I used to think that the best way to manage my happiness levels was to treat myself when I felt I was going ‘low’. Tea and cake, a new outfit, a magazine, a nail polish, or even a holiday. And these things do help, to a point, temporarily.
But in this stress-filled culture we’re living in those things are not really enough. I constantly hear people talking about ‘getting a balance’ and ‘trying to fit it in’: often, the things we think keep us sane are actually putting more strain on our wallets, our calendars and our minds.
Lately, the regular disappointment of not having children, the struggles I see people I care about going through and the headlines mean that I am not, in the generally accepted interpretation of the word, happy.
But I’ve been learning a lot about a deep kind of happy and how to find it. I think there are three keys, but what they all have in common is a determination to engage fully in the here and now – whether that means owning up to pain and grief, having a difficult conversation, putting aside a worry for an hour, or any number of other rather uncomfortable and challenging things…
When I feel sad or angry or disappointed, or even just stressed, the last thing I want is someone telling me to be thankful. And yet, since reading Ann Voskamp’s A Thousand Gifts, I have been in no doubt that living thankful all the time is the best way to experience life to the full.
This month, I’d been given reason to hope that I might be pregnant, finally, after years of hoping. Yesterday morning I took a test, but that little square remained empty, no matter how long I stared at it. I felt sad and disappointed and fragile, and like I’d let people down. I had so wanted to present the people I know who are struggling with some happy, life giving news, but there was none to give. There was no denying the despair I felt, but with Voskamp’s philosophy in my head, I practised noticing things, so that though I was sad and there were tears on my cheeks, I was thankful for Andrew’s hand on my face, for Jamie’s wagging tail, for the sun coming through the window…
Not wanting to get up or face anyone or do anything, I suddenly realised that I needed to do a run, as I’m on a new fitness regime (more on that another time!), which at first felt like the biggest chore ever. But I ended up so thankful for it. It got me out of bed, out in the sun, along with the swallows that were wheeling about so freely that I couldn’t help but catch a bit of their exuberance.
When you read the headlines and see the evil in our world, it can seem a little childish to hold so much store in this lifestyle of thankfulness – but as Ann Voskamp explains, by being thankful, we’re letting light in, we’re acknowledging that there is good, we’re finding hope… Not being thankful does not stop the evil and potentially adds to the resentment and depression and sadness floating around this planet.
It’s hard to write about thankfulness without sounding cheesy and inauthentic, but I’m convinced that it is a big part of receiving all that God has to offer us in this life, and it changes our perspective of him completely.
‘Live in the moment’ is such a cliche, isn’t it? Jesus put it a different way: ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow; today has enough cares of it’s own...’ When we are stressed or grief-stricken or anxious, it becomes very hard to be fully present in the here and now.
Sometimes, we need to harness the full force of our energy to direct our attention to the things and people around us in each moment, even though our thoughts and feelings want to dwell with the pain, or busy themselves finding a solution to our problems. At those times, focusing on the moment can help us to appreciate the times of rest or family or friendship or worship far more.
There are other times when being ‘present’ means staying in that pain and sadness for a while, letting ourselves cry or talk or pray it out, accepting the comfort of our friends or of God.
Whether life is hard or easy, I’m realising that we have to connect: with ourselves and our own feelings and thoughts, with other people, and it is my belief that we need to connect with God too.
Yesterday, I needed to connect with how I was feeling, even though the easiest thing would be to push it down. I needed to connect with Andrew instead of avoiding the issue. And I needed to connect with God, to question Him and ask him why, to tell him I was angry, to ask him to help me to trust in his timing.
There have been other times when I have been with family or friends, when I’ve refrained from talking honestly about how I am or from really listening to what they need to say. Those times were missed opportunities for connection.
When we do connect, we are true to ourselves, we get the deep blessing of friendships and love, and we get the hope and peace that come from prayer, and the sense that we are not doing it alone. This means that even when we are going through the greatest pain or struggle, we are also experiencing some of the best and purest parts of the human experience at the same time.
Note that in none of these am I advocating a denial of the bad and hard stuff. To really, honestly connect and be present, we have to be completely real about the things we are struggling with – otherwise our relationships with ourselves, other people and God will only be surface deep, and we are made for so much more that surface-deep relationships.
Shauna Niequist writes:
‘God is waiting to be found everywhere, in the darkest corners of our lives, the dead ends and bad neighbourhoods we wake up in, and in the simplest, lightest, most singular and luminous moments. He’s hiding, like a child, in quite obvious and visible places, because he wants to be found. The miracle is that he dwells in both.’