It’s early in the summer holidays and already I can sense how the change in routine is impacting both my five year old and me. He’s been demanding – alternating between, “what can we do now?” and, “can I have a snack?”, usually while I am still cleaning up from the last activity/snack/meal we had.
And I’ve been feeling homesick. Well, I say ‘homesick’ but it is actually a mix between genuine homesickness for my small beach hometown in Florida; nostalgia for said-hometown circa 1989; and holiday wistfulness now that I tend to experience the place on holiday.
The prolonged heat wave we’ve enjoyed in Britain all summer creates a sensory reminder of Florida, and at first I thought that was the main cause for this mood. But I could sense something else at play.
I did some reflective work today to help me centre. A combination of breathing meditation, paying attention to my body, and journaling conjured snapshot images and sensations: drinking an iced coffee in my favourite beach coffee shop…the feeling of a storm about to break over the ocean… the feeling of a good full body massage.
Amid the random assortment, a truth surfaced: pleasure can act as a gateway to purpose if I know how to listen to myself.
The role that both pleasure and purpose play in happiness isn’t new (and may seem pretty obvious). Martin Seligman devised the PERMA model for happiness (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments). Positive emotions in this model are distinguished from pleasure, representing more flow-inducing activities (eg creating art) rather than hedonic pleasure (like satisfying bodily desires, say, with a glass of wine).
Professor Paul Dolan writes about the Pleasure Purpose Principle, or PPP, in his book Happiness by Design. Everyone needs the right balance of pleasure and purpose, which can explain why people often find happiness from things in life that are often not very pleasurable, like work or having kids, which is hard work even if there is some pleasure as well. And conversely, things that may be pleasurable in the moment, like watching TV, may not be enough to create a happy life. As Dolan writes:
How and in what ways your own happiness should swing back and forth between pleasure and purpose is for you to decide, just as you should decide what you watch on TV. What floats your boat may not be what keeps mine bobbing along. Our preferences may differ. Watching The X-Files night make you happy while I prefer The X Factor. Allowing different things to affect you in different ways has been missing from a lot of the “one size fits all” books on happiness. You need to work out what works for you.
I had thought I had worked out what works for me, but feeling wistful for a lot of pleasurable sensations made me think, “Maybe I need to rebalance here?”
So I started to listen, really listen, to what I was desiring, even if – no, ESPECIALLY if – I felt the desire in my body rather than in organised thought.
When I really took time to stop, quiet the mind, and feel in my body what I desired, the first thing I craved was an iced coffee, so I made one and put it in my favourite travel mug. I sat in my armchair, my kids playing around me and baby sometimes toddling up to me to be held and nursed.
The next desire was to do some yoga, so as soon as baby was back to playing on the floor I put something on telly for my five year old and did a seventeen minute yoga in the baby-free half of the room (we have a barrier so baby stays in the baby-proofed front half of the room).
(Quick side note: this is a good example of how using television or tablets strategically can work well. My son doesn’t watch loads of tv but I choose when he does so that I can do something I really need to do, either for the home, like making dinner or cleaning, or for me, like Yoga or journaling).
After this, our day felt markedly different. I was in a great mood and better able to deal with everything better. I was going to my older son seemed better behaved but I actually think it’s more likely my perception that had changed.
What’s more, I gained some clarity around this homesick feeling. Partly it is homesickness and partly it’s a yearning to connect with myself. I realised that my hometown and all the things I associate with it when I’m in this homesick(ish) mood are symbols for myself – my childhood self, my inner self, me when I’m alone. As I granted myself my simple desires, I was able to connect to myself and satisfy not just the desire for an iced coffee and some yoga, but a very real, deep-seated desire to reconnect to myself.
The takeaway? Sometimes our wants are the tip of the iceberg we can see while our needs hide deep below the surface. So I’m trying to pay more attention to my wants.
And the other key part of this is paying attention to what we really want. When we’re faced with marketing that is trying to stimulate desire all the time, it’s all too easy to mistake a manufactured desire for a real one. Taking a few moments to calm the mind, sit still, and feel rather than think can trigger really different impulses, and (thankfully) often quite simple or free ones. When we satisfy what we really want, we can often meet much more profound, fundamental needs.
What do you want, really want, right now? And what need does that satisfy?