My children are lucky enough to have a fantastic music teacher at school. She only comes in for one day each week, but since she started almost two years ago, their love and enjoyment of singing has blossomed. Neither is particularly musical, neither will ever be great singers, but seeing them all together at concerts and assemblies, lost just a little bit in a song or a piece of music, is something really rather special.
One of the best things about her is that she sings all sorts with them. She was in yesterday, and my 6 year old came home announcing – improbably enough – that they were learning “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and could she go on YouTube to learn the words? She sat for an hour or more, watching a few seconds and writing out a few words at a time, going backwards and forwards until she had covered two sides of A4 with a more or less phonetic version of the lyrics.
Of course, now, the thing is stuck in my head, and I’ve spent a fairly grumpy morning (fog, forgotten lunchbox, Gumtree woes and sleeplessness) with “cos I’m happppeeee” rather incongruously on repeat. I haven’t been very happy this morning. I haven’t been unhappy, either, but I’ve been rankled and ruffled by the small inconsequential annoyances of everyday life and, worse, faintly guilty at my failure to be happy despite them. I have so much to be happy about, after all.
We hear a lot about the pressure on women to conform outwardly and the lengths many of us go to in order to be thin enough, big breasted enough, well dressed enough, smooth skinned enough. The dangerous quest for physical perfection is well identified, even as its grip seems to tighten ever harder.
Then there’s much talk about the way in which women are run ragged trying to – loathsome phrase – have it all: trying to combine a successful career with raising perfect children together with their adoring partner in a beautiful home . Or, more prosaically, trying to earn enough to keep a roof over their family’s head and food on the table, while fielding off criticism from all quarters about their life “choices”.
We know all about the various ideals to which women are supposed to conform as if they were norms, let alone attainable. We take in from childhood that we’re works in progress, little vessels of endless self-improvement.
But when did “happy” end up on our to-do lists too? When did it become something else we have to work at achieving? I feel as though I am surrounded by blogposts, tweets, FB threads and conversations with friends in which women are beating themselves up over the fact that they’re just not feeling it. I don’t mean those who are depressed, or actively unhappy. I just mean the rest of us, victims of a pervasive guilt that we aren’t in a state of constant contentment; determined in our pursuit of some kind of perma-bliss.
We curate our lives to such an extent now, and consume other peoples’ lives too, that it’s hard to distinguish between what’s ideal – idyllic, even – and what is a realistic take on being human. Whereas once we’d have had a photo album with a few posed shots of special occasions, now we can record everything, wherever we are. We’re conditioned out of recording the bad stuff though (and who would want to have a photograph of the times you argued over the ironing, or a snap of the days when you all trudged along the beach loathing each others’ company and trying to stop the children from kicking each other into rock pools?) We want to record our lives, but we only want to record the good bits, and if there aren’t enough of them – if there aren’t enough times when we are actively, consciously know that we are happy – do we start to think something’s wrong with us? Especially when all we see around us are the best bits which everyone else is showing to the world.
It’s a difficult one. Of course putting on a brave face sometimes is essential. No-one wants to listen to endless whinging, and moaning about stuff rarely changes it anyway. There’s a difference, though, between shrugging a “Mustn’t grumble” and feeling that there’s something wrong with you for needing to say it.
I think we need to say that most people don’t exist in a kind of Pollyanna-esque bubble of constant delight and serenity. Some people do. Everyone should, at some point in their lives. But if you expect the shiny and the happy day-in, day-out, what scope is there left for the really good times? Those moments when you feel a pop of sheer joy, perhaps over nothing much at all? And what harm are we doing to ourselves by counting as a failure, or a lack, or an unworthiness something which surely is just being completely normal?
Counting one’s blessings is a good thing, aspiring to dance in the rain likewise. But striving to be happy all the time is as unrealistic and as harmful as expecting a diet to turn us into a photoshopped supermodel. And, ultimately, as great a waste of time.