In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a group of super-intelligent beings pose a question to a powerful computer called Deep Thought. What, they want to know, is the answer to life, the universe and everything. It takes seven and a half million years, but finally there is an answer.
“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
There you have it. 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything.
As it happens, I turned 42 today. Do I have all the answers to everything? Good heavens no, but I have been busy. Over the past few years I’ve been through a divorce, dealt with years of severe depression and anxiety, had a major career setback, lost a lot of money, helped start a business, settled back into gainful employment, and got remarried after a whirlwind courtship. On my 41st birthday, it was confirmed that I was six weeks pregnant; my baby was born ten weeks premature and she’s now six months old.
These are the most important things I know now. They may not be answers to everything, but they work for me.
- My happy marriage is my greatest achievement. Forget books and promotions and my PhD. After the implosion of my first marriage seven years ago, I never imagined I’d say this (and neither would anyone who followed my blog posts over that time). But I’ve been given a second chance. Against all the odds I’ve hit the jackpot, and I’m not going to take that for granted. Acknowledging this matters: happiness within a marriage is so easy to lose, and I don’t want to be that person who lets something good slip away because I wasn’t paying attention.
- My family matters more than anything. Having a baby brought this vividly to life. I love my daughter with an intensity that leaves me frightened sometimes. My husband, my parents and in-laws, my siblings, stepdaughters, the friends who are family to me: this is the lattice around which I am constructed now.
- I choose what I care about. Caring takes energy, and energy is limited, so I’m very careful what I care about. I used to let everything rattle me. Every setback was a disaster; every snarky email or cross word would spark hours of angst. Now, I make a conscious effort to let things go. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and it gets better with practice.
- Managing anxiety has become my major daily objective. I used to manage my life in order to get Stuff Done. Now, when I’m weighing up how to handle a situation, I assess every decision according to this question: will it increase or decrease my anxiety? Anxiety is the fraternal twin of depression, and depression is the one thing that really frightens me. Anxiety causes untold misery, which is why I organise every aspect of my life around minimizing it.
- I think very carefully before reacting to anything. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned the value of keeping quiet. Watch, listen and wait. This doesn’t mean being passive – the best way to deal with anxiety is to take control of your feelings by taking action. But I’ve learned that thinking before sharing how I feel has improved my happiness considerably. I create less drama for others and, more importantly, for myself. (If I enjoyed drama and got a kick out of anger and stress, I’d generate more of it, but I don’t. I hate it.) When things get too much, I scream while I’m driving around. Nobody can hear me, I get it out of my system, and bar a little croakiness afterwards, there’s no harm done.
- I’m saving for school fees. Once upon a time, I saved in order to travel overseas. The Clicks home pregnancy test I took on August 27, 2015 changed all of that. One thin pink line reconfigured the entire trajectory of my life. Buying stuff no longer interests me, unless I’m splashing out on gifts for others. (The piano I bought late last year was a notable exception, and there’s a whole story there that I’ll share at some point.) It helps that at the moment I have little to no interest in hair and nails or clothes and shoes.
- I actively take pleasure in little things. With the exception of the piano I bought late last year, I don’t own very much and I plan to keep it that way. Instead, I try to get as much pleasure as possible out of moments. I make a point of looking forward to things like reading a new book, or curling up in bed with my baby.
- I’m a lot more careful on and around social media. Social media used to be my default shoulder to cry on, the void into which I could dump my angst without having to worry too much about any of it coming back to haunt me. It’s no longer so simple, and not just because my family, friends and colleagues all follow me. It might have tied into the narrative when I was an obvious and entertaining mess. But I have more responsibilities now, There are too many risks associated with sharing too much, especially when I’m angry (see point 5) or depressed. Oh, the tweets I have composed in my head, the tweets that have never seen the light of day. Social media is also a two way street. Just as I have control over whether I share more than I should, I also need to guard against being affected too much by the opinions of others. I’ve spiraled into suicidal despair more than once as a result of tweets directed at me, so the stakes are high. Social media will always affect my mood far more than it should, and I will always have to guard against getting sucked into its relentless gravitational pull. In a world where it is so easy to let it all hang out, where it is so easy to take the baited hooks and be dragged to the soggy bottom, discretion really is the better part of valour.
There you have it.
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
I don’t know what the question is, so I’ll put a placeholder here for now: how do we get to be happy?
I’ve always regarded happiness as something that just… happens to one, but by reframing it as something that takes thought, focus and effort, I have more control over whether I have a shot at experiencing it it. The work of happiness might not be glamorous, but it is good. It’s taken me four decades to learn this, and I’m not going to forget it.
So this is what I am going to keep doing. Keep focusing on what matters, keep amplifying the good, and letting the bad dissipate into the breeze, and the birdsong, and the infinite wonder of a baby’s smile.