Travel Essay on Happiness

Sitting on an old bronze fountain looking out across the Plaza de la Virgen of Valencia I look at the dawn-runners, people going to work, riding the bus, having a coffee on the steps of the square, and I want to ask them all if they are as happy as I am. Of course, it doesn’t matter. If there’s one thing I know is that I am I and they are they. But it is an important question to ask in a context, framing it within subjectivity to begin approaching the objective question: what is happiness?

I move to one of the cafes and I order myself an horchata – a cool, milky drink made from tiger nuts. I stir it with my farton and I wonder if I’d be any happier back home. Home: Malta. Home: home. I am never unhappy at home. In fact, I am never unhappy anywhere. I’m lucky. Epicurus defined happiness as an absence of pain. I am seldom in pain, yes, I am lucky; I don’t know war, I am in good health, I am free, un-oppressed. So for me, happiness is easy. Complicated, but easy.

But that doesn’t lead me to an objective, truthful definition of happiness. The sun is rising brightly over the tower of the Micalet cathedral and the cobblestone of the square begins reflecting heat and you think thank the gods for this summer’s day in a foreign land. Valencia is a labyrinth of history, colonized by Islamic and Christian extremists, and up until today is home to a local, Valencian patriotism, striped orange and yellow. It’s a city that’s known strife, like any goddamned place in the world; and those people, those Valencians who were besieged here, say, when El Cid supposedly retook the city from the Moors: what was their definition of happiness?

To get at the nature of happiness we must, I think, look to the unhappy for guidance. As I finish my horchata and walk into the hungover Barrio del Carmen for a stroll of flaneur this morning, I think of Libyans, Syrians, Sudanese and hell, even Americans and Europeans, who live their lives with mortars crashing around them, their wombs and dreams oppressed and shackled. These people who live amidst pain – where do they get their happiness from? Looking at the type of research carried out on happiness by the likes of Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert – it seems humanity’s greatest source of happiness are friends and family. Something we find hard to compute. So being with mummy, or with my mate throwing a few beers back is enough?

So I don’t need to be the greatest like Ali or the richest like Gates or the fastest Bolt? A question rises through my fingertips as I touch the stone of the Serrano Towers on the edge of the Barrio: is a besieged man trying to live in Libya happier than Ali, Gates and Bolt? It seems counter-intuitive. But is happiness really predicated on achievement?

I notice socialist, communist, even hippie iconography on graffitied walls all over the Barrio. I think them crass, idealistic, over-simplistic. But in principle, they’re not wrong. I will insert a counterculture mini-rant here just because I have to: I refuse to believe that the happiness this African ape species needs actually comes from possessions, from wealth, from owning more than thine neighbours, from consumerism – no, we are more profound than that!

I cross the Plaza del Carmen, leaving behind the Carmen nunnery and making for a small underground bar to have a jara of Mahou I contemplate the merits of ascetic living. Cut yourself off from the world, think, contemplate, study, learn. I think of all the things I could study; astronomy, biology, literature, music, art, history, philosophy… yes, then what? What would I do with all that knowledge if I can’t translate them into conversation, friendships, bonds? Knowledge on its own is not a source of pleasure. It needs to be expressed either aesthetically or socially. So to hell with the ascetic life.

After all, what have those nuns ever done to society? The pleasure of prayer, seclusion, ascetism, is deprived of one crucial thing to happiness: doing good unto others. Cutting yourself off from society bars you from that. There is a scale, then, I think as I overhear a group of Valencians sat next to me discussing the local paper; from being free from pain, to being happy, to doing good, and finally, to being happy whilst doing good.

Doing good to others, be it changing the life of a child or merely donating to a creditable charity, creates an unquestionable feel-good factor within us. Unquestionable… I walked into what I call a bull-bar; a bar that serves cold tapas, cold beer, its walls surmounted by bull-heads, full of posters of bullfighters, capes and swords – and I think how many people would recoil upon entering this shrine to bullfighting. Clearly, the adjective unquestionable is questionable. What I consider, much to the chagrin of all I know, a shrine, others would could a crime-scene.

So that makes me think, as I dip into a jara of Mahou, how do we know what truly makes us happy? It’s all about knowing yourself and putting your life into context. We are all born to die, start from that. Then work your way up. Everything you do is precious, because it will only happen for a finite amount of time before the grave beckons. Now start filtering, weeding out, ask yourself, not what makes life worth living, don’t think about immortality too much, think about the here and now, think objectively about what you’re doing, if you’re even slightly happy doing the deed, if you’re not suffering or not bringing suffering onto others, then aren’t you by definition happy?

The barman asks me where I’m from. It’s not what I’m saying, my language, my dark skin or foreign appearance; it’s The Smiths t-shirt that I’m wearing. Where’d you start hearing them, why’d you like them, you don’t mind that they’re vegetarian and miserable? Your mother’s miserable, I replied. You don’t know wit, mate. But it’s not your fault. I like The Smiths and you like The Smiths – but both for different reasons. And that’s alright. What makes me happy isn’t what makes you happy. You don’t have to justify yourself to me. But you have to be curious. You have to explore the world, explore the wide gamut of happiness available and justify it to yourself. Then follow it through. Go abroad to know how to live locally. Do the dramatic to know how to live day to day.

In the biologist’s small non-fiction masterpiece the Nature of Happiness, Desmond Morris explores the peacock’s tail of happiness available to mankind. Let me just skim through them, before the barman comes back and asks me if I’m Muslim because of the language I’m speaking, and see if they ring any bells of joy in your mind’s eye:

Devout Happiness (the Believer)

Cerebral Happiness (the Intellectual)

Tranquil Happiness (the Meditator)

Dangerous Happiness (the Risk-taker)

Competitive Happiness (the Winner)

Sensual Happiness (the Hedonist)

Painful Happiness (the Masochist)

Which of these takes your fancy? I left the underground bar and walked the long way to the Plaza de Correos, the bullring, that ochre coliseum, inside which great atrocities and spectacle simultaneously occur, I took photos of the posters, visited the museum and walked into the desolate, golden ring, then went out and found a place full of men on break from work, all of them drinking beer in the midday sun, and I joined them. You just have to know, don’t you, you and no one else, what brings you happiness. Happiness is subjective yes; I think that is its sole definition.

The world is a plethora of un-mined happiness ready to be excavated and dug up. The most important thing is that you go exploring. Don’t just settle for what you have. That, although magnificent, cannot be enough. Learn how to live a simple happy life. Master the simple pleasures, learn how to have fun on the day-to-day, be it what it may, drinking, walking, swimming, reading, writing, singing… and be proud to say that, even if I’m living under siege, I will still be capable of being happy. But then, don’t stop there.

Every now and then, indulge in that most human of drives: curiosity. Humans are mammals, they are a neotenous ape, always looking to play, looking to learn. Explore unfamiliar ground and be honest with yourself. Succumb to your neurology. Your mind will tell you when you’re happy. Just filter out external manipulations. Enjoy the drink, enjoy the sunset, the music, the love, the sex, the walking and the adventure; and know, just know, that you can only find happiness when you’re alive.

The last day of my stay in Valencia came and I returned to the fountain in the Plaza de la Virgen. I sat down there and I wept, as I looked on the city I grew to love, as I thought, this was my first time here and, God, will it be my last? Why did I cry? Because I was happy? Or because I would never be this happy? If I never returned to Valencia, would I ever be as happy as I was when in the city?

No, happiness is what you make of it. If you can be happy in your day to day life, you can be happy as you plummet towards the grave. But it doesn’t hurt, if now and then, you allow yourself to push your boundaries. To seek happiness where you’ve never yet found it. Man, just roll with it. And remember that you can be under siege or you can be a millionaire, but you’ll never be happier than what you’ll allow yourself to be. Adios, Valencia, gracias a todo.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. A profound and satisfying meditation … what I draw from your words, if I might venture a hippie-style slogan, is that happiness comes when we feel alive – not as common a feeling as one might expect.


    1. justinfenech says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’ll forgive the hippiness 🙂 but yes, happiness reminds us that we’re doing something right, and generally, that means living.


  2. saoirse says:

    “You can only find happiness when you’re alive.” Wow, I really needed this. Keep it up!


    1. justinfenech says:

      Many thanks! I’m no guru, don’t want to be, but glad to hear you got something from my writing.


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