As humans we all get it free with the package, this ability to sense over 50,000 emotions, and yet there's only about 50 words in our vocabulary to describe them. Of course, there are sensations that don't need to be described to be felt; when you bang your elbow on something hard even if you're in some Amazonian tribe who have to marry each other, you would still feel an "owww". Sadness, too, is fairly universal, the reason for it changes, but we all have the same equipment and therefore all have the sense of salt water dripping out of our ducts.
All of the above, most of us would rather not experience if given a choice. Happiness is the big banana that we're all after and want to keep forever; it's why we face ice and wind and storms to get ourselves a hit. There are not many books written about the feeling of what actually happens when you bang your elbow but billions on happiness.
There's no question when we make it through an emergency we get a pretty positive feeling. Here are but a few:
- You just crossed the Himalayas with no food for two weeks and suddenly see a rabbit.
- After 50 years of searching you found your birth mother and she's rich.
- You've just been told they got it wrong, you haven't got something terminal.
Some of these experiences may be more the "R" word as in 'relief' rather than full on happiness but let's not get into semantics; it's a fantastic zing if you've gone through any of the above.
If you aren't in an emergency situation, happiness is more elusive - we all experience it differently.
I'm always amazed when people say or, even worse - shout, gleefully, "happy birthday". Or worse again, "Happy New Year". What's to be happy about? That time is speeding by? We should send condolence cards that read, "I'm sorry you're wilting and getting closer to death". Again, I'm sure it's just the way I see things so I'm sorry if I've ruined New Years Eve for you. If so, just do your count-down and ignore me.
Of course, we all get a volt of joy when selected for the girl's volley team ( wasn't, but I can imagine - still bitter) or when falling in love and the feeling's mutual. The rub is that however high the hit is, it doesn't last; none of us can keep up that emotional erection forever. Even if you hold onto that feeling long enough to marry some day, you'll eventually look at him/her and think, "What was I thinking?". The day will come when you'll be sitting there, hating the way he/she chews food. I'm not saying it's not worth trying for the the Olympics in high jumping, I'm just saying, and I'm sure you've heard this before, that if you're lucky enough to stand up there with the gold dangling from your neck, no matter how your heart is pumping with joy, a few moments later you're on the downhill descent. From this point onward you'll either break your knees trying for the gold again or be condemned to watch re-runs of your golden moment on DVD when you won the downhill toboggan or whatever, boring your friends to death. We all eventually get that hard, cold reality slap in the face that everything passes. However talented, beautiful, intelligent, virile you are, at some point you will be replaced like an old toaster by the newer model (ex-film stars and ex-models usually like to take up saving cats).
So there it is, we spend our lives hunting for something that has a very limited life span, sometimes lasting only seconds (see sex). Whatever that rush of fireworks in the blood is; winning the lottery, making a billion, getting on the volleyball team, there will be a fall. We've known this forever (see Greek tragedy) and yet we never learn.
If we could get it into our heads that a life of chasing the dragon will ultimately exhaust us and as you get older, it's not brain science, you'll eventually lose your grip. We have to remember we are biodegradable and if we push too hard we can bring on early disease or even death (yes, it happens, even to you).
I can't believe I'm saying this, me, who mowed over everyone in my way to grab onto some success, thinking if I get a bite of it I'll be happy. In the pursuit I've tipped into illness many times, got up again but continued to stampede through any obstacle for that moment of elation, which I rarely experience because I'm already worrying who's going to replace me.
So, now I'm finally getting it into my head what some people know already, that the idea is to try sometimes to stay not too high or too low, just balancing on the surfboard so you can ride the waves and not go under.
If we can't even describe happiness accurately, we really have a hard time with contentment. It sounds like you've retired and are smiling benignly in your incontinent pants - it sounds like that but it isn't. The problem is we have to learn to reach contentment. It's not easy and doesn't come to many of us naturally. Maybe it helps living in greenery but for most of us in cities or towns it's hard to stay steady with all that hanging candy tempting us.
I know when you do something for someone else, someone who hasn't asked for help, you get that feeling of warm syrup in your veins but only if you do it privately, not if you're going for that high hit of egotism mistaken for happiness as in, "Look at me, I got Sharon Stone to save Vietnamese pigs at an event at the Ritz I've organised and at the end I'm going to make a speech about pigs that will make you cry and applaud, then take your money".
I think my aim is to maybe try for that not too high, not too low equilibrium. Not all the time. Are you kidding? If I didn't get a big throw your head back druggy high once in awhile it wouldn't be worth getting out of bed. But to just sometimes be able to lightly pull in the reigns when I feel I'm falling into 'give me give me give me' would be worth it all. This is why each day I try to practice a bit of mindfulness, I don't know any other way to be able get that warm calm not too high not too low feeling.
I'm touring the UK talking about mindfulness with my Sane New World show.