Are you happy? Really happy? Not just content or getting by or doing okay but really really happy? Fat chance. True happiness nowadays seems more elusive than a simultaneous orgasm; more ephemeral than the chance of last year’s swimsuit fitting; more fleeting than an empty in-tray. Barbara De Angelis, an American expert on human relations, warns that happiness is becoming an endangered species and points an accusing finger at modern life and expectations. We are living in a world which is speeding up by the second, in which we are taught to always want more, want better, want best. “We are movers and shakers,” she says, “achievement junkies, a society of speed-worshippers.”
However, she soothes, there is a way out, a chance to cool the pace and enjoy true happiness. And it doesn’t involve drink, drugs or dropping out. You don’t need to get a better job or a smarter flat, to win the lottery, lose two stone or nab a more luscious lover. The answer, De Angelis says, lies within us all. As she explains in her book Real Moments (Delacorte Press) all we need do is discover the eponymous “real moments” – times when we experience life full-on, living completely and utterly in the present. She’s talking about feeling wonder at a rainbow, taking
delight in stretching your body, staring deep into your lover’s eyes and not thinking “God, he needs a shave”. It’s like going back to childhood when the world was full of wonder and everything seemed new and fresh. West Coast consciousness-raising crap? Not necessarily.
“If you don’t feel you have enough right now, when will you have enough?” asks De Angelis. “How much money or success would it take until you felt you had enough? And then what would you do?” Think about it – really think about it. De Angelis says the reason most of us aren’t as happy as we might be is that we have all become experts at postponing happiness. We can’t catch real moments now because we’re never focusing on the present.
“Happiness, by definition, can only be found now, in this moment,” she lectures. Real moments are “the hug your child gives you for no reason at all; a flock of birds flying past a cloud; the song playing on the radio that gives you just the message you’ve been needing to hear; the lone yellow daffodil bursting through the crack in the concrete pavement.” Happiness, she insists, is not a miraculous God-given state of being – it is simply a series of great moments. Tack enough together and you have a free-fall run of happiness. The good news is that these “real moments” don’t just plop out of the heavens – anyone can choose to have them. It’s all down to how you look at life.
Fiona Arrigo agrees. As a psychotherapist she spent years watching people hunt desperately for happiness in a hectic world. She now runs retreats in which she gently persuades people to stop panicking and start living. Learning how to have real moments is all part of the treatment. “De Angelis is absolutely right,” says Arrigo, “we are so caught up in looking to the future that we have lost the gift of magic.”
SO, ARE YOU AVOIDING HAPPINESS?
The happiness gurus say that first you need to work out if you are avoiding real moments and, if so, why? Unfortunately most of us seem to be looking at life with long vision glasses. De Angelis says we are often so fixated on our long-term goals and ambitions that we ignore the potential happy moments under our own noses. “We wait for happiness passively, as if it is something that will be bestowed on us at a particular time,” she laments.
Answer the following questions, honestly:
1. Do you constantly have to be doing something? Are you a workaholic who claims you can never find the chance to take time off? Do you get nervous when you’re doing nothing? When you go on holiday do you have to be doing things, seeing sights, visiting shops, trying every new sport? When you’re “relaxing” at home, do you tend to have the TV or PC on all the time? Do you do several things at once?
2. Do you rely on “habits” to get you by? Are you addicted to smoking, drinking, eating, tranquilizers, the Internet? De Angelis says that people who are hungry for more real moments often use addictions to get a “temporary hit of happiness.”
3. Are you cynical, pessimistic or sarcastic? This, says De Angelis, is a classic cover-up for pain, hiding a deep disappointment in people and in life itself. Are you judgmental? It’s impossible to feel happiness with people if you are constantly judging and disconnecting from them.
4. Do you live your life through others? Do you make your lover, your children, your friends, the centre of your life rather than your own self?
If you answered yes to any of these questions odds are you are not giving yourself the chance for happiness in your life.
But why would anyone in their right mind turn down a dose of joy? Easy, says De Angelis. Firstly we are afraid of real happiness, of real moments. “They can be very confrontational,” she says, “when you stop doing too much and take time to have real moments, you will undoubtedly come face to face with emotions, revelations or realities you weren’t aware of.” She’s got a good point. A friend of mine was in a high-powered marketing job, earning big bucks and living in the lap of luxury. Then she went off on a solo three-week holiday to Greece. On her return she chucked in the job, sold her lovely London house and moved into a rented flat in Devon, temping as and when she needed money. “I realised I was living a lie,” she says, “Now I work when I need to and have the time to do what I really love – the theatre.”
The second reason for avoiding real moments, says De Angelis, is that we are often scared of intimacy. She’s not talking about sharing oral sex or deep dark secrets but about making meaningful connections with people, even with complete strangers. This one I find tough: my idea of utter bliss is completing a train journey with an empty seat as my companion. A big mistake, says De Angelis. If I looked for real moments with chance strangers I might learn important lessons. “Strangers can be very pure mirrors of truth, reflecting back to you whatever you’ve been needing to see,” she says. I take her point but would urge a little caution on this one – what if your stranger happens to be a serial killer?
HOW TO GET HAPPY – THE REAL MOMENTS WORKSHOP
1. Take time to be by yourself and work out what you really want from life, says De Angelis. Ask yourself some simple home truths:
* Am I happy? What would make me happy?
* What do I need to do in my life to be free?
* What parts of myself, both in the past and the present, have I hidden from others for fear they would disapprove of me? What parts do I bury even from myself?
* What are my values and beliefs? If I lived them 100% how would that look in my life? How would the people close to me react?
* Am I living where and how I want to live or where and how someone else wants me to live? What would I have to change to have my lifestyle congruous with my desires?
2. Concentrate on your feelings, says Fiona Arrigo. “You have to go through a very honest self-evaluation of what makes you feel good in the world – from what hours you keep, to what food you eat to what music you like.”
Don’t live your life by rules and regulations, she continues. “What was good for you last week or last year may not be good for you now. You need to have the courage to live for you – to be true to your self, not to your boss, not to your lover, not to your image. But, above all, be gentle with yourself. This is a very deep process and shouldn’t be seen as yet another task to get through.”
3. Both De Angelis and Arrigo suggest active forms of meditation to get into real moments. “Just breathing consciously, following your breath in and out, brings you right into the present,” says Arrigo. De Angelis agrees and incorporates breathing in her “Right Now” meditation. Whatever you are doing, whether it is writing a report or lazing in the garden, making love or cooking a curry concentrate on what you are actually doing. Say to yourself, “Right now I am lying underneath the trees…right now I am listening to the birds…right now I am breathing deeply….right now I am stretching..” Take deep relaxing breaths between each “right now”. Keep going for about five minutes for best benefits and practice this at least once a day. Always end with the phrase “Right now, I am right here, right now.”
3. Keep a journal or diary – not of events but of your feelings, your observations, any “real moments.” You don’t have to write every day but make sure you are honest and record your thoughts without censorship. As De Angelis says, “The more you put your attention on real moments you’ve just experienced, the more of them you will recognise the next time.”
FINDING HAPPINESS AT WORK
You don’t need to chuck in your job in order to find happiness. However you might need to change your attitude. “What you do as a job isn’t as important as how you do it,” says De Angelis, “if you do it with caring, if you do it with commitment, then it will be a good way to earn your living.”
She’s right. A friend and I once had jobs selling tickets for shows at Earls Court. It was pretty mindless and most of our fellow ticket vendors had faces like hatchets. We, however, set ourselves a challenge to see how fast we could clear the queues and how many punters we could get to smile at us. The job became enthralling; the hours raced by and our co-workers were stunned at how many people we had served -and how many had asked us out! Arrigo agrees: “Whatever you are doing, whether it is mopping a floor, working in a bank or running ICI is truly what you are supposed to be doing at that moment. If you’re always thinking ‘I should get a promotion; I should be a therapist; I should marry a millionaire’ you will always postpone happiness. Be aware, accept life and flow with it.”
FINDING HAPPINESS IN LOVE
Whatever happened to the equation love equals happiness? De Angelis says we need to make time to have real moments with our partners: “Set your alarm clock to go off ten minutes earlier so you can have a cuddle,” she says, “Meet for a picnic lunch in the park; take a silent walk holding hands or sit together on the sofa in candlelight; turn off the television, start talking and see what happens; share your deepest fears and your wildest dreams.”
Arrigo thinks these are sweet ideas but feels the whole issue of happiness in relationships revolves around daily commitment. She warns that we are always trying to change our lovers. Once again we’re off in Neverland imagining he will one day transform from Mr Average into a suave superhero who is lean and tough and caring and sharing all at the same time. “You have to get back into the moment,” says Arrigo, “choose to be where you are every minute, accept that and give your whole being to the person and the moment.” In other words, look for the good bits rather than pouncing in on the bad.
FINDING HAPPINESS FOR YOURSELF
De Angelis says that we women, in particular, are chucking away our happiness in modern society. “We are too self-sacrificing,” she says, “we need to create a day, an hour, even five minutes, when we give to ourselves only and not to anyone else.”
She suggests we seek solitude. “Take a walk in a quiet place, keep a journal where only your voice has a say. Or give birth to something, anything: a cake, a letter to a friend, an innovative idea at work, a garden.”
Fiona Arrigo persuades people to start to pamper themselves. “Take a long luxurious bath; go for a gentle walk; curl up with a book; sleep; do nothing,” she advises, “People always say there isn’t time to have a massage or sit and talk but we can create the time because we are in charge of ourselves.”
Happiness, say De Angelis and Arrigo, is basically a choice. Look at the world with jaundiced, jaded, cynical eyes and it will irritate the hell out of you. You will always be yearning for a future life of impossible perfection. However try shifting your perspective and see the beauty in small things, the joy in other people and the world will suddenly seem a brighter place. Who knows, you might even find you’re happier than you think.
A version of this feature first appeared in New Woman magazine.