One step forward, two steps back? From ‘the search for happiness’ to ‘a search for meaning’

So since my last post about ‘finding my mission’, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. About how to try and live a happier life, and how to reorient myself professionally towards a ‘mission’ that would be more fulfilling.

In the last couple of weeks, I did a bunch of reading and thinking about my search for ‘happiness’. It turns out, I didn’t really have this search framed quite right.

Let me explain.

What I realised belatedly in the last couple of weeks (I’m sure basically every philosopher in history and psychologist practising today, would have spotted this instantly!) is that what I was looking for wasn’t really happiness at all. Continue reading

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Wanders near Bristol: Rowberrow and Dolebury Warren (Part 2)

(For part 1, see here.)

When I read the word ‘fort’ on a map, despite knowing that this is never going to be the case, a little part of me always hopes for (and maybe still actually expects) an enormous, forbidding stone tower with turrets and ramparts- perhaps with Game of Thrones characters wearing furs, striding around, shading their eyes from the sun and looking majestic.

Of course, this is never the case, and it wasn’t at Dolebury Warren. The fort was constructed in the Iron Age. This is quite a long time ago; so, even though it’s what the archaeologists call ‘very well preserved’, to an untrained casual observer like me, all there is to actually see at Dolebury Warren is a large grass-covered lump- or rather, two large grass-covered lumps (with some piled stones in the surrounds-I assume the stone piles are a more recent addition, though I’m not sure why they’re there).

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Wanders near Bristol: Rowberrow and Dolebury Warren (part 1)

I’m a huge fan of good travel writing. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about travel writing, and what makes travel writing enjoyable to read. (More musings on that at some point, probably).

In the process of that, I started thinking about how I feel when I travel, and explore a new place, and record the details in writing. It’s something that gives me a lot of joy. And yet, I don’t think I need to be anywhere special to have that feeling. A lot of travelling, let’s be honest, is about wandering around an unknown city centre looking for coffee or a toilet-  or else walking through outdoor spaces that nine times out of ten are beautiful, but not necessarily unique.

What makes travelling special, for me, is probably the sense that I am actively involved in my surroundings. I’m somewhere I might only be for a few hours and then never see again, so the experience of being there is something to treasure and experience fully.

When I thought about it that way, I realised there was no real reason not to make more effort to explore and write about my local neighbourhood a bit more. I often go for hikes and trips around Bristol, but it’s never occurred to me to document them. Yet the area in which I live has just as much to be seen and worthwhile to record as anywhere else I’ve travelled.

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My journals, revisited

I’ve gotten into the habit of writing a journal, which I began when travelling and after some encouragement from my Dad (who is always right about such things).

Often, what I write is basically a stream of consciousness. Sometimes the words veer abruptly from wittering about pancakes into blasts of worried sentences that seem to come out of nowhere, stuff I’m clearly anxious about, but didn’t know I was until it poured out. I also often write down quotes from books or people that strike me as interesting, or inspirational.

I find I usually have no recollection of the words when I go back and read them again- it’s like it pours out of the brain and onto the page. This is probably why I find writing a journal helpful; it’s like the mental equivalent of unclogging a blocked sink.

However, it also means that revisiting the journal becomes strangely enjoyable. I rediscover whole parts of my life I literally forgot I lived through, and it feels like my life as a whole gets bigger and fuller as a result of refreshing those memories. I can’t believe how many trips I’ve been on when I wasn’t journaling that have almost totally disappeared from my mind. I spent an entire year living in Thailand once, and my recollections are pretty limited to vague impressions of yellow t-shirts, shopping malls, children with identical haircuts, brightly lit beach parties, and myself wandering around some empty streets drinking iced coffee out of a plastic bag. It makes me sad to think about what I’ve lost.

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Well, I’m unemployed.

Montage of scenes from my average day this week

I got up at 8am when my partner left for work. “Have a good day.” he said, brightly. “I will”, I responded, equally brightly, then spent a good five minutes looking at the wedding photos of someone I haven’t spoken to in six years on Facebook.

I rolled out my yoga mat and did some yoga in my pyjamas. I alternated between trying to breathe slowly and regularly… and accidentally forgetting and holding my breath in for minutes at a time (while I replayed a conversation in my head with our letting agent, who is infuriating by the way). STOP. AGH. BE IN THE MOMENT. BREATHE.

I finished yoga and stared at the ceiling, thinking about different recipes for risotto, until my bare feet got cold and I remembered I had to actually get up off the floor if I wanted my day to continue. While NOT getting up off the floor would result in me being found lying on the living room floor by my partner when he returned after work several hours later. He would be startled by a limp ‘hello’ emerging from somewhere in the gloom, the room having darkened around me in the hours that had elapsed. It’s a scenario that seems unlikely but I can’t quite discount. This thought, luckily, jolts me up off the floor.

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Arizona, Arizona

I went on a road trip, from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, with a friend. We boarded the plane in New York, wearing thick down coats and gloves, and arrived to an airy, badly carpeted airport that looked like a 1990s  casino. As we stood, waiting for our bags, we shed layers and layers- the airconditioning was fighting with a sweaty, dog-like warmth.

We drove through the back streets of industrial Phoenix to pick up some camping gear. On the way, my friend became excited upon seeing the sign for a ‘Jack in the Box’ restaurant. This is a fast food chain you don’t apparently get on the East Coast, and she had heard magical tales of the food they served, which proved to be all true. They served something called a ‘Buttery Jack.’ It is a burger, literally dripping in herbed butter. She ate one and gave a positive verdict. I ordered an Oreo shake. It was so thick that sucking on the straw felt like some sort of tantric sex exercise; I could feel my pelvic floor muscles contracting, and yet the level in the cup never seemed to go down. In the end, I gave up and let it melt into a solid pile of white goo, but it didn’t increase in liquidity- it just seemed to get grubbier and sadder the more it came into contact with the air. I enjoyed it very much, but I didn’t eat again for hours, like a snake full of carrion. (I would happily return and buy another one, to be clear).

Jack in the Box pictures

Jack is watching.

The Jack in the Box advertising mascot- their answer to Ronald- is a nightmarish hulk of a man with a white mask on, who stares down from photographs on the walls with a rictus grin on his plastic face. In the picture directly above our table, he stood silently at the end of a forest path, trying to remember where he had hidden the quicklime for dissolving his latest murder victims’ remains. It was unsettling, especially because it took us nearly twenty minutes to notice the pictures; he’d been stalking us, biding his time.

We listened to twanging country music all the way to Sedona. Sedona is a sprawling modern town amidst extraordinary red rocks that look like they were left as road markers by aliens from space, the same guys who left us with Uluru. There are a lot of swanky, concrete hotels with outdoor heated jacuzzis and ice machines, and chunky, shuffling tourists looking to get their vortexes sharpened or their chakras polished or whatever it is you do with those parts of yourself. While waiting to check into our hotel, we searched online for an ‘aura photo’ to see what they looked like. It looked pretty damn muddy. I could see why the guy needed his cleansed. Unfortunately, we hadn’t made an appointment, so instead we went up to a popular overlook to watch the sunset, along with every other person in the state who knows how to use Google.

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Blocks, corners, distance

My friend said, as she pauses over the first sip of wine: It’s ok, I guess. I just feel completely disillusioned. I thought we were trying to achieve something, but now… I think it’s all just for show. None of it really means anything.

My friend said, with the distant smile of someone who has made a good decision: After we’d been speaking for just an hour… I really felt like I had known them, like, forever.

I said, it turned out it was just a block away from me, so….
My friend interrupts: You’re even talking differently! We’d normally say ‘around the corner’.
Really? But it’s in a straight line. There’s no corner. It’s just…a block! Right?

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