Ah, happiness. That elusive creature we all pursue, like a dog chasing a shadow. We’ve been led to believe that happiness is the ultimate goal in life, but let’s face it, it’s a bit like catching a salamander – difficult, slippery, and more likely than not, you’ll end up empty-handed.
So what’s the alternative? Contentment. It may not be as flashy or exciting as happiness, but it’s loyal. Reliable. Like the family dog that thumps its tail whenever you walk into the room.
Why is happiness so damn elusive? Well, for starters, happiness is intangible. You can see it (or so you think), you can even reach for it, but you can never quite grasp it. In fact, its value is derived from chasing. That’s the power of ideals – by definition, they’re not attainable. And in those fleeting moments when you try to convince yourself that you’re truly happy, whoosh! The feeling is gone before you can say, I’m so happy, I could … That’s because happiness is often tied to external factors like money, status and success, things that are conditional and ever-changing. It’s a bit like trying to build a house on shifting sand. You’re mesmerised by the dynamic landscape … until you realise you need a solid foundation to build your life on.
Contentment, on the other hand, is more about what’s within. It’s about finding joy in the simple things, like feeling the sun on your face, or being followed by a rainbow. Getting lost in a pile of autumn leaves or laughing so hard hurts. It’s about being satisfied with what you have, rather than always striving for more. Contentment is like a cosy jumper – the colourful one your gran knitted for Christmas. It may not be the most fashionable thing in the world, but it’s comfortable, and it makes you feel good.
It has taken me a while, but I’ve worked out that if I’m going to chase something, it’s going to be meaningful like authentic connections or a sense of purpose, resilience or optimism. Something that makes me excited about being here and now. Something that gives me hope and nourishes my soul. So, I’m chasing contentment. It may not be as seductive as happiness, but it’s profound and exhilarating. And unlike happiness, it’s attainable. Surely, that counts for something.
Why have I been thinking about happiness lately? Perhaps it’s because I don’t feel ‘happy’ most days. My new picture book (What Will You Make Today?) is out and I’m thrilled … but I wouldn’t say ‘happy’. Add to that quite a few work successes this year. Satisfied, yes. Relieved? Somewhat. Content? Definitely. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve worked out that happiness is not a natural state – for me, at least. I tend to embrace the darkness in life: existential woes, a deep-dive into big ideas, challenges facing the human condition, ongoing pressure (mostly self-imposed, but that’s another story). A cameo appearance by issues swept under the carpet long ago always ups the chaos a notch or two.
Maybe the key to finding happiness is to stop looking for it. While the jury’s out, I’ll stick with contentment, a state of being we can cultivate within ourselves. That strikes me as more fulfilling … and sustainable.