Many years ago I watched a strange and beautiful Japanese movie ‘After Life’ in which the characters were asked to choose one moment from their lives, one memory, that they could choose to relive forever after their death. Their ‘afterlife’ would consist of just this one crystalline image, something that they could recall with the utmost clarity, and nothing else for the rest of time.
This choice — which you can imagine was the hardest one most of them had ever made — was their task over the course of a week. They had to recall one moment of perfect happiness, which the team helping them would then recreate on film, before they could take it and move on to eternity.
After I saw this movie it stayed with me for the longest time, because you see I couldn’t imagine what that moment would be for me. I was relatively young when I saw the movie and hadn’t yet had my daughter, so had no idea what it might feel like to hold my own child. My relationship with my husband was good, but it had not had the best of starts and I had few happy romantic memories from first meeting him. I was close to my family, but we were also kind of dysfunctional, so a lot of my early memories were tinged with stuff that happened later, and so spoiled what might have been warm rose-tinted recollections of childhood.
As time went on and I considered it again and again over the years, I realised that there had actually been very few times in my life that I experienced real happiness as the state of mind — free of worry, entirely present and full of joy — that I understood it to be.
So I began to try and figure out what the formula for happiness might be for me. I could think of a handful of times in my life where I’d felt something akin to joy, so I began to write about each of them. Describing in great detail all of the sounds, smells and texture of those moments I remembered, in the vague hope that by doing what the movie had suggested — recreating it creatively — I would discover the magical formula for what had evoked that very particular feeling.
There was a moment in the back of a jeep on a deserted country road in Israel, during the three months I was travelling there when I was 20.
It was just after nightfall, and I remembered so clearly staring out through the canvas flaps at the night sky full of stars, the voices of my friends who were sat with me in the back, the sound of the crickets in the leaves at the side of the road. We had been hitch-hiking back from the southern part of the country to our kibbutz in the north and been offered a lift by some friendly locals, and in that moment — just as the jeep pulled away to take us home — I felt the clearest most palpable sense of happiness I’d ever felt. It was so deep and profound in that second that I felt as if I’d been slapped off my feet by a gentle wave.
The next was from the year I was 30. I’d decided — on the spur of the moment around my birthday — to go on holiday alone to Italy for a week, with some vague plan of travelling in a triangle from Bergamot, across to Venice and then down to Bologna and back over the course of seven days.
I scared the shit out of myself on that trip several times, getting lost in the days before GPS, being scammed by unscrupulous taxi drivers, but then — in Venice — there was a moment that made the whole trip worth it. Early one morning (it may even have been my birthday morning) I got up early and walked along the Grand Canal with my sketch book, and on my route passed a small bakery that had just opened. I went inside and bought myself two apricot pastries and then walked on to a small piazza where the sun was just starting to flood the cobbles. I sat down with my sketchbook, opened the paper bag and sat and ate one of the pastries on the marble steps of a church.
As I watched the stones turn first pale cream and then gold and a soft warm breeze moved the leaves in the surrounding trees, I remember that my throat had suddenly clenched tight with tears. Not because I was overcome with beauty in that lonely place, but with the realisation that — even as I recognised it — the utter joy I’d felt for just a split second was already passing.
The next moment I recognised was two years later. I was in Kyoto in Japan, about halfway through a three-week honeymoon with my husband that we’d been planning for the last decade.
Kyoto was everything I’d imagined it would be, beautiful ancient buildings and winding streets juxtaposed with all the sleek modernity of Japan, and I was literally thrumming with excitement about being there at last. In a small backstreet market, wandering away from my husband, I found a store that sold nothing but gift wrapping. Every single wall and surface was covered with the most exquisite printed papers and fabrics, and the smell inside was delicious and intoxicating, a mixture of sandalwood and the street-food cooked in sesame oil drifting in from the alley.
I remember very specifically that, as I drew a sheet of red gilded paper off one of the shelves to look at, it was almost as if a tiny bell had been struck. Everything around me in that moment came suddenly and immediately into sharp focus, and I was filled with a sudden deep sense of calm. And the thought that accompanied the calm was such a simple one that, when I think back to it now, it almost seems ridiculous.
The thought I had in that moment was “everything is as it should be”, and even as I type that now I feel a tightness in my chest, tears in my eyes.
I have written about all these moments over the years — in my quest to find a common theme, my own personal formula for happiness — without a great deal of success. What I have noticed though is that that my recognising of them as they happen has become that much better as a result. And I had a thought the other day, that that feeling of sadness I had in Venice was a good example of how we spoil joy for ourselves by anticipating its loss at almost the same moment we begin to feel it.
We’re so busy trying to grab onto the snowflake we don’t even think about the fact that in the very act of grabbing and holding we’re already destroying: melting something that is — by its very nature — fragile, beautiful and transitory. I have a story that, by remembering and describing all these beautiful colourful snapshots of happiness, I will become better at just seeing them as they happen. Observing with wonder, rather than reeling with the thought that I’m experiencing something miraculous and — very possibly — melting the snowflake before it even lands. My hope is that, by noticing these moments of joy as they happen, allowing them more and more, I can string them together like beads. Make a whole necklace of moments so that, when the time comes and I’m asked to choose, instead of having to search for them I’ll be spoiled for choice.
This isn’t the usual kind of post I make, but I made it in the hope that someone out there will read it and sit down and describe in detail their own personal moment of joy for themselves. And if you feel so moved to send it to me afterwards, then I’d really love to hear it.
Law Turley is a BACP Registered Integrative Therapist and Certified Radical Honesty Trainer living and working in the south west of the UK.