This afternoon, a man on a bike cycled past me.
He had headphones jammed in his ears and was singing along to music which was only faintly audible: the song was one I didn’t recognise, but the big smile on his face spoke for itself.
‘How nice – that man is really happy!’ I thought. And then I stopped, and reconsidered my reaction.
That man was happy. Happier than me, perhaps. Certainly happier than many other people around the world. It was an unbelievably lovely thing to realise: without knowing the context or the cause, I’d spotted a total stranger being happy.
The changing states of happiness
When I was younger, a seemingly indefinite number of things made me happy. The promise of secret worlds hidden behind cobweb-covered doors and high brick walls; the way my cat rubbed his little head against mine when he clambered onto my bed; staying up late enough at sleepovers with my friends to warrant my mum bringing us a midnight feast.
Yet happiness can and does change over time – and writing a memoir, funnily enough, will cause a large amount of retrospection. Over the last few months I’ve looked back critically over different elements of my life to see that I’ve actually wrestled for a long time with being happy. More specifically, with maintaining that happiness once I felt I had hold of it.
As a teenager, moments of happy contentment were immediately leapt at by a mind looking for holes. Were there difficult exams coming up? Did I have a strange sickness or symptom that hadn’t gone away? If I couldn’t find a worry-worthy problem straight away, I ended up settling for the distant concern that someone I loved would die: causing a numbness far back in my chest which would always sit there.
Nowadays my happiness tastes different. Adult life is weighted down, and there’s more room for embarrassment or shame to crease and fade the positives. Happiness becomes something we consciously cultivate when we don’t have quite enough of it.
Now, I feel happy when the caffeine from fresh brewed Italian coffee floods my veins and I feel the beginnings of a really good story form in my mind; when I find an outfit to always feel beautiful in, no matter what my mood is; when I finally feel strong in one of many yoga classes I force my body into.
And then there’s travel. Almost a decade has passed since I first travelled solo, and in that time I’ve faced up to hundreds of internal and external challenges which have shaped me into the person I am now.
But am I actually happy?
It’s a question I’ve thought about a great deal recently. I always used to think that travel was my safety net: it gives me a thrill and a rush like nothing else, and has been the outlet I turn to whenever I need something. A change in living pace; the temptation of unknown horizons; the chance to meet new people and grow another facet of myself. Again and again and again.
Happiness also seems to occur more naturally when you’re travelling. Outside of normal life’s mundanity, everything shines: there are long train journeys with a window seat, or delicate silver jewellery on a market stall table which you buy on impulse, or a sudden group of perfect friends in a backstreet hostel.
The concern is wondering what elements of normal life you might be giving up at travelling’s expense.
I’ve spent the last two years assuming that once my masters degree was finished I’d immediately be on a one way flight to Guatemala, or Bhutan, or Mongolia. I hadn’t expected to feel unsure. Not about long term travel. Not about the one constant I’ve had in my life for the last eight years.
Writing a book has alerted me to a lot about myself, and one of the most pertinent factors is that since my mum died in 2009, I’ve always been on the run. Whether it’s running away from my problems or running into them doesn’t really matter: the fact is, I haven’t really stopped to take stock of what, where and who I am.
It’s resulted in me feeling just a little bit lost.
Surprise! I’m staying in London (for now, at least)
Two years of being back in my home city and you’d think I would feel settled here, right? Strangely enough, there’s always a feeling of impermanence which shadows my London life – but then again, that feeling has been with me in most other countries too.
It’s a by-product of constantly being on the move, and it’s somewhat debilitating. London might not feel completely like my home but all the trappings are absolutely there. It’s the city where I grew up; where my dad lives; where most of my closest friends are. Currently I’m renting a gorgeous apartment with two wonderful housemates in a part of the city which I adore.
The idea of giving all those factors up, just for the potential of finding something great at the other end of the world, simply doesn’t make sense.
Long term solo travel means so much to me, and it probably always will. But it’s a sobering realisation to know that – for now, at least – it might not be the right choice. Instead, there are some other aspects of life which are already making me happy, and which I think deserve more of my undivided attention.
One: publishing my book
Now my masters is officially over, I have the second draft of my very first book manuscript clutched to my chest – all 96,000 words of it. The writing process has been a whirlwind of highs and lows but I never really imagined what might happen afterwards: working on a fresh round of edits; crafting a book proposal; researching possible literary agents and making contact.
Yet that’s the stage I’m at, and while it’s a wonderfully exhilarating place to be, it also requires a fair amount of dedication. I feel like this memoir is where the past eight years of writing have been leading (not to mention the years of experiences which are documented within it!) and I want to give it the attention it deserves.
Two: developing my freelance writing
Spring-boarding my writing career into the field of paid work has developed organically, but because of the aforementioned masters programme, I haven’t allowed myself the chance to really work on making my name as a freelance writer. Apart from the occasional article for other publications, my work has been confined to this site.
Flipping through the piles of notebooks scattered around my house I can see story ideas on every page, many of which aren’t destined for a travel blog. Successfully pitching articles is something I’m really excited to do, and to see if I can actually make a living from. A pipe-dream, perhaps, but one I’d love to succeed in.
(With that in mind, please get in touch if you’d like to discuss any freelance writing projects with me!)
Three: working on my self care
Probably the most important factor is something I’ve woefully ignored for the longest time. Way back in 2009, I went to approximately three therapy sessions after my mum’s death, and then decided I didn’t need help. Apart from a number of self-prescribed alternative therapies (ayahuasca, San Pedro and an old Russian healer woman in the Himalayas, to name a few) I really haven’t dealt with a compounded eight years of grief.
As you might imagine, that’s taken somewhat of a toll.
There have been bouts of anxiety, flirtations with depression and an all round lack of happiness: things which I hadn’t even realised were weighing me down until a few months ago.
I miss the person I used to be. I want to get her back again. So that means actively taking care of myself, from yoga, cycling, going for walks (and maybe doing the Camino again), to reconnecting with the positives in my life.
Getting back in touch with my body and loving myself is a priority I know I should make space for, and I think staying put in one place for a while longer is the right way to do it.
So what really makes me happy?
As the singing cyclist vanished down an East London street, my mind flitted through moments of positivity and happiness, each one stored carefully in my mind for when I’ve needed them. The true times which make me happy: like when Spanish falls effortlessly from my mouth and the words make sense; or the delicious jolt in my stomach when a man I like gives me the idea he likes me back.
There are inconsequential ones, too. Feeling the crisp coolness in the air which means autumn’s coming. Pizza and dark chocolate. Peanut butter, in all forms. Accidentally dropping off into a really satisfying nap. The heavy, swollen clouds in the sky which indicate a thunderstorm.
Most of these things are so tiny. Yet added up together, they’re huge.
I like to think that humans are indomitably happy. We strive for it with everything we do – even amongst all the wars, terror and fear that so much of the world now lives under the influence of. No matter who or where you are, if you’re not feeling happy the immediate wish is to be happy again.
Recognising the fact that I’m not truly happy at the moment has actually given me a sense of peace. The world will never be completely right: as an adult, I understand that now. But I can find solace in each occasion that is positive, and can be more thankful for every moment that I inadvertently feel happy – or see that happiness in someone else.
What’s next? No more travelling?
For the first time in a decade, the desire to jet off to an unexplored country for an indefinite amount of time isn’t the top of my list. And honestly, it’s a relief.
That’s not to say I won’t be travelling. In October I’m going to Italy with a few friends, and there’ll be plenty of little adventures on the horizon. But I feel rather proud to know I don’t need to prove anything about my capabilities or desire to travel. For now, working on myself and my happiness takes precedence.
And maybe the next time I head out on a long term adventure, it’ll be with complete happiness from the start.