The movie 'Hector and the Search for Happiness' (based on the book by François Lelord), whilst not a cinematic masterpiece, was for me one of those thought-provoking, laugh-inducing and, at times, tear-jerking films that made me consider, long after we had left the theatre, one of the age long questions - What Is Happiness?
In the spirit of 'Eat, Pray, Love', Hector (Simon Pegg), a psychiatrist, leaves the perfectly organised, regimented life he shares with his girlfriend Clara, and sets out to find the meaning of happiness; a journey that will take him to a monastery in China, a hospital in Africa, and to a reunion with his old university 'flame' in Los Angeles.
Wherever he goes, he takes a journal where he writes down the lessons learnt from all the people he meets along the way. These characters range from a hideously rich businessman, to a penniless young prostitute, an old wise monk, a dangerous drug dealer, an African grandmother, a world expert in happiness, and a terminally ill woman who is undertaking her last journey.
As to be expected, Hector discovers that Happiness means something different to everyone. In the case of the African woman, happiness is as simple as cooking a pot of sweet potato stew and sharing it with her large family. He also discovers that happiness encompasses a range of emotions, including those considered negative; such as sadness, fear and pain.
When I think of the elusive concept of happiness, I always remember the lines uttered by Clarissa Vaughan, a character from another movie, 'The Hours' (based on the book by Michael Cunningham) when she admits to her daughter that she hasn’t been happy in a very long time:
I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself "this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more." It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then...
The Hours was not a happy movie, according to the half a dozen people who came with me and who cursed me for months for choosing it; in fact some of them are still holding it against me. But a decade on, I still remember the lesson I took away from it, and find myself constantly catching and enjoying that fleeting moment, which is not the beginning of happiness, but happiness itself, before it’s gone.
There are days when I experience several such moments, because happiness lies in the simple, everyday things that we often take for granted.
For several years I worked in an “office” which once used to be a garage. It was dark, with the windows painted shut and the walls painted a sickly shade of green. It was hot in summer, cold in winter and generally a depressing place to spend eight hours a day in. My workmate and I used to call it 'the cave' or sometimes 'the dungeon’. One day she had the brilliant idea of sticking a laminated piece of white paper on the door, and we used a black marker to make a list, accompanied by child-like drawings, of all the things that made us happy. Whenever our gloomy surroundings started ‘getting’ to us, we would look at our list and remember the many wonderful things we had in our lives, and we always ended up with a smile on our faces, which in turn made the room brighter.
The items contained in the list were amazing in their simplicity: Family, the kindness of strangers, sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, sunny winter days, chocolate, themed birthday parties, writing, air drumming, dancing, singing, holidays, bush walking, gardening…
Some people - as Hector finds out - see happiness as permanently in the future; a goal to constantly strive for, which is by default unattainable. Others, like Clarissa Vaughan, feel that their happiness belongs in the past. When Clarissa tells her daughter that the last time she felt genuinely happy was decades ago, her daughter replies ‘what you are saying, is that you were once young.’ I was once young too, and know what it is like to experience that kind of earth shattering happiness. When I was eighteen and in love for the first time, this is what I wrote about it:
I am so happy that I even feel angry; I am so happy that I feel like crying out aloud, that my lungs feel like bursting out like a balloon, so happy that I feel impotent at the sight of so much beauty, the nightfall of December, the Christmas lights at the windows, and the music - the ever blessed music - so happy, that I feel dumb in the presence of so much life, that the singing of the birds amongst the leaves is deafening, as deafening as the protest of those who cannot feel this madness.
… and so it went for two whole pages. But was this really happiness? Or was it euphoria? We all know what it is like to be 'high'; some people take drugs, others take extreme risks in order to experience that euphoria. I have been high in love, high in lust and even high in anger many a time. But is that happiness?
This morning, I woke up with a spring in my step, with that subtle yet exciting feeling of having butterflies in my stomach, for no particular reason. Yes, I had a good night sleep, and it was a beautiful day. But was that enough reason to be happy? I hadn't achieved or acquired anything overnight; nothing was different from yesterday. I decided not to question it. I held onto that feeling and managed to get to the end of the day with ‘it’ still inside me, despite a couple of incidents which generally would have been enough to make my mood plummet.
When all is said and done, if we can look back and remember the hours spent enjoying a good book, writing a poem, or gardening with the sun on our backs; and the times of laughter, of joy and even of tears shared with lovers, family and friends, then we can say we have lived a life filled with happiness.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,