What does your happy place look like?
I get asked this quite a lot, mostly by therapists, I’ll admit, and I’m not sure I’ve ever offered a remotely convincing answer.
The answer is usually Castletown Beach in the Isle of Man, where my mum and her family are from. Almost every memory I have of summers spent with my grannie were on that beach and it was the place for a lot of my growing up too.
Collecting crabs with my brother and sister (the crustaceans, not an inscetuous and massively premature STD), being bullied into the freezing Irish Sea by my hard-as-nails Manx-mother on arctic days disguised as the British summer time, and scampering up and down rocks like mal-coordinated mountain goats.
Then later, nights spent with my teenage friends drinking vodka from the bottle and rolling up cigarettes (badly) to surreptitiously smoke (in the hope that our parents couldn’t see the clouds of smoke drifting above the low walls protecting the road from the rough sea), sitting there with boys I fancied, absolutely not being anything like myself in the hope that they’d be fooled into thinking I was a cool, mature, funny girl absolutely worthy of their attention.
And as an adult, it’s become a place of tranquility. Walking up and down it earlier this summer with my friends and their baby made me realise how close to full circle I was coming with the place, and still the thought of the dark sea and broad beach is enough to cause an ache of longing in my stomach.
So now, when the therapist, or nosey (usually drunk and philosophical) friend or whatever, asks me to tell them about my happy place, I instinctively tell them about Castletown Beach.
It seems to placate the people asking. It feels like a good answer. Laced with sentimental memories and prominent moments of evolution in my life, it is about as appropriate an answer as I could offer. It sounds just right, and it feels pretty good too.
I sometimes resent the fact that I have chosen a place so far away, one that I visit only in the summer months and even then, hardly ever on my own since I visit the Isle of Man with my family and am permanently riddled with FOMO and neediness so don’t love breaking away from the group if at all possible (this might be why I need the therapy in the first place but let’s get into that another time shall we?).
But it serves its purpose fairly well in my imagination.
When asked to think of my happy place, I close my eyes and feel my bum on the rough rock, I hear the breaking of the waves, I smell the salt and the revolting seaweed that get’s brought up daily by the tide and I start to feel more calm. Anxieties begin to ebb away and I relax into thoughts of happy feelings in a happy place.
Of course, should I ever find myself actually sitting on that beach, alone with my thoughts, I’m not entirely sure it would be that happy-an-event at all.
Not because it isn’t a happy place, as we have established it is a very happy place, but because I’m not entirely convinced that I haven’t built this all up in my head.
What I mean by that, is that I’m not sure my happy place is anywhere other than in my imagination.
Oh great, she’s gone mad. She’s absorbed the HeadSpace app. She’s taken an e-course in psychology. She started yoga and went vegan for a week and now thinks she’s one short step away from sacking it all in, moving to a commune, bidding farewell to flushing loos in her attempt to finally be at one with nature.
Let’s think about it like this: if I were to be feeling stressed and in need of rushing away to my happy place immediately, I would need to do the following things: pack a bag, take some time off, spend a few hundred pounds booking the ferry for Bua and I to get there, drive for ten hours (twenty in total, if you count the return), check my mum’s cottage wasn’t being rented out, somehow persuade her that my staying there is worth the loss of earnings, get there, be okay with the fact that I’m alone in another country (as discussed, I am terrible at being alone), get to the beach, in a weather-appropriate-outfit, often hard on an island prone to using the expression: if you don’t like the weather, don’t worry, just wait until lunch time, it’ll change, find somewhere to sit (appropriate and comfortable for THINKING), probably drug the dog so that she wouldn’t fuck off and would just lie next to me, equally pensive and receptive to my need to not be screeching her name every two seconds, resist the temptation to Instagram the whole thing (I’m 24 and live on social media) and then somehow, most complicated of all, I’d need it to live up to the massive expectation I have built up in my head.
The reality will never be as good.
I’ll be bored, it’ll be riddled with expectation, expectation that is so massive, the reality doesn’t stand a chance.
The pressure to think happy thoughts will be overpowering, so much so that I’ll no doubt be left overpowered and left incapable of doing anything other than thinking: I’m a bit bored, I’m not happy enough, thoughtful enough, making the most of this enough.
And then I’ll be left bitterly disappointed by the fact I spend my whole life thinking of a happy place that hasn’t ended up that happy at all and then with a huge anxiety complex that this whole time I’ve been lying to therapists and that really can’t be good. A cardinal sin, but also, if they believed the web of lies I inadvertently created, then they surely can’t be that good a therapist… right?
Hello, I’m Em, and I’m an over-thinker.
The truth is, I am happy in lots of places.
I am happy in my house after I’ve done a big spring clean, bought a bunch of flowers and lit a candle… or twelve.
I am happy at my mum’s house, when sitting around the table eating a big roast dinner with my family.
I am happy when waking along the River Thames with Bua, both in the sweltering sunshine and wrapped up warm against the freezing cold weather.
I am happy on the beach in Barbados (obviously).
I am happy in bed.
I am happy when I leave London.
I’m really happy when I get back to London.
I am happy in Hyde Park.
I am happy when eating pizza.
I am really, really happy in the pub.
You knew it was coming right, but I have to say it anyway: I think I’m probably coming to the realisation that happiness is a state of mind.
I am lucky that I am able to find happiness in so many places. And I don’t do nearly enough to appreciate that. The truth is, for a lot of people, this isn’t that easy and I’m damn sure that I’m not making the most of it.
I often associate so many of the thoughts in my head with negative ones; anxieties creep in when I don’t want them to, worst-case-scenarios play out before my eyes, worries about my career, my friendships, my future, they’re always there, always floating around. And so it’s only natural that I associate happiness with one place in particular, hoping that that will serve as the answer to my problems. A safe place. A problem free-zone. An escape.
But as I’m coming to appreciate, that doesn’t need to be the case. Not only can happiness co-exist with these worries, it can also triumph. And that can all happen in my brain.
God knows there’s space for it in there.
Sure, I think I’ll probably keep Castletown Beach as the default answer should I find myself being quizzed by therapists, or philosophical friends, or if Alex is ever forced to pick one thing in a game of Mr & Mrs.
I’ll also keep it as the mental get away place. I’ll allow it to float into my head when meditating, or doing yoga, or whatever other hippy activity I find myself partaking in as I try to get to know myself better. Hello and welcome to the self-care age.
But as for the pressure that comes with this romantic notion of one happy place, in which all of my problems float away as if the answer to all of life’s problems are going to appear before me with a gust of wind and a swelling of music coming from god knows where as Colin Firth runs towards me in a wet, white shirt… hrhumm, sorry, wrong fantasy…
Where was I? Oh yes…
By putting all of my eggs in one basket, so to speak, I am accidentally dousing one stretch of beach in more pressure than is good for it, or for me.
It might be time, probably, to spread the load and accept that in a thought as cheesy as ‘home is where the heart is’, happiness is exactly where I want it to be.
I’ll never stop loving Castletown Beach, it will never stop taking my breath away, it won’t stop being my favourite place on the planet and I won’t stop channeling my anxieties in the general direction of the Irish Sea, in the hope that they’ll freeze to death or get attacked by the swarms of jelly fish that loiter in the shadows.
But in so many other ways, my happy place exists within me.
And yes, that is the revoltingly cheesy pondering of someone that has probably had a little too much time giving this a little bit too much thought. But here we are.
Happy in so many places. And really happy to have worked that out.