Envisaging my forties years ago, I probably assumed I’d have everything figured out and be in some worry-free utopia, enjoying the fruits of my labour. In reality, as well as being more focused on my career than ever before, this has been the decade where I’ve learned the most about myself, and where my appetite to learn more has been at its most voracious. My forties have provided me with the space to step back, process my life so far and really understand what makes me tick. Soul searching wasn’t a priority in previous decades because I had some huge life events to distract me – some wonderfully positive, some negative. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to take some time to recognise my flaws and learn some really fundamental lessons.
Something else that’s evolved in my 40s is self-acceptance. I used to heavily base my decisions on external guidance, almost seeking permission from someone - or something - separate from me, but I've finally learned that I have everything I need to navigate life’s ups and downs if I just listen to and trust myself. I’ve also found it wonderfully liberating to finally stop worrying so much about what other people think.
I used to berate myself for the fact that I question everything and am very sensitive, but I’ve come to accept it now, even embrace it. After all, the tendency to question is underpinned by the need to learn, and that brings the opportunity to evolve. I’m in a better place now to create a solid sense of my own happiness, not a generic image of it presented to me in the mainstream media. With that in mind and with the awareness that I'm followed by some very wise souls, I'm interested in other perspectives on the big questions around happiness, and how we define it. So here goes...
1. Are the people who are ‘just happy’, happy all the time…?
…even when (horror of horrors) they’re cleaning or slogging their way through a torturous application form at work? And what about monks, whose existence is completely pared down yet they’re always calm and smiling (huge generalisation, I know). Do they feel compelled to go out and ‘do stuff’ or ‘buy stuff’ to maintain that level of happiness like most people do?
And what happens when you're faced with that compulsion, but you can’t change your situation? Like during a global pandemic for example? This year, most of us non-Kardashian humans have been less able to do the things we know (or think) bring us happiness. In some cases, this has been hugely positive because we’ve gone right back to basics and discovered that actually, happiness can be found in far simpler things than we ever realised. But it may still have left some of us forced to confront a sense of emptiness in the absence of our usual distractions. So how do you work at being happy ‘regardless’? Many of the people I find inspiring talk about the power of thoughts and being selective about the ones you allow to flourish, which leads me to my next question:
2. If you have to work so hard to reframe your thoughts, aren’t you just brainwashing yourself?
One of my favourite sayings is: “We live life forwards and understand it backwards”. It was very profound when I first heard it from a colleague, because it really made me think about how the memory of something is sometimes better than the moment you’re actually living it. And what that means.
Let me give you an example. A couple of months ago, my son and I drove to the coast at Sewerby. It was my first day off in forever and the first time we’d left our local area since lockdown so it felt extra special, and it was a lovely day. That night I replayed it as I lay in bed (every night, I remind myself of all the positive things that have happened that day and usually end up falling asleep before I get to the end of the list): a walk along the cliffs with green fields to our right and the ocean to our left. The beautiful smells, sights and sounds of the sea. Ice cream on the beach, letting Ozzy off the lead and the pride of owning one of the world’s second fastest (yet first laziest) land mammals and watching him run free on the sand. While I’d certainly had a wonderful day, when I revisited it that night it was elevated to something totally joyous.
Which brings me to my final question:
3. Is the trick to being happy simply romanticising everything?
We absolutely must squeeze every drop of happiness out of our lives, even the small stuff, and approach everything from a place of gratitude. After all, whether you focus on what you have or you focus on what you don’t have, you’re right.
But what happens when we romanticise negative things too? We’ve all been there – relationships that were deeply toxic, jobs that frustrated us and offered no progression… Yet still we reminisce, remembering only the good bits and none of the bad. Is that where the ‘reframing your thoughts’ thing comes into play?
As someone with a bucketload of life experience, I could probably give reasonably well-informed answers to these questions. But for me, blogging isn't just about sharing what I think - I want to hear what you think too! How do you define happiness? And when was your 'lightbulb moment'? Or are you still learning too...