The axiom of happiness
Just over a year ago, I had a really great conversation with a sort of well-known actor about mental health and working in the creative industry. I was dressed as a pirate at the time for reasons that are not particularly relevant and working out of the theatre that he was currently performing in, and the conversation came about in response to me having seen his play a few days before. It’s a conversation I think I will remember for some time, not because of who he was or how our paths had come to cross, but because of the feeling that you get when someone truly understands what you are saying.
We were discussing how busy a few weeks it had been for both of us in our respective jobs and he asked me how I was feeling about it all being over in a few days’ time.
“Kind of terrified,” I answered, honestly, because the nature of our conversation was not such that I needed to be anything other than completely honest. “I mean, it’ll be nice to have a bit of a rest but…”
“But having nothing to do is much worse than being busy,” he finished for me.
And that was exactly it. Being busy is to not be left to your thoughts and your fears and your anxieties. Being busy is to go from one moment to the next and process as you go and not have time to overanalyse, overthink, to unravel into the infinite world of but what if…?
It’s a fear I’m sure I’ve tried to express before but, standing before me, it seemed as though he didn’t just get what I was saying but that he empathetically understood the exact feeling I get when, having been busy for an extended period of time (as I often am), I am suddenly left with nowhere to be and nothing to do.
(That’s a paradox in itself. There is always something I could be doing – at any given time, I likely have anywhere between one and five projects on the go that patiently await my attention often for stretches of months or years, but the self-motivation required to do, say, three hours of freelance work as opposed to turning up to your scheduled shift is a very different thing. That’s the short version, anyway).
Our lives today are, by most accounts, more chaotic and busy than ever. Most working-age adults across the world, particularly those living in metropolitan areas, will spend most of their time ricocheting in an endless, impossible loop between work, friends, significant others, family – God forbid they have time to go to the gym or the cinema or pursue any other hobbies they may have. And so comes the time when every working-age adult mutters the words, “I need a holiday”, and off they go to a sun-drenched beach to bask under a parasol with a cocktail in hand. Maybe they’ll actually finish reading that book they got for Christmas last year, or try out that sport they’ve always wanted to do, or visit that far-flung country they’ve always dreamed of going to.
The axiom of happiness1, in our busy lives, is to stop. To do nothing. To forgo responsibility and schedule for a languid few days or weeks of unplanned spontaneity.
For me, nothing is more frightening than an empty calendar – that’s just the way I’m built. I blame my father for this, I think. After years of accusing him of being a workaholic, I am very quickly realising that I am cut from the very same cloth. Were I in an industry where I might stay in the same job for twenty, thirty years, I would likely grow into exactly the kind of man my father is and the older I get, the harder I find to begrudge him for his work ethic that angered me so much when I was a child.
In the search for an apartment2, I’ve been asked more than once about my interests, my hobbies, what I like to do. I rattle off my standard response: movies, writing, reading. It was only when someone asked me, “okay, but what about hobbies not related to your work?” that I realised that I am in the position where what I like to do and what I (sometimes) get paid to do fall into the same general space. Which makes me very fortunate but also very aware that I have to find ways to unwind that don’t involve working and claiming it as down-time. As we’ve already established, doing nothing at all is not an option for me.
All that is to say that the last week or so has been a little rough on me and my mental wellbeing3. In the wake of working two film festivals, I was left with a gapingly large hole in my calendar of nothing to do. In the past, I’ve been known to fill such gaps with my catchphrase, “I think I might take a trip somewhere”. But common sense and my bank balance won that argument this time around.
And so, job applications, and interviews, and writing, and filling as many evenings as possible with the collection of friends I’ve acquired across the city. But that hole is still there. It eats at my stomach and seeps into my dreams and some days, it’s a little too much.
Today is one of those days. A day where even leaving the house was a monumental effort in itself, where human interaction feels like a marathon. I handled this the best way I could. I cancelled my evening plans4, settled myself into a coffee shop downtown and wrote for a few hours.
And I feel a little better. I gave myself a purpose and maybe that is my axiom of happiness. In the face of an empty schedule, maybe all I can do is take each day as it comes and look forward to the next.
After all, in six months I’ll likely be working eighteen hour days again and thinking wistfully on the days I was complaining about snoozing until midday.
1 I don’t know if this the proper use of axiom. All I know is, I reread Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life recently which talks about the axiom of equality and I decided I quite liked the word. I’m trying it out.
2 This week’s good news – I found an apartment! More on that next time.
3 I don’t always take over five hundred words to get to the point but, when I do, I really go for it.
4 Apologies to the very sweet boy I bailed on – if you’re reading this, I told you I was sick, and it’s sort of true, but what’s certainly true is that I’ll make it up to you.