Define Happiness

Many autistic people are said to have difficulty understanding, labelling, and describing their feelings, but I’ve always considered myself to be quite lucky in this respect – I’ve always thought I could describe how I felt, most of the time at least. So when Joanna (the my co-admin on this site) asked me yesterday, “How do you know when you’re happy”, I blithely answered, “When I’m feeling cheerful… when I have that joie de vivre, that glow inside. When I’m glad to be alive.” “Yes,” she said. “But how does that actually feel?” And I was stumped. She explained that I’d answered a question about a feeling by just using other feelings to describe it, leaving her no wiser about my experience of happiness.

We played around with the idea for a while, talking about anger, anxiety, and fear: we found we could describe those emotions in terms of of physical responses (adrenaline, racing heart, trembling, sweating, etc.), but when Jo said fear and anxiety felt like shouting inside her head, I jumped on that, saying happiness was like laughter inside my head; but none of it describes that all-consuming joy happiness brings. No even remotely. We tried describing happiness as an “absence of those negative emotions” (i.e. anger, anxiety, fear) – giving a feeling of calmness, of being safe – but that only touches on contentment. Again, it doesn’t come close to happiness.

Chambers Dictionary defines “happy” as:
1. Lucky
2. Fortunate
3. Expressing, full of, or characterised by, contentment, wellbeing, pleasure, or good.
4. Apt
5. Felicitous
6. Carefree
7. Confident
8. Mildly drunk

Definitions 1-3, and 7 are just other emotions (4, 5 & 8 aren’t relevant in this context), so only number 6, I think, comes close to a true explanation; but Chambers goes on to define “carefree” as a “lack of anxiety, worry, or responsibility”, which just brings us back to the absence of negative emotions we already talked about.

I could say happiness is when I smile – when I smile a huge genuine smile – the kind another friend of mine describes as my “mountain smile” (the one on my face when I’m on top of a large hill – see right). I can certainly remember how I was feeling when I took that photo, but if you asked me, “But what makes you smile?”, or, if you couldn’t see the picture (or recognise the facial expression as happiness) and asked me what caused the primary feeling…? I wouldn’t know.

So Jo made me aware that those of us who can supposedly identify and describe our emotions, still over-rely on cross-referencing them with other emotions, merely describing each feeling in terms of other feelings. This means there is no person-to-person datum for happiness – no baseline to which other people can refer. Negative emotions, however, cause obvious physical responses, and are thus easier to explain: everyone knows what an adrenaline rush feels like, or when your heart misses a beat, or when your legs feel like jelly… so why can’t I describe happiness in this way? The very closest I can get is to say “my heart feels larger”; but don’t our hearts “swell with with pride” and “fill with love”? So perhaps this explanation only describes a generic positive-emotion… it doesn’t nail down happiness at all.

I’d love to know how you define it – answers in the comments box please!

©Leigh Forbes

What Colour is Monday?

According to Twitter, Monday is: red, yellow, blue, brown, aquamarine, gray, pink, the colours of each letter the word contains (black, white, blue, orange, red, yellow), bigger than Tuesday, male, and “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. Welcome to my world!

Days have always been coloured for me, and for many others it seems, though I was probably in my mid-thirties before I realised not everyone saw them like that. Some numbers have colours for me too, and some letters have tastes, but that’s all for me; but I wanted to explore this subject and find out what other people see, and I’ve been asking around. An aspie friend has different colours for the days: Thursday is black for her, which is every shade of wrong for me – I say ten is black, and Thursday is yellow! Seven is yellow too (though sometimes it’s purple). Friday is always purple (and @spiraldrain tells me coffee is purple too).

These associations are strong and unshakeable, and I have had mine for as long as I can remember. Even longer than I’ve had my “Colour Piping” learn-to-play-the-recorder book, which gives colours to musical notes in exactly the same order as my days, which is really, really freaky – but otherwise a total coincidence.

One of my number colours is very strong: blue for two and four. Others, I had to think (though the result is still well-defined): you can see them all in the picture, except perhaps eight, which doesn’t stand out; eight doesn’t have a colour for me – it’s not white, it’s clear (and I’m told it’s male as well). Ten, you’ll see, is black (and black, is most definitely not Thursday ;o)

And for me, the letters i, e, j, and f are sweet, the rest are sour, but my son associates letters with certain smells: he says the letter W smells like pomegranite, M smells of cinnamon, I smells of burning metal, and R smells like cow pats! (I guess I’m glad he spends enough time in the great outdoors to know what a cow pat smells like!)

I was delighted to receive the hugely varied experiences of others – from days with not just colours, but smells, tastes and genders too. @kitty_pickles wrote, “it’s a odd one & no mistake! Particularly when the words for colours are a different colour to the one they describe,” which reminded me of one of the tests on Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training game (for the Nintendo DS): it has you click on words of a certain colour, red for example, but the words themselves might actually read “blue” or “yellow” or whatever. I wonder if this task is easier or harder for synesthetes.

We also got talking about our view of time: for me, time is a flat tape stretching into the distance in front and behind me. I can ‘zoom out’ (to view a greater time-scale) by ‘floating’ higher above the tape. The tape is white, on a white background, yet its edge is defined. The days and dates are written in black. Now I couldn’t begin to draw this for you (it’s all I can do to describe it), but @Soundcube has the skills to illustrate his own view of time (see right).

What is your experience of synesthesia? Answers in the comments box please!

See also @myaspielife’s post, born from the same discussion.