No one is happy all the time. Even the most optimistic and glass-half-full person does not leap from bed every morning singing a merry tune. Life is not a breakfast cereal advert – we do not need this article to tell us that.
Given this though, there is disturbing evidence for many people –and many of them young – that feeling unhappy all or most of the time is a daily reality. Examining the studies that produce this data, reasons for this are not straightforward to untangle. For example, survey questions eliciting this response are often weighted in such a way that not being able to tick the “happy” box auto-ticks the “unhappy” box, when in fact a more nuanced experience is the case.
More detailed studies have focused on the impact of social media usage, loneliness, financial/housing insecurity, addiction and mental health factors on perceived happiness. Again exploring anything as subjective as a person’s sense of well-being with a set of uniform questions is hard to fully interpret. Where there are two people with superficially identical challenges – and both of whom respond honestly – one will report as being “happy most of the time” and another as “unhappy most of the time.” Having said all of this, there is a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, discontent and unhappiness in our national discourse, as well as in wide-spread personal testimonies. (NB The focus in what follows is on this self-reported generalized unhappiness, not on those who are suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorders.)
The reasons for this generalized unhappiness are also hard to untangle. Do we expect more from life than previous generations? Is it too easy now to compare ourselves with others and feel we are missing out? Is the focus on personal fulfilment above collective responsibility causing more of us to feel discontented? Do we live in genuinely more unhappy times? No answers to this here, but another question: Do we lose our way to happiness when we lose our way home? By this I mean have we lost our recourse to the people and places which offer us the potential for happiness, content and well-being for the times when we are not feeling those things ourselves?
The people and places are the homes, families and communities which nurtured us from birth and continue to offer care and respite throughout our lives – or can do. Two points about this to consider. The first is about literal recourse to home, that is being able to go back to a physical place and nurturing network of relationships for renewal and support.
Increasingly this is not an option as the demands and opportunities of work and study as well as other drivers mean that people move away from their birth communities. The loss of continuity of place can be an aspect of social isolation but there are many good reasons why actually “going home” is not viable or the real issue.
The second point, then, is more significant: the way in which early experiences of home build resilience and capacity for happiness that can be drawn upon throughout our lives. It is this sense of finding our way home that can offer us the resources to deal with the difficulties of life, including feelings of disassociation, disappointment and unhappiness.
Growing up in a stable and reliable home environment allows children to watch and learn how difficulties can be resolved and how those who are troubled can be supported. Not seeing life as a cereal advert, but being able to cope better with difficult days in the future based on good experiences of coping in the past.
As you will know from recent posts, HRF supported by STI has just published Happiness and Domestic Life, which lends academic weight to this argument. If we have a place to go back to–physically or emotionally – where our well-being has been valued, we also have a way to find that place in ourselves. A Way Home to Happiness.