The Pursuit of Happiness

With the arrival of Autumn, comes a string of memories, and a nagging sense of nostalgia.

It smells like school, I say to The Boy. The Boy looks at me quizzically. How can something smell like a place?

Not a place, I respond. An experience.

In what way?

 I shrug, struggling to put how I feel into words. To figure out the best way to explain that the air smells like September, the start of the academic year. Of ironed blouses and blazers, and polished black leather brogues. Of fluttering nerves, excitement and a New Year, New me mentality. Of a brand new backpack full of shiny stationery, of unblemished notepads and colour-coded files. Perhaps I wanted to be popular one year, comical the following, studious the next. I didn’t know who I was, maybe I still don’t, and I liked to re-invent my identity when I felt that an alternative suited me better.

Photo by Tim Gouw on

Now, when I am reminded about school, it feels so distant, yet I remember certain moments so clearly. I still get that bundle of emotions, such that I can’t figure out whether I’m experiencing anxiety or fondness. At first read this may sound odd, given that the two sensations do not have all that much in common, but I realise that my haste to dispel the thought of school from my mind almost immediately after it has appeared suggests that I am uncomfortable with the presence of said memories. Upon being reminded, I allow my mind to briefly linger on snapshots of 8 years of my life, and that is where I experience something similar to homesickness. Not for school itself, but rather for those 8 years of my life where I both gained and lost so much.

I don’t think I’ve changed much since my final school years. I learnt to stop caring what others thought, or at least I got good at pretending not to care, when I was 13 years old, maybe younger. I understood that grades would serve me better in life than trying to fit in, and so I focused my attention there. I don’t half-arse things that I care about, so from there on, it was about grades and only grades. Nothing else mattered.

Photo by cottonbro on

I saw school as a means to an end, perhaps even an obstacle, rather than an experience. I had to get through school in order to live my life. I recently started therapy during the pandemic, and The Therapist quickly noticed that I find it difficult to live in the moment; or to be present. I share a lot of sentences along the lines of: “when this is over, I’ll be able to do this.” The Therapist observed that I seemed to be waiting to be happy. What if, The Therapist challenged, this is as good as it gets? What if you are living your best life, always waiting for something better, and not enjoying what you have now? What if that day you keep waiting for never comes, and you end up feeling like you’ve wasted your life trying to chase it down?

I could think of no logical answer, only panic that she was right. What if this was as good as it gets? My expectations are always set high, and could be responsible for a life of disappointment. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, and I’m sorry if that is how this comes across – I have a truly wonderful life in many, many ways and I’m extremely lucky. But I also feel like my life is a constant To-Do list; there is always a sense of needing to tick something off the list so that, one day, I’ll feel content. I’m very aware that this is the only shot at life I’ll get, and I often fear that I’m not making the most of this, as irrational as this may sound.

The Therapist asked me whether I remembered the last time I’d felt pure happiness, or joy, with nothing clouding it. I thought carefully. Year 8, 2013, I said, after delving through the memory files. Lying on a beach in summer, looking up at a blue sky with my best friend at the time. There’s definitely a scale of happiness, but that’s the last time I felt euphoric. The Therapist looks at me, concerned. That’s a long time ago, she observes. I nod, but it’s true. That’s the last time I felt undiluted happiness, untouched by doubt, anxiety or fear. Since then, there has always been something to worry about, something to take the edge off something great. Will you try and focus on being happy with your life as it is? Perhaps stop waiting for it to get better? I sigh. Yes. I’ll try.

Photo by Johann Piber on

I wonder if this is simply an unfortunate aspect of my personality; failure to be satisfied and always wanting more from life, or whether it is common amongst us all on a larger scale; a pandemic of the inappeasable. I WhatsApp a friend, hoping for some validation. When were you last properly happy?


The response comes sooner than I’d expected. Would have to say last week after my run! The Friend replies. Hmm. Maybe it is just me then.

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