Friday, January 30, 2004

Great novels and huge discourses have been written about the pursuit of happiness, and so I don’t pretend that what I’m about to write will say anything truly original. But writing down my thoughts is carthatic, and by doing so maybe I can get a better grip on them.

I was happy – actually, make that Happy, with a capital H – last summer. Why? Superficially, because I was regularly doing something I love – playing frisbee – and spending lots of time developing friendships with people I like. One of them was F., and it was wonderful to, albeit briefly, live that London dream: every night different – from quirky little French arthouse movies and photography exhibitions to Japanese noodle bars and endless summer evenings with the disc – always with an interesting and attractive girl, and always finishing in a cosy North London bed.

For work, I was freelancing at my former employers. This was ok, but I had quit the previous winter because I knew I didn’t want to do that job forever. So the summer work was fine, but I always knew it was short term. If I had been doing the work as a permanent employee, I’m sure the same existential and career doubts that haunted me the previous summer would have still been around. And this, I think, is a more substantial explination for my happiness; the knowledge that what I was doing – all of it – was short-term. I’m not the first person to observe that such experiences are often one’s best. There was a purpose to the summer – enjoy it, ‘cause it ain’t gonna last forever – that is missing in day-to-day life. Why the energy and desire to maximise one’s enjoyment of something seems to evaporate when one settles into a routine is another question, and much harder to answer.

This observation is consistent with other experiences of mine. To pick one example, in the summer of ’96, whilst I was at Uni, I did probably the worst job I’ve ever done, working on Brighton’s Palace Pier, and I was working 54 hours a week. Yet I remember loving that summer, and my memories are of long evenings in the seaside bars with colleagues. Other (adult) times that I can remember real happiness are the months preceeding my South American travels and my first summer term at Uni. All of these were temporary, and all were followed by periods of wanting it all back, (although as one gets older one copes better with that).

In contrast, periods of stability in my life – my jobs in London, the middle of my second year at Uni, and now, for example – have been characterised by passiveness and confusion, and lacking the highs of other times. It is also, I’m sure, no coincidence that I don’t seem to be as willing to fall for a girl during these periods: the only times it's really happened have been when I’ve been about to leave the country.

So what to do? My original plans for Italy were to put all the things I wanted – a rewarding job, a frisbee team, a lively town and a better climate than South-East England – in one place: Bologna. Now that didn’t work out, but I do now wonder that even if it had, would it be enough to make me love life right now, when I’m settled in a few months after arriving. I doubt it, since I like Verona. Would I be happier as a wandering nomad? Surely not, but why am I wondering if, despite enjoying this work, I’d be better off in academia? If and when I go there, will I, three months in, start getting itchy feet again?

Of course, there is one big factor in all of this that I haven’t yet mentioned (and being English, this is somewhat surprising): the weather. You could quite easily look at all this and say: well, in the summers you’re happy, and in the winters rather placid. And, broadly, you’d be right. But there have been summers full of at least as much confusion and frustration as some of those winters: ’02, ’01 and ’98, to pick just three. Having said that, it’s hard to pick a winter full of joy, despite my memories of some of them being of little more than wonderful weekends away canoeing. Funnily enough, if I did have to pick one post-Uni winter as my favourite, I’d pick the first one, when I was bored temping and not earning enough to save money for travelling anytime soon: superficially, the worst one. What does that tell us? Maybe that mundane jobs give us the energy to make the most of the rest of life, but, more likely, I think, that it supports what I was saying earlier: I saw the situation as temporary – I may not have known how, but sooner or later I was going travelling – and so made the most of everything else in my life. And that, in turn, tells us something else, although if I could articulate what that was, I could probably make a lot of money out of it. And I certainly wouldn’t tell you.

Just you watch: if I decide to leave Verona in the summer, then I’ll end up loving my final few months; if, on the other hand, I decide to stay for next year, then May, June and July will be full of doubts*. A cynic might suggest that that’s a self-fulfiling prophecy, and they may be right. But there’s nothing I can do about it now that the thought has been released. However, if you do have any other suggestings for calming this confused mind then I’d love to hear them.**

* When I touch-typed that sentence, it came out as “..then May, June and July will be full of donuts”. Funny, and possibly true.

** Does anybody actually get this far reading this rambling self-absorbed angst? I write this mostly for me – although it’s become a good way to keep friends and family close – and I sometimes wonder if anybody bothers or cares enough to read all the way through. If you just have, could you leave me a quick comment saying so; I’m interested to know. Thanks.

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