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Why does happiness feel elusiver than ever? I thought therapy would make me happier

Photo by Fernanda Greppe on Unsplash

Once I had managed to flatten him in my mind into a benevolent inhuman listening machine I took to the process, but if anything, therapy has made the concept of happiness feel even more distant than it did in the past. Before, I could at least tell myself I was too lazy and stupid to build the life that would give me happiness. But in this past year, I have begun to understand how nebulous and elusive a notion it really is.

There has always been a tension in my life between the thrill of chaos and the comfort of security. For a long time this tension wasn’t a choice, largely because I hadn’t figured out how to hold down a permanent job or make enough money to relax for more than a week at a time. I was always propelled forward by necessity and urgency, figuring out new living situations, countries and part-time jobs. I was often enlivened by this: staying up all night to write a story because I had finished work at 10pm and would begin another shift at 8am; thrown into situations with all sorts of people I might otherwise never have met. At the same time I was exhausted, and often daydreamed about some change that would allow me to catch my breath, be settled and simple, and – yes – happy. It was natural to imagine that the absence of my daily anxieties about material things would make me feel calmer, and that this, in turn, would equal happiness.

By 2020 I had sold my novel and had the means to support myself and rent an apartment without constant worry, which was just as well as I’m not sure how I would have continued my previous cat-sitting, subletting way of life during the pandemic. I was certainly less than stoic in the face of isolation, but I embraced obligatory domesticity as best I could. After all, I had longed for it. I had wanted the burden of objects, of actually owning a bed, a decent wok and a television. And so I nested. Eventually, I got a cat. I didn’t feel happy but I felt something like contentment, and decided that this amounted to the same thing.

In the summer of 2022, when life returned to something resembling its former self, my notion of contentment as an equivalent to happiness was pierced dramatically. As the world expanded again, so did my ideas about pleasure and meaning. For the first time in my life, I had real choices about how I wanted to live (an unspeakably privileged problem to complain about), and I struggled to understand whether happiness for me means stimulation and excitement or comfort and calm. For some people these things are not mutually exclusive, but for me they seem to be. It has always been one or the other, and now I have to choose.

I have no idea, still, about what is meaningful and what is only fun – and if it is right to negate fun as I have just reflexively done. Perhaps fun can be important too; it certainly feels like one of the more important things in life to me – but maybe that belief in the profundity of fun is the root of whatever spiritual lack I am trying to address. There are enough censorious people out there who assure me that this is indeed the case every time I publicly defend the virtues of gallivanting and hedonism. Maybe they’re right, but I hope they aren’t, because they don’t seem to be very happy themselves.

I was talking with a friend lately about an impulse many writers have, not least myself, to finish pieces like this one with some ill-earned flourish of moral clarity. “All articles,” I said, “end in one of two ways: ‘And at the end of the day, who cares?’ or ‘At the end of the day, love is what matters.’” I am trying to resist that impulse. I am trying to avoid casting my indecision about what constitutes happiness as its own kind of moral victory. I am not going to smugly advise that the key to happiness lies in accepting its transience.

I come back to a question I constantly circle in therapy, which is: what exactly is it that I deserve? If I want something more, something different, is that an unreasonable demand born of ennui, or a valid ambition? My therapist asked me once if I felt as if I deserved happiness. I didn’t know the answer to that then, or now, but I think there are things other than happiness that I deserve and can have. Perhaps it’s best to think about those for now.

Megan Nolan is an Irish writer based in London. Her novel Ordinary Human Failings is published on 13 July 2023

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