I set out to find the happiness I felt as a child, and it worked – let me tell you how I did it | Mental health

When I remember being very young, moments of intense happiness stand out – happiness that came from just curling up in bed, or playing a game with friends, or flicking through a book about beachcombing. As I got older, that simple, deep happiness became harder and harder to achieve as new emotions and adult responsibilities settled in. In many ways, my attempts at happiness in adulthood have been attempts to get back to that uncomplicated feeling of relaxation and pleasure.

I think I’ve managed to get closer to it now than I’ve ever been before in adult life, in part by rediscovering past pleasures.

When I was 11 or 12, I’d while away the hours in my room listening to music – normally the Top 40 charts at the weekend, or else catching Hot 97, recording my favourite hits on to a tape and then taking them into school on my Walkman. Just as much as the hits, I enjoyed the snippets of DJ speak, where I’d failed to stop recording quickly enough. To this day I can’t think of Shanice Wilson’s I Love Your Smile without hearing the DJ’s intro and accidental potted history of the song: “If at first you don’t succeed, remix and try again: Shanice Wilson’s I Love Your Smile.”

But in adulthood I went years without making time for music, without giving it space to vibrate through the house. With the stresses of the last couple of years, all that changed. I needed new ways to relax and to clear my head, so I started using a music-streaming service and began to get curious about the songs I used to enjoy, taking musical memory trips via Arrested Development, Crowded House, bossa nova and Jeff Buckley.

Slowly, as my “liked” songs list grew, music became a part of my everyday life again. I felt so silly for abandoning music for so long when playing a favourite tune can do wonders to lift your mood. I now have a singalong playlist – and I take it as a great source of pride that long car journeys have become an opportunity to memorise the words to a song inside out, exactly like I used to do when I was young.

Jeff Buckley
‘I began to get curious about the songs I used to enjoy, taking musical memory trips via Arrested Development, Crowded House, bossa nova and Jeff Buckley (above).’ Photograph: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Another childhood rediscovery came in the form of Lego. As a child I had a Lego Space set with lights, and I remember sitting on the floor, delightfully happy, clicking the little bricks together. Fast-forward 30 years and a random article about Lego as a financial investment got me thinking about that one-time toy – and took me down a rabbit hole of the most recent sets. Before I knew it, I was spending the first lockdown putting together the Lego Haunted House with music on and a hot chocolate in my hands. It was bliss and I once again found myself wondering why I ever stopped – why, with things considered childish, we often throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s not just a childhood toy. It’s a puzzle, it’s time to be creative, its space to focus on something that isn’t a screen. It’s problem solving; it’s being present.

In my early teens, after I was given a camera as a gift, I jumped on my bike and headed to Wimbledon Common and took photos, just for me: photos of trees and wildlife. I was out all day. On my way home I spotted a tree lit up by street lighting and tried to capture its magnificence. Rushing home, I popped the spent films in a special little envelope and sent them off to the developers, desperate to see how they came out. I took many photos then and loved the fact that when you processed your film you got another roll of film back, gently encouraging the hobby (and the payments for processing). As an adult I have always taken photos, but mainly on holidays. I recently bought a new camera, and try to take it everywhere I go, so that even if the day is full and busy, I can snatch some moments for myself to take photos, to observe the world around me.

My study has always been heaving with books and things I’ve accumulated over years spent working. But recently I rearranged it – throwing things out, swapping an assortment of odd boxes for some proper storage. Suddenly, I found I had space in my little room.

This has been unheard of for years: space was always something I carved out by moving things around like shifting tiles in a child’s puzzle game. When this space yawned out in front of me, I knew what I had to do. My larger desk now has room for a dedicated little speaker where I can play music. The wall to my left holds all my camera equipment on display, along with photos I’ve taken. My cameras are always on hand to accompany me on journeys, to allow me time to myself. A corner in my study has a flip-up table where a Lego set – a typewriter this time – is slowly taking shape.

To me, the room represents how I’ve found happiness: by reconnecting to those younger parts of myself I’d forgotten or laid aside, by allowing room in my life for pleasure to exist, and by creating an environment that allows opportunities for delight.

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