At a time of year when our spirits are low, with the Christmas excesses of booze and treats catching up with us and keeping us in our welcome beds, we are looking for a replacement to get us through the turgid Winter. We need a stepping stone to take us to the brighter mornings and beyond. As happiness junkies, we try to get a quick fix in our own way, the common thread being they make us feel content but only for a while, rarely having any long term benefits.
One recourse that we sometimes take is to keep on eating and boozing well into the new year, providing either comfort food or liquid amnesia for a seemingly bleak January or February- in the Northern Hemisphere anyway. This works for a short time, fooling our brains into recreating those jollies we had on works’ Christmas parties, nights out and sumptuous roasted banquets.
The downside is that, like an addict, we become too used to the gorging, needing to move up to the next level. Most of us wouldn’t have the baubles to move up to full blown alcoholism or eating disorder chaos, giving up due to lack of funds, fat arse sensibilities and having a boss who likes an employee to turn up to work occasionally, and be sober too.
Having fallen at the first hurdle, possibly by being too drunk or fat to get over it, we move to the next course of self administered quick fix happiness therapy: exercise. Duncan Bannatyne and his gym peddling brothers sense this surge in interest and slash the cost of joining a gym- for a while at least. We see this as killing two extremely obese and inebriated birds with one stone: our bodies get fitter and our brains release those chemicals we so desperately crave. The fact of putting on trainers and a tracksuit (which have never met a trainer or a track in their existence) provides that instant mental illusion of activity and progress. The gym membership being untimely ripped from our bank accounts becomes a hurtful reminder of the effort we are making to get well.
No pain; no gain. This seems to be too much physical and financial effort, as shown by the sharp drop in gym memberships after February, again, the novice gym-goer being unaware of the long term commitments to a (mentally and physically) healthy lifestyle.
Many of us who aren’t taken in by fitness marketeering try our hand at some retail therapy. We have plenty of opportunities in the sales after Christmas and with a trusty credit card never holstered, we exploit its credit limit, a bottomless well that we chuck virtual coins into, making the wish that the end of month statement would just disappear. Of course no credit limit is large enough to accommodate our cravings for stuff, not helped by gadgets being upgraded faster than powder-charged advertising executives can think of catchy slogans. Simple economics tells us that we have to put money in to get money out. This means work. Work is long and arduous: no short-cut to happiness there then.
Well, we’ve tried decadence and exercise to help us through the dark days and move us a few steps closer to our happiest place which, if (lack of) memory serves, goes all the way back to our womb without a view. Where is our next port of call? After the holy (and unholy) festival of Christmas is over, many people feel that it’s time to seek out a god to float their deflated boat. Religion having been their excuse to celebrate Christmas, many people see it as a fillip to ignite their passion for life. Many, such as myself, never grew up with organised religion as a way of life and, rather like the hungry or poor who respectively turn to gluttony or prodigality to fill their happy gaps, are unprepared for the consequences of switching on the god light in their brains.
Many people born into mainstream religious households have for years been practising rites, rituals and sing-songs in devotion to their particular faith. Whether this is a waste of time and effort is a matter of opinion, albeit one not dictated by logic and reason in most debates. The problem for born again novices needing that something extra special to make them happy is like being handed the keys (if they have them) to a Harrier Jump Jet without even passing a secondary school physics test. This short-cut can be detrimental as new devotees may leap into an unknown world with a promise of eternal happiness- a huge claim that could contravene the trades description laws were it not for the religious foundations of our legal system.
Many recent converts, especially to Protestant-themed Christianity (once termed by a friend of mine as “Diet Catholicism”) wander in on a very simple premise: God is the only key to eternal happiness; without Him, there is nothing (or Hell if joining a particularly pedantic sect). This seems like the perfect bypass to bliss: become friends with God and everything will be fine, although some of my Christian friends claim that this choice is not easy, leading to a drastic change in a lifestyle beset by temptation as well as becoming something of a social pariah in these modern times. However, billions find organised religion the most redeeming way to find true joy and many don’t care if they’re taking the wrong river, as long as they get to the sea (or something approximating it).
So, what is the answer to true eternal happiness if not food, drugs, consumerism and belief in a higher being to pass the buck to? Well, I can’t really answer that question. That is something we all have to work towards and find for ourselves. We should try and leave these well established short-cuts alone as they inevitably lead to unsatisfying cul-de-sacs of nothingness. The first step is to stay away from things that make us unhappy- sometimes a hard step if it’s our job or relationship that brings us down. Let’s take the alternative path of things that we enjoy and we would never tire of, for example: reading more; taking up a sport or a hobby that we’ve always dreamed of doing; learning something new and making new friends in the process. We may still take the odd wrong turn now and again but c’est la vie. At the end of it all, we will have found that it’s the journey of discovery that counted and not necessarily what we did. Let’s just feel happy now in the fact that life is out there and there are plenty of paths to meander down and plenty of laughs to have along the way.