Writing helps me to make sense of life; for me it is the breathing space between question and answer. I know that there isn’t always meaning – some things just are, they don’t necessarily happen for a reason. But it seems a pity not to search for it. I read for the same reason, to understand through the words of someone else. I’ve just finished reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and I made a note of one of the passages – nothing earth shattering just a reflection on how the main character spends his time.
The less time there remains in your life, the less you want to waste it. That’s logical, isn’t it? Though how you use the saved-up hours … well, that’s another thing you wouldn’t have predicted in youth. For instance, I spend a lot of time clearing things up – and I’m not even a messy person. But it’s one of the modest satisfactions of age. I aim for tidiness; I recycle; I clean and decorate my flat to keep up its value.
I don’t know why this particular passage stood out, perhaps I identified – I too spend a lot of time tidying up.
Earlier this week, when I was RSVPing to a wedding invite, I was asked to include the name of my favourite song. I scratched my head for a while but I couldn’t for the life of me think of any one particular song that is my favourite. Then out of the blue it came to me, Black Magic Woman, a song from my childhood and with the song came memories of how sometimes the DJ, Ronny Walland, would let us youngsters (we called ourselves the “central dorks”) help carry his equipment into disco venues so that we could get in without paying the entrance fee. Ronny would always play Black Magic Woman and, somehow, it became my song. And it always reminds me of a time when being feisty, frivolous and fearless was perfectly acceptable. I hadn’t thought of the song for ages but there it was, in my mind and it continued to go round and round in there. A few days later I woke up at 2 am, unable to get back to sleep. I got the fire going, made a pot of tea and settled down to listen to the Rock Professor (Chris Prior) Show and blow me down if he didn’t include Black Magic Woman on his playlist. That’s when I started to write this post.
I remember the Santana version but he played Fleetwood Mac’s earlier version, which was lovely. A little bit further into the podcast he played Santana’s Europa (earth’s cry heaven’s smile) and suddenly it dawned on me that all my music memories of childhood stop at the age of 15, which is when I left Port Elizabeth.
Of course, when you are sitting in front of a fire, drinking tea, listening to the Prof and musing about your childhood in the early hours of the morning, it’s the perfect time to do some online research (our wifi is free between 10pm and 5am). So, I came across an ideas.ted.com article: 4 lessons from the longest-running study on happiness written by researcher and psychiatrist Robert Waldinger. While I was quite pleased to see that middle age was defined as ages 50–65 in the study, the lessons were pretty predictable: a happy childhood has very, very long-lasting effects; learning how to cope well with stress has a lifelong payoff; and time with others protects us from the bruises of life’s ups and downs.
However, what did interest me, other than being able to still call myself middle-aged as opposed to old, was that people with difficult childhoods can make up for them in midlife. The way they do this is by engaging in what psychologists call “generativity” or an interest in establishing and guiding the next generation. And generativity is not dependent on being a parent; it can also be exhibited in situations where people mentor children / young adults.
I’m fortunate to have had a very happy childhood despite my parents being somewhat emotionally undemonstrative and rather remote. There was not a lot of physical affection or even praise but I was cared for, felt safe and was happy in my own little world. Until the age of 15 that is, when I was uprooted from my friends and my stomping ground of Port Elizabeth and moved to Durban. I can trace a lot of my foibles back to that event and now, even my memories associated with music.
This brings me to another study on the issue of happiness. Recently, I listened to a ted talk given by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, founder of behavioural economics and prominent psychologist. Basically he argues that there is confusion between experience and memory, which are fundamentally different – our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. It’s the difference between “being happy IN your life” (experience), and “being happy ABOUT or WITH your life” (memory). He demonstrates this difference with an anecdote of someone who listened to a symphony for 20 minutes, totally immersed in its beauty. At the end, he heard an awful screech. The listener angrily said the sound “ruined the whole experience.” Kahneman points out that it hadn’t; it had only ruined the memory of the experience. The listener had 20 minutes of beautiful music, but the memory was all he had kept and it was ruined.
This distinction is well worth bearing in mind when (a) making choices to be happier in the future and (b) creating the narrative of our lives. He made me think of all the times I’ve let one negative experience cloud the positive. And my mother who will now not go into her garden, despite all the years of pleasure it has given her, because her chair sank into a molehill and she slid off, unhurt, onto the lawn and couldn’t get up. Fortunately we were there to help her up almost immediately but she has allowed her memory to be dominated by the negative.
The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
However, according to Kahneman, we do control one variable that can make us happier and that is the allocation of our time. “One way to improve life is simply by tilting the balance toward more affectively good activities,” he said.
Virginia Woolf clearly knew this already; she writes:
Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.
I like that – less time tidying and more time doing pleasurable stuff. Why didn’t I think of that!