A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
The Dalai Lama was in London this week addressing an audience on the subject of happiness. While watching a video about his appearance, it struck me that I was smiling long before he’d made his point in the interview; how wonderful to be able to emanate joy in the way that he does.
After listening to what he had to say about ‘learning happiness’, I decided to look further into his ideas and ideology. Is it possible to teach yourself to be more content? I wondered. A movement called Action for Happiness believes it is. I would normally be cynical and dismissive, but the truth is I have a soft spot for the world-famous Tibetan monk, so I decided to dig a little deeper.
According to the movement’s website there are ‘ten keys to learning happier living’, each based on a review of recent psychological research.
The ten keys are divided into two groups:
One of the many problems I experience in being me is my tendency to want things to be black and white; opaqueness usually leaves me unsatisfied or frustrated. To me it feels as though I know I still have a job to do when something seems inconclusive. I recognise that it’s an issue or a flaw, and yet I still dived straight into this happiness experiment. I wanted to know definitively either how happy I currently l was or how happy I could be in the future. I not only needed some kind of ‘score’, but also to know how quickly I could improve it. In effect, it immediately became competitive. This felt a little out of sync with the Dalai Lama’s approach to life until I noticed that one of the ‘outside’ keys (number six in fact) was ‘direction’, which is defined by having goals to look forward to. Great! I thought, I feel happier already.
Another one of my issues is that I skim things; it’s like I’ve always got something better or more important to do. It’s a cliché that we all want to ‘be happy’ when we grow up (God only knows when’s that’s going to happen), so how ludicrous that my next task was already taking precedence when I was dealing with my own happiness in that moment. My failure to be mindful (covered under ‘appreciation’, which is key four) suddenly knocked my score back down, making me a little less content than I’d been before. I would put this little set back behind me, however. This would show ‘resilience’ (key seven) and self-awareness, covered under ‘acceptance’, which is key nine. My smile was slowly creeping back. Hold on, I thought, this means I’m taking a ‘positive approach to my emotions’ (key eight) and ‘learning new things’ (key five). I was not only now ‘winning’ again but positively beaming, too.
The truth is I probably wouldn’t have even looked twice at the Action for Happiness website had I been feeling upbeat in the first place. I’ve actually felt really low recently, but it took me a little while to figure out why.
My son started school a couple of weeks ago and if there’s any such thing as being emotionally prepared, then I wasn’t. It wasn’t so much that I was suffering withdrawal from his company, but rather that I was grieving intensely for my wife. It would appear that the natural and infinitely more temporary ‘loss’ of my son – from my hands to those of the teachers – had triggered memories of the unnatural loss of his mother. Without any warning signs, my mind had been thrown back to both the night she was killed and the trial that preceded some two years later. The workings of mind had subconsciously dragged me back to hell.
I feel quite a lot better this week, but feeling so down made me wonder whether sometimes it’s actually necessary to experience the lows in order to appreciate the highs (or the plateaus, even). How comforting it would be to not have to experience should draining emotional shade just to be able to sometimes see the light.
Feeling this kind of grief again made me think a lot about what I wanted from life. I’ve spoken to a number of bereaved husbands, wives and partners this week, and many appeared to have felt the same way as me: the ambitions that once drove us seem to have all but gone and we’re left trying to figure out ‘what it’s all about’.
Right now I think that many of us look for happiness in all the wrong places: through work, holidays and other transient material things. But often it’s not until we lose what really makes us m happy that we begin to feel so disappointed and disillusioned by these measures of ourselves. Now that I have lost, though, I find my attention keeps being drawn back to the same three ‘keys’ time and time again: ‘giving’, ‘relating’ and ‘being part of something bigger’.
I have a difficult relationship with this blog at times. It’s quite natural for human beings to recoil from pain, and sometimes it can all hurt a bit too much. And yet when I was at my lowest point last week, it was this community that lifted me back up. It was the support of the guys who have come together privately through the shared loss of their wives and partners. It was the bereaved and single parents who face many of the same struggles as I do each day. It was the empathy and support pouring from people who I may never even meet. It was simply being part of something valuable that many of us have created together.
So okay, physical exercise (key three) may have gone out of the window for a couple of weeks, but mentally I feel a lot fitter than I did before. I just wanted to say thanks to you all for that.