something with them which doesn't feel like you're just passively consuming, you're taking them and making your own ideas come to life. I'm sure that other artists, writers, musicians and creative people feel the same and like there's something wrong when you can't, just can't, get on with with the job you feel you're put on this small, silly planet to do. When life gets too overwhelming and you just can't pick up your pen or whatever and make things, it throws everything out of kilter and you're just left spinning until you recover enough to find some equilibrium and get back on with it. It's not a huge thing, not like an operation or a breakdown, but it still hurts because you're having to cut off part of yourself.

The worst part is that there are only two things you can do to get around it, be kind to yourself and, ultimately, work through it as best you can.

But that's true of everything isn't it? We have to persevere and believe that it will get better, even if we don't really think it will, a trick that would make 1984's doublespeak architects proud. The most important thing you can do is be happy and we all have to find our own way to do that. Despite my ranting about how great creativity is, it isn't for everyone. Some people genuinely only want to sit and be entertained and whilst I don't understand it that's their choice and their right. As long as you know what makes you happy and you own it, then nobody has the right to tell you that you're wrong*.  I suppose I'm saying, ignore the great and the good, ignore the people who tell you what to do, and listen to your heart. Only you can say what makes you happy, only you have the right to say that too, anyone else is just pushing their choices onto you and whilst life is always about compromise, you have to be able to draw a line in the sand and say 'this is mine'.

*As long as its legal and doesn't hurt anyone...

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