How happy do you feel, in this moment? What brings happiness to your world? What is the secret to happiness for you?
Happiness, as the song would have it, is the greatest gift that we can hope to possess.* Yet so far this year I have felt blessed with perhaps less than my share of happiness. But just because things may not have been going in my favour of late is no reason for pessimism. I believe that things can and will improve, one way or another. Preferably sooner than later.
Life is never always one thing. Even in the depths of what I have found to be a challenging few months, there have always been small moments of happiness. Indeed, happiness can – just occasionally – feel almost contagious. At other times, simply talking about happiness can be enough to lift the mood a little.
I have seen its true face
Case in point, happiness seemed to be something that was almost in the air (or, at least, on a fair few folks’ minds) last Saturday morning (16 July 2022).
On my early morning walk that day, it made me smile to chance upon a smiley face sponge lying in the gutter. I remarked on Twitter that this sight was oddly reminiscent of the black comedy of Dave Gibbons’s art from Watchmen issue 1.** That sponge was perhaps not having the best day of its non-sentient life. But its smile beamed up from the gutter all the same.
Back home, morning espresso to hand, I plunged into the Twitterverse. I got into an enjoyable conversation with my friend David D’Souza. Kindly responding to my post Open, David recommended a work by author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz:
“As a nice, simple yet informed read on happiness I’d recommend Don’t Trust Your Gut by @SethS_D
“The final chapters on what really tends to make people happy are excellent & thought provoking. My book of the week”
The data-driven answer to life
David also shared a link to a New York Times piece by Stephens-Davidowitz, covering some of the themes explored in Don’t Trust Your Gut. Entitled The Rich Are Not Who We Think They Are. And Happiness Is Not What We Think It Is, Either. Here, Stephens-Davidowitz looks at the findings of a big data study on factors contributing to happiness, drawing on “de-identified data of the complete universe of American taxpayers to determine who dominated the top 0.1 percent of earners”. This gives rise to one of the loveliest turns of phrase that it has been my pleasure to read in a fair while:
“The findings on the data of happiness are, to be honest, obvious. […] But I would argue that there is profundity in the obviousness of the data on happiness.”
Stephens-Davidowitz is so generous as to share these simultaneously obvious and profound big data-derived insights on happiness:
“Big data tells us there are very simple things that do make people happy, things that have been around for thousands of years. After reading all the studies on happiness, I concluded that modern happiness research could be summed up in one sentence, a sentence we might jokingly call the data-driven answer to life. The data-driven answer to life is as follows: Be with your love, on an 80-degree and sunny day, overlooking a beautiful body of water, having sex.”
Delighted by these thoughts on happiness, I turned back to Twitter, and was pleased to see my friend Dr Steve Marshall tweeting a link to a new blog post he had penned, entitled Mindless. Dr Marshall’s writing is always a delicious treat. But Mindless is just outstanding. Here, he turns his attention to the happiness he finds when he loses himself deep in the ecstatic discipline of cycling.
Gentle reader: I am no cyclist. When I was a kid, I could barely keep steady on two wheels. And I don’t think I’ve been anywhere near a bicycle since 1998.*** But Steve articulates beautifully the joy he finds in cycling, and puts into words something that I have always wished I could describe: the more general feeling of losing oneself in what I have sometimes heard described as a “flow state”. In a flow state, an activity – in my case things like drawing, writing, yoga or (when my knees used to permit it) running – seems almost to blot out one’s conscious mind. The concerns of the workaday world fall away and a purity of activity in the moment becomes all that there is. Nothing can compare to the feeling of losing oneself in the pure happiness of doing.
That is my faltering attempt at describing this feeling. Steve does a much better job of capturing it. I love his words about the “place of embodied relaxation” we access in these moments:
“Many of us do it: cyclists, runners, walkers, climbers, swimmers; we find a place of embodied relaxation that shifts consciousness. A moment when the psychic clock of modernism pauses and time opens up to a more direct experience of self and surroundings. There are no distractions, no work demands, no shopping lists.”
There are no distractions. Instead, there is a profound happiness (and one that can be described with a polysyllabic word that was entirely new to me):
“Happiness researcher and cyclist Christopher Boyce, tells us how liberating it is to let go of the anxiety and pressure induced by the need to ‘be there by then.’ [… T]he pervasive tick, tick, tick of modern life separates us from the call to greater purpose and what Aristotle called eudaemonic happiness, the consequence of people following their best inner nature. According to Boyce, we may well achieve the goals we think are important and feel satisfied about doing so, yet once these experiences fade into the past, we can still feel wanting.”
My heart soared to read these beautiful words on various types of happiness that morning. There is the pure joy of losing myself in the words on happiness shared by David D’Souza, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Dr Steve Marshall. And there is the more focused sense of wonder at how each of them articulated feelings about happiness – however obvious or otherwise they might be – in words I could never have accessed myself.
On rare occasions, words conjure music in my mind. Reading Dr Marshall’s post, I could almost hear Kraftwerk’s beautiful 2003 album Tour de France Soundtracks playing inside my head. Tour de France Soundtracks expands on the celebration of life on two wheels from their 1983 Tour de France single to create almost a modern symphonic piece about losing oneself in cycling.
You can lose yourself in cycling. You can find pure happiness in cycling. But it doesn’t have to be cycling. You can lose yourself and find pure happiness in whatever it is that takes you to that place of embodied relaxation. I sincerely hope that there is something in your life that enables you to access this wonderful feeling that I hadn’t previously realised could be put into words. If you do have that something in your life, I hope that that something plays a part in the day that you have ahead of you.
Happiness, as another song has it, more or less. It’s just a change in me, something in my liberty.****
When it comes to happiness, may today fall into the more category for you (not the less).
May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
* The song alluded to here is of course Happiness by Ken Dodd.
** If you have yet to read the graphic novel masterwork Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, I could not recommend it more highly. This tweet from Akela Talamasca provides a nice analysis of the opening panel of Watchmen, which was called to mind by the smiley sponge I saw in the gutter.
*** I wrote the following about the last time I rode a bicycle, in Shadows bring everything to light: “Bicycling through south east Portland, Oregon in the wee small hours of a warm late-summer night with my great friend Hang and two of her housemates back in September 1998 (en route to a very late-opening Cajun restaurant) is one such memory for me. It seemed even then that magical moments like that are all too rare. It seems now like a sequence from a film. The streets had a character and the air had a flavour that just isn’t there in the daylight.”
**** These words – and, indeed, the title of this post – come from The Verve’s song Lucky Man, from their album Urban Hymns. Please do feel free to ask me about the time that someone who I am 90% certain was The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft shouted at me in 1995!
- Forlorn sponge, left in the gutter, yet smiling still… Photograph by MJCarty, Saturday 16 July 2022..
- Dahlia ‘Happy Single Wink’-flower-in jardin des Plantes via Wikimedia Commons.
- Detail from Parcours du Tour de France 1936 via Wikimedia Commons.