‘…the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.’
‘The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Three: 1925-1930’ – Virginia Woolf
I’ve had a little epiphany. I am no longer going to try and be happier – I am going to try and be CALMER.
A number of things have led me to this decision – here’s one of them.
My lovely sister asked me recently if I’ve ever looked into whether I might be a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’. I’d vaguely registered this concept while looking into the plight of the introvert but hadn’t looked into it in detail – there are so many labels and syndromes for people and they aren’t always helpful. Turns out this term was coined in the 1990s and it seems to be a fairly well-established ‘thing’.
So I found this online test and scored 23. By contrast, lovely sister scored 9. Seems she might be onto something.
My initial reaction – which has not yet passed – is to be utterly pissed off. What is the point of being one of these people? No wonder I find everything such flipping hard work. If it’s true that as much as 15-20% of the population can be categorised as HSP, then there must be some value or purpose in having these highly sensitive traits but I’m too angry to look at the positives at the moment. For now I’m going to concentrate on what to do about it (40 isn’t too late, right?!)
Trying to focus on staying calm seems a good place to start. When I feel calm, I do better work, am less annoying to be around, think more clearly, make better decisions, am less likely to forget things, sleep better, and feel more capable. When I’m not calm, I am more likely to seem grumpy or irritable, I find it harder to finish or even start things, I feel less able to cope or take in information, I start cancelling things and letting people down, and I get overwhelmed by thought of the tiniest tasks. At worst I feel as though I can’t even see properly!
Luckily (?) I have been ill a couple of times lately – just mild colds, but the enforced confinement helped me start to think about what could help me and perhaps others. Being calm doesn’t just mean lying down with your eyes shut although at times this can be surprisingly effective! And being calmer may require a combination of:
- long-term investment (getting more sleep, reducing alcohol intake, spending more time doing activities that absorb you like reading, sports, craft or particular tasks at work)
- trusted quick fixes that set you up for the day or help you recover from intense activities (things like taking a quick walk, having a leisurely breakfast, learning some breathing exercises)
- developing strategies to reduce the chance of things occurring that prevent you from being calm. For me at work, for instance, such strategies are likely to include trying to answer emails faster (so people don’t phone me to chase and put me on the spot), spending more time planning ahead and booking time off after meetings that I know will be draining. In my personal life, there are hopefully lots of options – everything from trying to batch-cook and freeze meals to limiting social media time – the short, sharp barrage of new and mostly unsolicited information is not remotely calming.
Wish me luck, and if you also scored more than 14 in the above test, let me know your strategies! If you scored less, be very grateful.
The quote at the beginning of this post made me feel better about not being able to tell whether something is a happy moment until after the moment has long since finished. This is why I started to write instead about ideas for habits and hobbies, attitudes and approaches that, in my inexpert opinion, might help a person lead a life that contains more happy moments. Although now I wonder if I’m just too weird for this to be relevant to anyone else! I’ll keep writing anyway – here are 10 more.
- Taking time to be calm. See above. This won’t be for everyone but if it is, it will involve different things for different people. But if you think you’re more likely to be happy if you’re feeling calm, this could be something to explore.
- Animals and wildlife – again, not for everyone, but if you are remotely interested in the natural world you’ll already know this makes sense. A recently fed a hen by hand for the first time in a couple of years, and I still have a happy hen glow. I definitely need to increase the number of animal encounters in my life at the moment.
- The absence of pain. This one occurred to me when I thought about that moment when you suddenly realise the painkillers you took earlier have kicked in. Bliss! Pain can make you so miserable and make everything seem so difficult, so this one is about taking time to appreciate the times when nothing hurts, or an injury has healed or a headache has passed.
- Comfort and shelter. From appreciating the basic security of having a place to stay or a hug from a fellow human, to relishing the snuggliness of your favourite blanket or hiding from the rain in a bus stop – sometimes these lead to the most immediate happy moments on their own but they can also be essential in fostering other areas of happy living.
- The kindness of strangers. I’ve already covered human contact but I noted this one down for a specific reason which I intended to share and which I’ve since forgotten – sorry. But there’s nothing quite like a stranger being unexpectedly kind towards you! There’s perhaps not much you can do to increase these occurrences other than being receptive and being out and about in places where there are strangers, but you can also spend more time…
- …Being kind to strangers, and people generally! One of my big alarm bells for knowing that things aren’t quite right with me is when I start snapping at strangers. They might well deserve it (pushing in front of me at the bar, taking up the whole pavement and so on) but snapping at them doesn’t seem to serve any purpose or do any good and I definitely do it more when I’m tired, ill, fed-up, scared or resentful. I wonder if trying to smile and be kind to a stranger at times when my gut instinct is to push them in the road might actually help flick a switch in my head at a crucial time? Something for me to try!
- Feeling in control. People take drastic steps to feel in control of their lives when they feel vulnerable, but even things like being on top of your laundry or your Christmas shopping can give you a sense of wellbeing – and having things hanging over you can keep happiness out of reach. Feeling as though you are at the mercy of others, that you don’t know what’s going or that you are out of your depth can all weigh heavily. You can’t control everything but if you can work out what causes you the most angst and then work out whether you can change it, who knows what energy you might free up!
- Feeling competent. It’s really hard to be happy when everyone else seems to be better than you at absolutely everything. But is that really true? I can only think of a handful of things that I would venture to say I’m good at – I’m usually a bit surprised if someone suggests I’m good at something else and go to great lengths to explain to them why they’re wrong. If you find something you are good at, do more of it (unless it’s something mean).
- A sense of purpose. I don’t have one of these and am envious of people who do, as it seems to be a great oblique route to happiness and fulfilment! Perhaps my negative and futile goals of ‘not making mistakes’ and ‘not annoying people’ will be replaced by something more positive once I’ve filled my life with calm…
- Asking for help. I covered ‘being useful‘ in an earlier post, so this is the reverse. I think generally people like being asked to help, particularly when it is specific, convenient and time-limited! So if you have a problem that may be affecting your happiness, tell people, and one of them might have a great solution or be willing to spend an hour over a coffee hashing it out with you while you try to solve it yourself.
10 more to go – by the age of 41 I will almost certainly have identified the meaning of life.
Thanks for reading!