On happiness

A couple of nights ago I popped out to a jam session at The Alexandra hosted by Southampton’s long running hip-hop collective Route2Roots… and thanks to the generosity of the house keys player and no one else begging a turn, I spent a couple of hours up on stage lost in the groove, improvising, swapping inversions, rhythms and ideas and the occasional outrageous substitution with a rotating cast of relaxed and carefree musicians and freestyling emcees.  I left before the end of the night on a substance free high and only afterwards thought about what caused it, how lucky I was to be able to take part and more generally how it touched on something important to everyone, since we all seek happiness.

I did very little talking on Friday night, and on reflection afterwards it did occur to me that I’ve known some of you I jammed with for a long time, (for some of you it’s been a decade!) and I probably haven’t spent enough time getting to know you better.  So sorry about that!  But especially on leaving early on Friday, I did less of what most people think of as socialising – almost all the conversation was musical.  The jokes were musical.  The shared amusement and the knowing glances… and a musical conversation is a special one where you can talk at the same time as someone else… reinforce what they say, follow where they go, prod them in another direction.  To anyone who isn’t an improvising musician, it seems like magic.

But of course, it isn’t.

What musicians (and emcees) do is the result of hours and hours of work, trial and error, listening and learning… and particularly when it comes to improvising, you don’t have too much time to think about what does and doesn’t work, it’s a skill, and for those who get good at it, it’s a discipline.  (Whether they realise it or not).  Part of the pleasure I had on Friday night was the free exercise of a skill.  I like to think that sprinters sometimes just run for the hell of it… not thinking about times, distance, repetitions – just running for the pleasure of it… feeling powerful, free, inexhaustible.  For a musician, an open ended jam can feel like that… a lot of freedom.  And I was in great company, the crowd were enjoying it, I didn’t have to be there or leave at a certain time… lug any heavy gear about.  I listened for a bit after I arrived, then went and played and got completely lost in the moment.

So firstly, thanks guys – I’ve been there in the house band, fiddling with the sound to keep things running, feeling the grind of lifting gear after a long day and knowing I’ve got a long night… and it can still be fun of course, but not as much fun as drifting in like I did with no obligations except having fun.

Coming back to happiness though, and why I’m taking the trouble to write about it.

Happiness is a balancing act.  It took me a long time to learn that and to get a better grip on how to do the balancing.

Friday night combined three things I consider a regular dose of to be vital in maintaining your happiness – exercising a skill you have developed, enjoying the moment and keeping good company.

Cultivating a skill (or skills) improves your feeling of self worth.  It doesn’t have to be something you think anyone else is going to appreciate, though for many people there can be that expectation and there’s nothing wrong with that… as long as you cultivate one of the other things I consider vital in maintaining your happiness – a healthy sense of perspective… balance.  With a skill, most likely someone else has been there before… there will always be someone better, there will always be someone waving from further down the ladder.  But even if it’s something you pursue completely for yourself, you will know how many hours you’ve poured in, what you’ve managed to achieve, what you can now do.  And for anyone reading who thinks they don’t have a skill, it might be that you’re in a job where you exercise one.  But if you think you’re missing one in your life, start now!  You should always be adding to yourself life… if it’s not an open ended skill you’re pursuing, then just add another one.  If you sit still life will become monotonous.

Every day you should enjoy a moment if not The Moment.  In the part of the week where I have a day job, I am helped by a stock of good tea and a small amount of decent dark chocolate, but I enjoy my food… so much so that I’m always trying to improve my cooking.  (It’s small things for me and it won’t be the same for everyone).  Anyone who has struggled with depression will read this and think that this is the hardest part, because when your mind traps you it’s like the colour is drained out of your existence.  Keep trying new things, walk barefoot in the dew, watch a spider build a web… shiver in the cold looking for shooting stars.  Even that can take time to work, but somehow you have to get back to the point where you’re reminded what a gift it is to be alive.  And once you’re there, keep in the habit of reminding yourself.  If you don’t like your life, change it.  If you don’t like yourself, change yourself.  But with both, you need patience to put the time in to make a lasting change for the better.

Keeping good company should be self explanatory, but especially as you get older and lives get busier it can be easy to not find enough time for your friends… it’s time well spent.  If you can find a pursuit that involves a good laugh with others then that is best of all – it’s why football and choirs are so popular.  It’s also how you can lose two hours in the moment at a jam session, except of course I didn’t lose them, I gained them.