Over the past week I’m the happiest I remember ever being, but why is that? I feel a need to delve deeper into my state to understand its source, to determine what things lie behind it, as maybe then I can perpetuate it. I’m not looking for a universal answer, I have no doubt we all vary in the catalysts for our joy. I’ll be happy enough (haha) if I can develop a personal answer. And in the hunt, maybe others will find something useful too.
After recently spending a short time living at the base of the Rocky Mountains and then in the Scottish Highlands, I’ve come to better understand how much my surroundings affect my mental state. When I spend time living in busy spaces, be it the centre of Edinburgh or the edge of Wellington, I find I can jitter under the influence of too many distractions. My thoughts reflect the rapid changes in my environment and while I am thrilled to be able to access so many different experiences, I struggle to prioritise the important things. I get distracted by the process of just living. As a result I frequently feel an urge to climb aboard a train to Shannon, or bike down to Leith, or catch a boat to Marlborough. And when I do this, when I disembark into birdsong, ocean breezes and woodland scents I can’t smother my grin. I’m bounded by stretched out horizons sculpted by natural forces rather than urban planners. My thoughts slow to match the pace of my new surrounds, the slow steady shift of the seasons, the tides, the weather. And amongst the trees, hills and sand dunes happiness finds its way into me a little more quickly. Or maybe it’s just that there is less to distract me from its persistent presence?
One of the great by-products of time spent surrounded by Scottish Lochs, Kapiti Coast estuaries and Colorado foothills is that these immersive and ever-changing environments inspires physicality. I want to bike through them, hike amongst them, climb them, jump into waterholes from them. They encourage natural paths to fitness, and when I’m fit and active two things happen. Firstly I no longer have to think about how unfit and inactive I’m becoming, and that’s such a hideous, ugly psychological burden. Secondly I want to share my love of these spaces with friends and family. So rock climbing, swimming and water fights replace pub haunting as my communal activities of choice. And I honestly believe that the relationships developed through positive activities can be stronger and deeper than those developed through sharing shouted conversations in nightclubs. Of course there’s little better than sharing a glass of wine or cider on a beach after a hard day in the outdoors…
So there’s a degree of physicality involved in my ongoing happiness. But these natural spaces also tend to enhance my creativity and I need to create to feel whole. I need to write long letters, draw intricate sketches and build cairns from stones harvested along river banks. It’s this making, crafting, doing, that is one of my best indicators for how comfortable I am. When I’m happy my creative capabilities become second nature, they flow more cleanly from me. So I guess in some ways they’re a symptom of my happiness as much as a cause of it. But sitting making pottery in the woods isn’t enough, not without anyone to share the results with. I love people too much.
My relationships with other people might well transcend all else as the primary keys to my positivity. Over recent years I’ve realised that I don’t need to entertain people in order to hold their attention, I just need to be myself. I’ve always enjoyed listening to people, trying to understand the things that they believe about the world. Taking up writing has intensified my interest, and I love talking with new friends and old, and engaging with them. I’ve been through enough ups and downs in my life to be finally able to offer long, deep, meandering conversations that can be of benefit to both those I talk to, and to myself. It can be scary at times, letting people see the real me. But it also seems to enable my friends to talk more honestly about themselves, and these growing relationships make me happier than anything else.
I’ve also learnt the value of being a positive person, on being a beneficial influence on the people whose company you enjoy. This has left me very grateful to the people I’ve learnt this from, and I’ve found that expression of this gratitude is another key to a blissful state. If I take the time to talk honestly to people about how much I appreciate them, or what they’ve done, we both get to feel good about it. At times that’s difficult in a low-key humble-is-best country like New Zealand, people aren’t always comfortable with having their little kindnesses praised. But it’s one of those things that takes just a little effort, and rewards both parties, despite any potential blushing and mumbling. I am helped along every day by people, and I want to always remember to acknowledge this, and to learn from their generosity of spirit.
As I’ve been writing this article I’ve realised that the simple process of learning new things is one more thing that brings me joy. I gain something from learning new things. The act of discovery, of learning new skills or simply improving my knowledge motivates me. I love researching the history of wolf hunting in Russia, or learning how to craft straw bales, or how to whisky is made. Or delving into what I need in order to be happy.
It seems then that all the conditions for living a pretty sweet life are within my control. They’re all reassuringly positive, I don’t get off on lighting fires…actually, maybe just a little. But good fires. But it’s not the denigration of others that makes me smile, it’s not the harvesting of power, nor the accumulation of wealth. I simply need to immerse myself in my environment, in my creativity, and in my relationships with my friends. It is very heartening to realise that happiness might well be a lifestyle, rather than a destination or a goal.