I was sitting on my couch, staring out the window as pedestrians ambled the streets of Amsterdam, rugged up against the 2-degree chill when I saw it, floating from the apartment above: a solitary, swollen bubble. Then my eyes adjusted to the distance, and I saw another, and another. Everywhere, bubbles.
At the sight of them, I had but one thought:
Someone has just fallen in love.
Because we don't go blowing bubbles arbitrarily at 11am on a Friday from a residential apartment block for any other reason, do we? Or am I just the fickle eccentric who's captivated by iridescence, tethering it in some nebulous neural way to love, and giddiness, and the goodness of life?
Maybe it's projection on my part; maybe the 11am bubble-blowing bandit isn't in love, but rather, the emotion is simply on my mind. Having enjoyed, until recently, four years of unrelenting and unapologetic independence, the thought sits clumsily. How, I wondered, Would I know what is rattling around behind the sternum of some phantom bubble blower?
To love is to love, but to be seen loving is to subject oneself to scrutiny. Perhaps this is why so many people fear the word; we don't reach our mid-late twenties without a healthy portion of baggage. It's the only way we're allowed to keep passing "Go", and in my social circles, there's as much originality to our neuroses as there were unappealing tokens on the Monopoly board:
1) The Wheelbarrow: Still dating the partner from the first year of university, the Wheelbarrows are either as besotted as they were from the first day, or locked into a mutually-assured destruction of resentment and sunk-cost fallacy. Either way, they've got the next 15 years of their life mapped out;
2) The Racecar: Newly extricated from a long-term relationship, the Racecar is bracing for the long winter by hastily locking down their new partner, since they've already put in the emotional labour of preparing to settle down, just with someone else;
3) The Cannon: Voraciously, insatiably single... but less available for friends than they are for the endless stream of Tinder first-dates who all sound inconsequential initially, but soon become villainous in the retelling when there is no second date;
4) The Boot: The Boot's been beaten down by love, constantly trapped in the will-we-won't-we dance with some abusive ex-partner. They'll circle back around this routine to a few more times than is wise before they realise they're not in love, they're just scuffed and unlaced and don't know how far they can limp along on their own.
As someone who's been each of these Monopoly metaphors at some stage or other, and more (don't ask me about my stint as an iron), I can empathise. Humans are categorically unable to live life without clumsiness, which is, in itself, quite sweet. Everyone wants someone to warm their bed as the world is ending, but the ways in which we pursue happiness - within ourselves but especially with regard to our love lives - can make us seriously bloody hard to love.
Romantic relationships are often dysfunctional and ill-fitting from an outsider's perspective, and why wouldn't they be? People put so much pressure on their partners to make them happy, but happiness is a fickle target that sees us punish ourselves and the people we love for not fulfilling an expectation that doesn't align with the adorable doofiness of being a human being.
Because there are bubbles in Dam Square which means that someone is in love and frankly, I hope it's you. It should be you.
But we've gotta sort out our yardstick for what that means.
People measure the quality of their life by how often and intensely they feel happy, which is wonderful, delightful, perfect... if it works. But happiness as a feeling is quite thin without the weight of unhappiness to create a counterpoint to it. Someone can slog through the emotional equivalent of Dante's Inferno, hungering for a day when happiness will return to them, but such is the nature of the beast: like a blocked nose, you don't notice the moment that unhappiness disappears. You'll go straight back to taking the ability to breathe for granted until the next time it clogs. So to hunger for happiness as a measure of a life well-lived places an unrealistic burden on oneself.
I try not to let myself lean on the word "happy" as a defined objective these days. It stops me from falling into the logical fallacies of thinking: "If I did/owned/was X, I'd be happy". It's like a shining beam of light from the heavens illuminating you in its thrall - pretty spectacular, but eventually you're gonna wanna go get something to eat and wash your hands and maybe have a nap without having to just linger in that one spot for the rest of your life. You change depending on the context in which you live, so your feelings of positivity should too.
For example, owning a home wouldn't necessarily make me happy, but it would make me comfortable. I would enjoy having a space that's truly mine, where I can invite guests around at any time, to choose every stick of furniture in the place and be allowed to do something more interesting at an auction than when I was a kid and my Dad would let me accompany him under the condition I did not, at any time or for any reason, raise my hand.
Likewise, I love my career deeply, but making more money in my job wouldn't necessarily make me happy - it would simply give me more options, which I could then use for the things that do make me happy - like a trip to somewhere I've never been or a meal at a fancy restaurant, just because. So with this in mind, it makes sense that I don't think happiness should be found in the actual getting of the guy or the girl you have a crush on, despite this seemingly comprising 90% of the mental and interpersonal angst of the people I know. Making like Ash Ketchum and just choosing someone shouldn't be the happiest point of a relationship (though for many it is)... it should be the prologue to a big adventure full of highs and lows, doubts and growth, and a conscious decision between both parties to keep actively deciding to stay on the path they've stepped onto as a team.
The dating game places so much pressure on people to carve their ideal soulmate into the uneven marble of another person, but carving is a brutish craft when the raw materials are a human being. A "fixer-upper" relationship, or one contingent upon one party changing, is painful for both people: there is resentment from one for having to "guide" the other into becoming who they should be, and hurt from the person who soon realises that the love that was given to them, seemingly in good faith, is, in fact, conditional on the happiness they bring their partner.
So maybe we shouldn't aim for happiness. Maybe we should aim for satisfaction.
Satisfaction is a sensation that is as longitudinal or as brief as we want it to be; it removes the value clarifiers we place on everything (for example, in a failing relationship: "Does my partner make me happy, or did they make me happy?"). Satisfaction is more readily identifiable than happiness - it's warm, content, and a little self-congratulatory - the latter of which may seem a bit indulgent, but is not. In fact, the personalisation of satisfaction is why it's more sustainable than happiness in the first place: by feeling like we've contributed to our satisfaction (in some big or small way), we have some degree of control over it. An issue with the way we perceive happiness is that it is fickle and fleeting - circumstantial, bestowed upon us by someone else, contingent upon more labour to keep it. But satisfaction does not wither on the vine if you don't keep feeding it - it is there whether you focus on it or not, and unlike the way recall happiness, it is not tinged with sad, bittersweet nostalgia. It simply is.
Happiness is posited as a destination, not a process. Satisfaction is a more navigable marker that, when manifested properly, can be applied to both lives and lovers without forcing upon them the immense burden of perfection that is associated with "making happy".
And, to be a little less metaphysical: Dating is a dog's breakfast. If we can't laugh at ourselves, we're fucked.
Picture it like shoe-shopping. You haven't had your size fitted since you were a teenager and you're not totally sure what fits and you're still gravitating towards slutty thigh-high boots or Converse high-tops and it seems like everyone is just yanking shoeboxes off the wall, squeezing themselves into a pair that fits like Cinderella's slipper on her step-sister's girth, and strolling out like it ain't no thang. Meanwhile, boxes are scattered in your wake, spewing their contents left and right, and all you can think is: "How firm are restaurants really on the no shirt, no shoes, no service rule?" because this is a waking hell and you'd rather be barefoot for the rest of your life.
Not a super happy metaphor there, right? You're not wrong. Happiness cringes from that kind of discomfort, and I don't blame it. But satisfaction is a little more tongue-in-cheek, happy to salvage a good story from a bad experience and still call it a victory of sorts. Case in point: I've rarely heard a story about a threesome that wasn't, at its best, tempered with some disappointment or at its worst, an outright disaster. I know, Hollywoo keeps telling us the 'D' is silent if done right, but the way the stories are painted, it seems there's always one selfish link in the triangle, or someone's kinda gassy, or one person feels left out and ends up creating a colossal drama. Not happy times, not really, but salvageable if you know how to laugh at yourself.
But it's not sweet. It's not pretty. It's not happy. And the movies promised us all that and more - perfection in threesomes, and love, and cleanly-resolved arguments, and bad-boys tamed by the girl next door and that there's a Sandra Dee in leather for any guy who thinks he has the crude tools to change a person into an archetype. No wonder we're unhappy.
I suspect - though I'm not married to this theory - that maybe the best part of sex and love is actually the moment when all parties look at each other with excited anticipation, asking silently: "Are we really about to do this?", whilst knowing that yes, they will. Maybe we're not obsessed with love, but with antici...
I've seen the cognitive dissonance first-hand, and certainly more than once. For so many of my friends, the first kiss with Prince(ss) Charming has was vastly more exciting than the second, let alone having to hunker down for a year or two with them just to be a good sport. A kiss can feel like happiness - for what is infatuation if not capturing a butterfly in your hands and feeling its wings flutter within the hollow of your palms? - but maybe we're chasing the wrong sensation. After all, the real story always begins after the Happily Ever After rolls... and who's to say that story isn't more satisfying?
Not every part of life can be as pure or euphoric as bubbles floating by your window. But it can be content. It can be calm. It can be beautiful.
And it can be conquerable.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.