Happiness. I think it’s an underrated thing these days.
Everyone’s rushing around trying to do great at school, get a great job, have a great house, drive a great car etc. etc. But what’s the point if you don’t take the time to stop and smell the roses as the saying goes?
I’ve been guilty of this myself recently – I’m currently in the final year of studying for a PhD which has made me deeply unhappy. I love science, I enjoyed doing my BSc and I’m really passionate about the area I work in but I don’t like being in the lab. It’s a very hard environment to be a part of and it turns out that my brain, which is great at memorising facts and writing essays and all the kinds of things that get you through school and university, is not built for practical applications.
Without wanting to sound big-headed, when you spend your life being told how clever you are, regardless of how supportive your friends and family are, it can be hard not to feel like you’d be letting everyone down if you don’t make it to the top. Which is why I’m putting myself through the hell that is a PhD. Well, that coupled with a lack of alternative ideas.
I actually wrote a list a few weeks back of pros and cons for quitting my PhD. On the pros side was lots of stuff about how miserable I am and how I might be happier doing anything else in the world whereas the cons were all about the benefit to my CV if I see it through.
The cons won because, in my own words, “feelings are transient, you can be happy later”.
Even I’m arguing against the importance of my own happiness.
And I should know how important happiness is.
Now I don’t want to confuse general miserableness with clinical depression, they are two very different beasts; one WILL pass in time whereas one requires medical help and is a much more serious affair. I am currently fairly miserable but I’m nowhere near the arena of clinical depression and it’s not something I would ever make light of.
However the story I’m going to tell now does concern that area and while I am aware that depression is a chemical imbalance, that there’s nothing that an outsider can do about it and that the I am not entirely culpable in the events I’m about to relay, I still think it proves my point to a certain extent.
So, why should I in particular be aware of this seminal emotion?
Well, when I was at school I had a friend, whose name was Alison. (It wasn’t really, for obvious reasons, names have been changed.) Alison and I were part of the same group of friends, we hung out at school together and occasionally outside of school but always with a group of people, we were never really close friends. She had her best friend and I had mine. So it wasn’t until we started our A-levels and the rest of our group drifted away that we started hanging out just the two of us.
By the end of those two years I would describe us as really close friends. We talked about everything; home, boys, the future, everything. But then we went away to university, I moved to one city and Alison went elsewhere to pursue her dream career. She’d worked really hard to get there and I was so proud of her and certain that she was going to have an amazing time.
I loved university from the very first day; I made loads of new friends, I enjoyed my lectures, learned that going out and getting drunk was great, I was really happy. And as far as I could tell, Alison felt the same.
At first we’d meet up when we were both at home but then it started to get harder. We both had holiday jobs and she’d make excuses about having to see family or having too much university work. Other times she’d cancel on me at the last minute or just never reply to my messages which got me really frustrated, all the effort seemed to come from my side while she just dodged all my attempts.
Eventually I told her that I wasn’t going to keep trying and if she wanted to get together, it was going to have to come from her. I gave her a list of dates and asked what she wanted to do.
She never replied.
The next year around the Christmas break I was feeling low and I sent her a message asking if she wanted to meet up over the holidays. She agreed but when I got home I was only back for a short time and it was such a whirlwind of family visits and other friends to see, that I never got round to contacting Alison.
I sent her a message when I went back to university apologising but she didn’t respond.
Three months later I got the worst news of my life when I discovered that, alone, feeling that nobody cared and nobody understood, Alison had ended her life.
Then I discovered that for years she had been suffering from depression and that all the fun she’d been having at university came with terrible lows and that she hadn’t been avoiding me at all but she just couldn’t face the world. I didn’t know and I didn’t understand.
Like I said, I’m not underestimating the power of clinical depression and I know it to be a very different thing to a low mood but I can’t help feeling that if I’d have noticed how unhappy she was, things might have been different.
I’m also not blaming myself so please don’t start telling me not to as there’s no need.
All I’m saying is that sometimes we all need a little happiness in our lives and sometimes it needs to be provided by an outside source. There have been times since moving to London when I’ve been feeling down and a kind work or even a smile from a stranger or an inspirational quote on an advert have been enough to remind me that there’s plenty of good things and happiness out there in the world.
So if something as simple as a nice note in a library book can touch someone’s life and bring them a little bit of cheer then perhaps I can go some way towards making up for my terrible lack of attention and trivial attitude towards Alison’s happiness.
As for myself, I’m still sticking with the PhD but I’ve also come up with an alternative plan for once I’m finished and since I made that decision I’ve been feeling an awful lot happier.