“Everyone you meet always asks you if you have a career, are married or own a house, as if life was some kind of grocery list. But nobody ever asks if you are happy”.
I saw this quote this morning and it made me think. The person who said it (the late actor, Heath Ledger) was maybe feeling a bit jaded by being asked the same things by journalists all the time. But I see his point. We meet someone new and one of the first things they ask is “What do you do?” – meaning what job/career. I used to dread this question when the kids were small as I always found myself making excuses for being a ‘stay-at-home mum’ (awful expression, but infinitely better than ‘full-time mum’ – as if being a mum is something you take off, like a cloak, when you leave the house to go to do a paid job). I wasn’t embarrassed to not be working (it’s not like it’s something to be ashamed of) but quite often I was made to feel that I had to justify it “but what do you DO all day?” was the most common question. I gave up answering and became very adept at deflecting conversation away from myself, a habit which I have found hard to shake off.
But I am getting away from the point. It does seem that we are more interested in peoples jobs, marital status, number of kids, where they live. Of course, it’s far easier to ask someone about these things when you are meeting for the first time, or if you don’t know them well. It’s not the norm to ask someone about their state of mind. “Are you happy?” would be a bit of a weird conversation starter, but I’m not sure why. When we were kids, my parents always used to dread running into a certain neighbour because they would inevitably ask them how they were, and then be there all day listening to the never-ending list of ailments they were suffering from. Not really what you want when you are in a rush to get somewhere. When I bump into someone I know or meet up with a friend, the most natural thing in the world is to ask “How are you?”. Very rarely do I hear (or, in fact, give when asked myself) any response other than “OK thanks”. People rarely launch into a lengthy monologue of all that is not right in their world. If it’s a close friend that I know well, it’s generally easy to pick up on tone of voice and a follow up of “Are you sure?” is sometimes required to get the true answer.
Is asking someone how they are the same as asking if they are happy? It’s not, but in our reserved, British, stiff-upper-lip way it’s probably as close as we’re going to get. There’s a world of difference between being OK and being happy. Being OK takes a little work, but not much. It’s just ticking over, getting on with it, being OK. Being happy takes more effort. As my blog name suggests, I am still working on it, hunting out the happy moments. Day to day I am OK: I have bursts of happiness, flashes of “ah, that’s lovely”, life-is-good moments. But, it’s hard in the day to day – school runs, work, washing, food shopping, cleaning, cooking – cycle of life to be happy all the time and to find the happy moments in the mundane.
How would it feel to be asked if you are happy? Would you feel awkward saying yes, as though it’s admitting that you live in some sort of utopia – I know I would – and that you are being a bit smug. Perhaps that’s just me. Or is the opposite that stops us asking? How would you deal with someone saying that, no, not really, they’re pretty unhappy actually. Again, I suspect it depends how well you know someone, but if it’s a good friend you would surely have an inkling that all was not well, through just chatting and being part of their world. But, we all keep parts of ourselves hidden; we all keep some things to ourselves. I have a friend who is a big over-sharer but even she has stuff going on that she doesn’t like to talk about.
My lovely girl starts sentences very often with “I’m so happy, because x has happened”. She’s not being smug or showing off, she’s sharing a happy moment and expressing that happiness. Quite often it’s something small like finding out that the book she is reading has a sequel. But to her it’s a happy thing and she wants to tell me. I love it. If I asked her if she was happy she would probably say “yes”. I hope that she doesn’t grow out of seeing happiness in small things and maybe I can learn a bit from her.
I don’t think I will suddenly begin asking everyone I meet if they are happy. But it has certainly made me think about my own response when asked how I am and about looking for those small moments. Keep hunting the happiness.