I often find myself in conversations with people I don’t know that well. I knew having kids meant an increase in responsibilities, love, financial outgoings and pretending I’m OK with missing out on the last chocolate Hobnob, but I had no idea it would involve so much talking to people.
There’s waiting at school gates or standing beside sporting fields or parent information evenings at the school or some kind of parent class catch up. There’s a lot of small talk.
Add that to casual pleasantries shared with neighbours and idle chitchat at work – not with the people I know well, but with the people I only ever see in the tea room – and the fact I must have one of those faces strangers start chatting to (I’m the woman everyone asks directions from).
Then to top off all those people there’s family, friends and colleagues.
I talk to a lot of people in one day and I’m finding there is a recurrent theme in my exchanges.
Most people don’t seem happy. They are busy, but not happy.
When I ask the stock standard conversation opener questions — Do you think the weather will hold out? Have you been at the school/sporting club/dancing school for long? Is your daughter doing French? So is mine — the answers have lost all lightness, all social lubrication.
They may start out sky blue, but the longer we chat the subjects turn greyer and inclement and within 10 minutes I’m listening to issues and problems and life’s unfairness and some man I’ve never met before telling me his very acrimonious divorce story.
I went to a school parents meet and greet the other week and all of us in the room are extremely lucky people - on the outside - and as I moved from group to group these were the conversation topics:
Issues with teachers
Issues with sports bus
Issues with the speed of food service
Issues with child's moods/friends
How "full on" everything is
How wouldn't it be good if we could "escape"
How tired and busy they are
The rise in mental illness among teens
How the media is hopeless and letting us all down (I've been hearing this one for 20 years when I'm in a new meet and greet situation)
How mobile phones are the scourge of society (said while clutching mobile phone)
Listen: Mamamia Out Loud discusses how our constant quest for happiness is making us sad (post continues after audio...)
I went to kids' sport on the weekend and as I stood on the sidelines the conversations circled:
Issues with referees
Issues with parking
Issues with sporting grounds website and handling of wet weather
Issues with coaches and child's position
On the way to work this morning a woman started talking to me at the bus stop:
Issues with timetable
Problems with overcrowding
Aggravation of weather
By the time I arrived at work I just wanted someone to say something positive. I asked how my colleague's weekend was and... there were issues.
I mean, it all can't all be that bad can it?
It's obviously not realistic for people to be happy all the time and the pursuit of happiness in itself as a goal has proven to be fraught. What brings you happiness, according to positive psychology, is engagement with life, good relationships, accomplishment and purpose - not running around trying to be happy.
It's interesting to note that in the US, while the standard of living has increased over the past 50 years, the levels of happiness over that same time period have remained stagnant. In other words everything is getting better, but we are not any happier for it.
Other studies suggest around 40 per cent of our happiness is within our control - the rest is determined by genetics and external factors.
And these behaviours tend to result in greater happiness for people:
Having time over money
Buying experiences rather than things
I'm not sure whether my rather unscientific focus group is representative of the broader population or not, but did we reach peak pleasure a few decades ago and we simply can't suck any more out of life?
Do we have so much we just can't get excited anymore?
Are we being weighed down by world events?
Do we believe life is always meant to be fair and can no longer accept when things don't go our way?
Is it just a city thing?
Are we living in fear about tomorrow?
No one can be happy 24/7. Perennially positive people are not natural. But a flicker of joy in my next exchange, a chat about a perceived win in life, not a perceived loss, will be incredibly welcome.
There's plenty of time to hate everything when we're dead.