I pop into my bike shop to pick up some tyre levers, a set of lights, a pair of fingerless gloves. But I am distracted, even as I make my way out. Rows of brand new bikes, racing bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, bikes with baskets and tricycles with trainer wheels. All bright, shiny things full of potential fill my eyes, my ears. Everything about them is so perfect. The tyres are pumped up to the perfect air pressure, the brakes are stiff and strong. The chains are gleaming, the mud guards are clean. Surreptitiously I run my fingers over the saddles and then I walk out of the shop and turn to gaze back at the bikes through the massive windows that look out onto the street. The ones that cost thousands of pounds, that are out of my price range, whose titanium features and chain sets would be wasted on me, anyway. But the window doesn’t know that. The window just lets me look, linger and lose myself among the handlebars, the seat posts and the spokes for a few seconds, for a few minutes, for a few hours.
March 20, was International Day of Happiness. The British website is full of information about research into well – being. It tells us, for example, that doing things for others, connecting with people, exercising and taking a positive approach, to name four of the ten they list, make us happy.
While it is hard to disagree that these activities improve one’s mood, something jars with me about the concept of a ‘happiness day’. It conjures many pictures of young people jumping for joy, children smiling whist engaged in activities from blowing bubbles to jumping into puddles. Then there are the ubiquitous smileys that pepper so much communication these days. I cannot help feeling that the message that these pictures transmit is that changing one’s mood, happiness, is so easy. So easy, in fact, that it should be a permanent state. I want to believe that they don’t really think that. But it feels like the attainment of happiness is so defined that it is just a matter of following a few steps to achieve it. And being unable to do that just feels like failure.
Take the exhortation of mental health workers everywhere to ‘connect with people’. That phrase fills my mouth with ‘connect with whom exactly? My abusive parents? My dead sibling? The job centre staff?’ It’s not so easy to pick up the phone to those people who have drifted away since you have been, well, psychotic. Life is so much easier with a plaster cast on both arms.
Then there’s exercise. You’d think I would be a big fan of that one, right? Sure. But try telling that to the 2002 edition of me. My bike never left the shed. I walked 100 metres to the corner shop to buy the paper most days, just to bring it home and look at the pictures. Things are completely different these days, though. Not so much. Where we live now the newsagent is a bit further away, but there are days when the walk down the hill is as strenuous as the walk back home again.
Or there’s staying in the moment and appreciating your surroundings. I’ve got a lot of time for Mindfulness, but when the particular moment is full of dread and despair? And the next moment, next minute, hour, day, night, week? Appreciate your surroundings the eager psychologists tell us. and what if I lived 4 storeys up on a sink estate and have not left my flat in a week, and it’s hard to appreciate the damp patches in the bathroom or the thin walls separating me from the teenager with the drum kit who lives next door.
I think that what I’m getting at is it just feels like these bits of advice are being offered by people who, by and large, find these things easier to do than the people they are advising. Also, it puts the burden of responsibility on the people they are treating/visiting/counselling. As if to say ‘if you would just get out more, make new friends…’ and that most sinister of phrases …’learn to move on.’
Do I have anything positive to say about this? Anything – to use a phrase I am often heard repeating – recovery – orientated to offer? Well, no, at least not enough that will outweigh what I have written here. I don’t agree with the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire who wrote: ‘I have chosen to be happy because it is good for my health.’ To say that one chooses happiness is implying a strong criticism of those of us who are not in such a good mood as this man who was regularly seen in public wearing tights and a powdered wig. So, he’s saying that I choose to spend my days swirling around in mood swings? No, happiness is not a bright, shiny thing. For me there is more wisdom in the words of the wife of the four – time U.S. President F.D. Roosevelt, Eleanor, who spoke for me when she said: ‘Happiness is not a goal, it is a by – product.
Is a clean bill of health from the doctor,
And the kids shouldn’t move back home for
more than a year,
And not being audited, overdrawn, in Wilkes-Barre,
in a lawsuit or in traction.
Is falling asleep without Valium,
And having two breasts to put in my brassiere,
And not (yet) needing to get my blood pressure lowered,
my eyelids raised or a second opinion.
And on Saturday nights
When my husband and I have rented
Something with Fred Astaire for the VCR,
And we’re sitting around in our robes discussing,
The state of the world, back exercises, our Keoghs,
And whether to fix the transmission or buy a new car,
And we’re eating a pint of rum-raisin ice cream
on the grounds that
Tomorrow we’re starting a diet of fish, fruit and grain,
And my dad’s in Miami dating a very nice widow,
And no one we love is in serious trouble or pain,
And our bringing-up-baby days are far behind us,
But our senior-citizen days have not begun,
It’s not what I called happiness
When I was twenty-one,
But it’s turning out to be
What happiness is.
Judith Viorst (1931 – )