On music and happiness

If you’re anything like me (or most people, really), music has a constant presence in your life. As regular as your heartbeat and as unconsciously there as the breaths that keep that heart beating.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself: “Yes! That’s me. I listen to music all the time.”

If this is true, my question to you is this: you may listen to music all the time, but when was the last time that you really heard music?

Now, I know. I KNOW. I’m quite aware of how big a pretentious hipster douchebag that makes me sound.

But really! When was the last time that you heard music? When was the last time that you let yourself hear it?

Let it be the thing that you are doing in a given moment or chunk of time

Let it wash over your senses like a sonic baptism

Let it empty your mind save for chords and words strung together by human heart

When was the last time that listening to music was an event – something that you blocked out a space in your day calendar for: “An hour with Dan Mangan” or “Lunch with The Killers”?

Because yes, sometimes music is a background nicety. Sometimes it’s a distraction from the noise of a busy coffeeshop. Sometimes it’s an excuse to throw your body around with a primal fury; an excuse to sweat like it’s your day job and to throw the definition of personal space out the window.

But if you’re anything like me, it’s very easy to let music be that and only that: a background, a distraction, an excuse.

Sometimes, though, I think it should be more than that – it should be an event. You should devote yourself to it like a sculptor to his stone, take it in your arms and let it whisper its secrets into your ear.

I had forgotten that.

Forgotten it until just now – 20 minutes outside of Kingston – on a hot bus with 15 or so people, some of whom I know, many of whom I don’t. Forgotten it until just now when I put my headphones in, folded my legs, closed my eyes and let myself remember why The Gaslight Anthem’s “59 Sound” is my favourite album. Forgotten it until I had sat there through all 12 tracks, eyes closed and coffee cooling, locked in a state of musical meditation.

And it was wonderful. I really heard songs that for so long now I’d only listened to. Picked out the bass line and followed it as it weaved its way in and around the drums and guitar. Tracked the tiny variations in vocal range. But it was only because I let myself – only because I made the conscious decision to let music be the thing that I was doing in that moment. Nothing else.

It was in this moment that I connected a dot. Not a big one, mind you, but a dot nonetheless. In part, it was inspired by Stefan’s recent post, and this quote from it:

“What if I work not because I want or need to, but because I have to. What if I work to escape? Work keeps me company when no one else is available. Work allows me to tune out the rest of my life’s concerns because there are more important things to do. Work doesn’t flake out or run late. Work is reliably there, just waiting to give me the momentary validation of checking something new off my to do list”

And, in part, it was inspired by something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: happiness and work.

It started on a bus. We were coming home late one evening when she asked it: “Are you happy at your work?” The driver behind the wheel of her question was nothing more than innocent curiosity, but it landed with a thud in the space before us, shaking the suspension and rousing heads from cell phone screens. “I…” Pause. Uncertainty. Play it off: “Define happy,” I joked. Seeing through the cracks in my playful façade, she backpedals. “We…don’t have to talk about it now, or ever! I just…I’m here, if you want to.” “I know, love. Maybe some time not on a bus?”

Since then I have been lot more conscious of the question. Am I happy in my work? It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around, for a number of reasons. Though my response of “define happy” was in jest, there is also some merit in it.

Does doing the work make me happy?

What if the work doesn’t, but the people do?

What if it’s neither, but instead the knowledge that I’m “making a difference” (whatever THAT means)

What if only parts of the job make me happy? Is there a threshold? Some minimum happiness level I should be aiming for?

Is happy the same as fulfilled?

I’m often stressed, tired, overworked. But happy isn’t mutually exclusive to those things, is it?

I could add a million more questions to this list, but there are other problems, as well. With the question of “are you happy at your job?” comes an unspoken but understood question of “would you be happier elsewhere?” And really, how do you know? How the HELL do you know?

And, besides, do you have to be happy? Society seems to tell us so. If you went out into the street and asked 100 people “What’s the meaning of life?” I’d be willing to bet that happiness, or some variation thereof, would be the most common answer.

Then there are the articles: “7 Steps to Happiness” ; “3 Changes you can make RIGHT NOW to be Happier” ; “GURL, WHY YOU SO GOD-DAMNED MOPEY ALL THE TIME?”

Most recently, it has been the “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” trend. These ideas are often presented as if happiness is a tender fruit to be plucked from a tree.

In truth, it’s hard to find. Hard to define. Hard to know when you’ve got it, and all too easy to recognize when you’ve lost it.

But that’s ok. It’s just as ok as it is for music to be a background, a distraction, or an excuse.

For a long while after that question landed on the bus, I beat myself up about it. “How can you not know?! What if you’re settling? You’re not unhappy, you’re just afraid of failure and so are trying to run away. You’re wasting your artistic talent and creativity – you could be doing so much more somewhere else.”

It’s only now, after hearing music for the first time in a long while, that I have a bit of clarity. It doesn’t matter (mostly). You don’t have to be happy all the time. You don’t. We’re often sold the idea that we do – told that eating a salad alone is a hilarious, uplifting activity, told we need to pursue happiness like a chorus follows a verse. And sure, it’s an important part of life – but that’s not all there is. The beauty of being human is experiencing a complex range of emotions, and no one is inherently good or bad – or better or worse – than the next.

What’s important, I think, is that it’s conscious. That there’s a decision. See, what bothered me about my musical revelation on the bus is not the pure fact that for some time now, I’ve only engaged with music as a passive listening experience. What bothered me was that it wasn’t a choice. It was just happening. In my rush-rush driven attempt to finish all of the things, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed getting lost in a good album. Forgotten how much I enjoy letting music become an event. I was letting my default state take over.

And (I think) it’s the same for happiness. It’s okay to not be totally happy in your work. Or at least, uncertain of what it means to be. But, I think it needs to be a choice. I think it’s a problem if it’s not – if it’s just your default state that switches on with the lights in the office on those early Monday mornings. If there’s a choice, if there’s a conscious decision to prioritize something else – impact, fulfillment, money, whatever – I think that’s okay.

That’s why Stefan’s post from the other day struck me. It was this one line: “What if I work not because I want or need to, but because I have to”. Specifically, it was the “not because I want or need to”. It reminded me of times in my life when I burnt myself out because I was unconsciously acting on my default state of working myself to exhaustion. Not because I wanted to or was choosing to, but because that’s just what I did.

So the real question, then, is not “are you happy at your work?” It’s whether or not the answer to that question is the product of conscious choice.

But that, my friends, is a question for another day.


Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,


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