When Were You Really Happy?
Is an alcoholic ever really happy? When I went into psychotherapy, I was asked at some stage, "When you were younger, when were you really happy?" Interestingly, at least to me, I answered quick as a flash. I didn't even need to give it much consideration. I replied "When I was on the football terraces".
According to many of the Greek philosophers, we are only truly happy when we are "living well", practising virtue in pursuit of the good. That sounds quite tough to achieve even if we can understand what it means.
We could be hedonists instead. We could devote ourselves to bodily pleasures regardless of the consequences. Epicurus believed that we should pursue “pleasure” but in a more nuanced sense. He was really arguing that we should seek pleasure as a middle way between pain and fear to avoid suffering.
“Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” is a saying used in different contexts. One is that if we lack faith or hope in the future then we may as well get on with pursuing pleasure. Another is to say that much happens in the world that is beyond our control. We therefore need to be more accepting, and follow our natural pursuits. Pure hedonism, instead, says “let’s party while we can”.
How does this hedonist philosophy usually work out for people? Not all that well, generally. It usually entails a fairly hollow and meaningless existence. In some sense, it suggests that we ourselves are each the centre of the universe. It then comes as a shock when things don't work out and something goes wrong. It doesn’t provide an answer to chaos and suffering.
Was my answer about happiness curious? (It was as a supporter of Swindon Town FC – there wasn’t very much to be joyous about most of the time!) I could have recalled things like when I was awarded my degree, when I got my first job, my wedding day, when my children were born, and so on.
On reflection, and it doesn’t take very much, those things were of course greater sources of joy. But there was something revealing about the immediacy of my answer. It was instinctive. It was raw, existential, given at a time of crisis in my personal life.
Why was standing on the football terraces the answer given straight from the top of my head? It was saying something about a sense of freedom. Saturday afternoons were about letting go of the cares of the world for ninety minutes. It was being with others in a community who shared my passion. It was about freedom to express myself, albeit in a primitive way - singing, shouting and screaming at the top of my voice in a crowd.
We can leave it to the anthropologists and sociologists to examine how our primal instincts are reflected in the behaviour of football supporters. But I can see some parallel with the (initial) euphoria of being drunk – the sense of being carefree, the brief but intoxicating feeling of happiness.
Can't alcoholics regain that childlike happiness in everyday life as an adult human being without the assistance of drink? Of course we can – but it might need the guidance and support of others in recovery treatment. As the cliché says, happiness, or the answer to life’s problems, is not to be found at the bottom of a bottle.
Let’s see what is going on here in the reply I gave. True happiness is not to be found in hedonism, as already said. It’s also not about behaving irresponsibly. We can't just not work and go to football every day (and I fully accept that some people detest football anyway!). But my reply was saying something about how we attach meaning to the things and people that truly matter to us.
True happiness or well-being is found in some sense by letting go. But it's not about abandoning responsibility or not caring. It's about having the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
It’s about finding true freedom through self-discovery. It’s about doing what really matters to us, how we assign meaning and value to what we do. It’s about how we do this in community with shared lives, friendship and loyalty. It’s also about how we put these into practise with ritual, stories, and outward signs of common identity.
Some might find these aspects of life on the football terraces but we can also find them elsewhere. We can’t find them at the bottom of a bottle. Some will capture these feelings of camaraderie and freedom in other ways – white river rafting, mountaineering, fresh water swimming – or, more down to earth, joining a book reading club.
When were you really happy? Give your instinctive response – then unpack it and see where you might find it in a life of recovery and sobriety.