What does happiness really mean?

Rock pile at Port Willunga beach

Photo of rocks taken at Port Willunga beach

In a scene from season one of Mad Men, a client tells Don Draper that the Greeks have two meanings for utopia: “eu-topos”, the good place, and “u-topos”, the place that cannot be.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently; about the duality of happiness as something all-encompassing—even overwhelming—and also something elusive, often impermanent.

I think the closest I’ve gotten to this kind of fully immersive happiness is being at the beach. Specifically, escaping the city in mid-January, once the Christmas and New Year whirlwind is over, and heading to Aldinga. We used to have a shack there where we’d stay every summer a well-worn, weatherboard cottage that Dad’s parents built in the 70s. But, like a lot of shared family legacies, it grew burdensome; too small, too filled with asbestos, too on the verge of collapse to warrant rescue. Faced with the prospect of managing one home between six siblings, Dad and his family made the difficult decision to sell the land. Now, without free accommodation to return to, we stay in Airbnbs; homes that are much nicer, larger, and asbestos-free, and yet wrong in ways I can’t quite articulate.

Still, Aldinga remains a place I’ve known my whole life and holds an ocean so familiar that it feels carved into me somehow. I suppose then that the happiness isn’t born from the beach itself, but the memories—sometimes only lasting a few seconds—which I carry with me. Treasures from a past I can’t forget.

There’s one particular memory from some summers ago that comes to mind. I found a place I’d never been amongst a place I’d always known: a small corner of the bigger picture. I knew the house, I knew the land it was built on, but I’d never sat around that timber outdoor coffee table in that wicker chair, staring out at the lip of the bay and the reef that it swallowed. Maybe it was just the breeze that clung to my shins, or maybe it was the blanket I’d wrapped around my shoulders, a birthday present from an old friend that was all the wrong colours but right in most other ways. I can’t say because I still don’t know but it felt good, like seeing something familiar in a new light.

A creature appeared before me, a wallaby I think it was. I sat in my corner and read and when I looked up to meet its gaze, I smiled but did not speak. I could have called out to my brother who was only metres away, separated by ceiling-to-floor windows and a fly screen, but I couldn’t bring myself to make a sound, to insert something human into that moment. Instead I watched in silence. I even put my book down because I was so delighted to see the creature drink from the water bowl we’d laid out, batting away the bees circling above its ears. People talk about losing themselves in nature a lot but that’s never come easily to me, apart from at that moment. The world felt still and warm and quiet and yet I could hear everythingI returned to my book, the light fading, and then I was called to dinner and went inside.

That might sound sort of insignificant now but it felt like the good place. I guess it also felt like the place that cannot be, because it’s not something I can return to, except inside my head. Maybe that’s where it’s most powerful.

Tagged in What messes with your head, Wellbeing, health and wellbeing, self-care, Student life, Nature