Happiness, Aspie Style

“Are you happy?”

My gut reaction to this question is usually, “I dunno. I guess so.”

Before you assume that I don’t know if I’m happy because, duh, I’m an aspie, let me explain.

Happy is one of the blandest words in the English language. Think about it. Are you happy? Did you reflexively say yes? Did you have to stop and consider your answer?

Okay, how about this: Are you elated?

I bet you didn’t have to think very hard about that. The word elated is as precise and loaded with meaning as happy is vague and amorphous.

Putting emotions into words is tough for aspies. Maybe a big part of the problem isn’t our Aspergarian nature so much as the words we settle for. Happiness encompases a whole constellation of positive feelings from contentment to ecstasy, but when I think about “happy” all I have is a blurry splotch of a feeling.

Elated, on the other hand, has a very specific shape for me–elated is riding my bike down a hill at top speed, the wind whipping my shirt, the road a blur beneath me, and I can feel a shout building in my chest that makes me want to throw my head back and close my eyes and let out a crazy loud laughing shouting whoop of joy.

Constellation of Happiness

Thinking about all of the different words that make up my constellation of happiness led me to map them out on paper:

Contentment is where I spend the most time. If I had to pick a default state, this would be it. Contentment is curling up on the couch with a good book, holding hands with my husband on our evening walk, watching a hawk circle overhead, the feeling of flannel sheets, seeing the sun rise on a fall morning, digging my toes into the sand at the beach, pulling on my favorite t-shirt.

One level up from contentment is peace. This is the place I most like to be. When I’m in a peaceful place, I feel a deep sense of quiet in my mind and body. Everything about the world feels right–in sync, wide open, infinite. That peacefulness almost always fills me when I’m outdoors–hiking, running, swimming, walking the dog–away from people, soaking up sunshine, covering distance, moving.

Beyond that feeling of peace is mushin (empty mind). This is the place where conscious thought doesn’t exist and everything simply is. You either get this or you don’t and no amount of explaining will change that. I hope you get it. To realize that you’ve been in a place of no thought is a stunning, rare, ephemeral kind of happiness.

Cheerfulness. I barely finished writing the word before I crossed it out. Not because I lack the ability to be bright and cheerful but because I so often seem to be cheerful at the wrong time, which sometimes provokes negative reactions, especially from strangers. People get a little freaked out when you’re overly happy for no apparent reason.

Going completely against the stereotype of the humorless aspie, I’ve put amusement in my constellation because I love humor. Yes, I sometimes miss a joke and my sense of humor can be odd, but I love sitcoms, stand-up, cartoons, sarcasm, puns, wordplay, and satire. I laugh often and loudly. In fact, now that I think about it, I like how laughing feels. There’s a ticklish sort of release to laughter that you can’t get any other way.

There road to bliss runs through desserts made of chocolate, good sex or a long run on a beautiful day. Bliss defies capture. It’s boneless, languid, unbound.

Wonder is a silent feeling, a sense of being awestruck. It’s always unexpected and strong. Pure, childlike, fleeting. It’s seeing the sun hitting an ice-coated world after a winter ice storm. It’s driving around the bend of a mountain and having the landscape suddenly open onto a lush green caldera. It’s emerging from the woods to discover a herd of elk grazing in a meadow.

I was on the fence between joy and excitement, but I settled on joy. Excitement has an edge of anticipation that pushes it out of the happy constellation and into the constellation of anxiety. But joy is purely positive. Joy is light and sparkly, like an unexpected string of holiday lights on a balcony in July. Joy is my daughter calling to tell me about something great in her life. Joy is the smile on my husband’s face when he sees me coming to meet him on his walk home from the train. Joy goes hand in hand with love for me. It never rises up alone like wonder or peace.

Elation is joy2. It’s that whooping, running, rush of feeling I described at the beginning. It’s more physical than joy but less physical than that feeling without a name that I’ve drawn as ? in a circle on my constellation. If elation is joy squared then the unnamable feeling is joy1000.

The unnamable feeling is entirely physical. It makes me want to bounce up and down, skip down the street, twirl in circles. I think this is a uniquely autistic feeling and maybe that’s why I can’t find an appropriate name for it. If it were possible to distill happiness down to it’s purest, most potent form, it would be this unnameable thing that occasionally takes over my body and makes me feel like I’m flying.

Feelings or Feeling?

Reading back over what I’ve written, I’m struck by how much of my emotions I describe in physical terms. I can associate specific physical sensations and events with all of these emotions. For the stronger emotions, the physical sensations can verge on overwhelming. Extremely positive emotions demand to be released through some sort of physical activity, while the calmer positive emotions bring a sense of internal quiet and physical stillness.

I wonder if this is true for neurotypicals. Do feelings literally translate into feeling something physical or is this unique to those of us on the spectrum? When I look up “feeling” in the dictionary, the definition related to emotions tells me that it’s an “overall quality of one’s awareness.” That sounds rather boring.

I’d much rather think of feelings as things that can be physically felt, brilliant as a shiver of cold on a clear winter night.

More Constellations to Come

I’m not sure if this helpful to anyone but it was fun to do. Oh, I forgot to put fun in my constellation! I suppose I forgot a bunch of other feelings, too. I’ve never really given a lot of detailed thought to how my emotions manifest themselves. Just the act of naming them and associating them with events, memories and feelings has been really enlightening.

There are at least two more constellations I’d like to try: sadness and anger. Disgust, fear and surprise supposedly round out the six basic emotions, but they look trickier to diagram. Perhaps after I’ve tackled sadness and anger I’ll be ready for the rest.

A Postscript

I gave this entry to my husband to read and one of his reactions surprised me. He asked if writing something that made me seem this happy would make some readers question whether I’m really an aspie.  Perhaps. The stereotype of the emotionless autistic person is a strong one. I hope this piece helps to refute it in some small way.

24 thoughts on “Happiness, Aspie Style”

  1. I continue to thoroughly enjoy these posts. This one was brilliant. I can identify with a lot of what you’ve written, and it’s made me think more about who I am too. More constellations would be great.

    1. Thank you! It’s great to know that you found this helpful because it felt a bit self-indulgent to write it. I’m going to tackle another constellation soon–probably anger since that has a particularly autistic component to it for me.

  2. Love, love this post.

    And to your husband, I think the fact that you sat down and drew it out and then were able to specifically explain what each one represents and how it differs from the others goes farther towards proving Aspieness than disproving it!

    1. Thank you! And your insight is priceless. I only just now realized that I sorted and categorized my emotions the same way I would have any other data. So, yes, my aspie nature shines through, regardless. 🙂

  3. Thanks, I love this! I shared it on my FB pages, I want a wider audience to enjoy it! Made me think again about how I experience feelings with my whole body. I think I should try and write about it too, even if only for myself!

    1. Thank you sharing it! I definitely encourage you to give this a try, even if it’s only for yourself. I learned a lot through the process of doing it and am looking forward to tackling the other emotions soon.

  4. Thank you!!! You’ve no idea how helpful this is. I don’t know if I’m actually anywhere on the autism spectrum, as I’ve functioned quite well socially, but that doesn’t mean it was easy or that I liked it. When I take the quick self-diagnosis tests, I score pretty highly. I’ve been researching autism and alexithymia to try and figure out how to better understand my emotions. This is incredibly useful to me and I can identify very strongly with all of the descriptions you used. Again, thanks! =)

    1. You’re welcome! I’m glad it was helpful. Alexithymia seems to go hand in hand with ASD quite often but it can occur on its own as well.

      My grasp of my emotions is slowly improving and making these constellations was a big help to me. I highly recommend it!

  5. Hello, I’ve just stumbled across this blog and I must say you’ve done an amazing job of describing what emotion feels like. I’m not an Aspie (although I seem to surround myself with them for some reason that most be more than coincidence), but putting feelings into words is very difficult for me, especially when they are intense. I also relate to your ? ultimate joy feeling. For me it’s a magical twinkly feeling that is so strong you almost can’t contain it on your body. I usually squeal or make high pitch noises when I feel this way. Can you tell me what are some of your favorite Sitcoms and Commediennes?

    1. Oh, I also wanted to say that I really got a giggle out of what you said about strangers not responding well to you being cheerful. I have the same problem but I figured it was more of a cultural issue. I’m from the Midwest and its not uncommon for people there to be cheerful, polite, chatty, and friendly with strangers for no reason. Now I live in Orange County CA, and when I act cheerful with strangers here they usually seem cold, annoyed or give me dirty looks. It confuses me and I find it very peculiar that someone’s cheerful nature would provoke negative emotions from others.

      1. Some of it may be cultural, though I’ve always thought of Californians as being rather outgoing and chatty (compared to New Englanders, where I was raised). I lived in the southwest for a whil and found people to be much more open to chatting with strangers. On the East coast, not so much.

    2. You know, it’s possible to be alexithymic without being autistic so perhaps that’s something you might want to look into. There’s some background about what alexithymia is here: https://musingsofanaspie.com/2013/02/05/taking-the-alexithymia-questionnaire/

      Favorite sitcoms, hmmm, I like dark humor. M*A*S*H was an obsession when I was a teenager. I grew up hooked on shows like Maude, Happy Days, All in the Family, I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver, which is a strange cross-section of 70s sitcoms. These days I rarely watch TV and when I do it’s often dramas.

  6. Hello. I have issues with naming my emotions and often times I can’t describe them at all. Sticking close to the asexuals however (people who don’t feel sexual attraction), has brought me more terms to describe my emotions.

    These emotions can be like sensual feelings (such as wanting to hug or wanting to hold someone’s hand), romantic feelings (wanting to be with someone romantically (although I also feel confused between that and friendship)), platonic feelings (wanting to be close to someone in an extremely friendly way) and other emotions like that. I got most of these from the website AVEN. I don’t know if I’m an Aspie but Mum says I’m a little autistic and emotions frustrate me because I can’t compare them to words easily.

    Also, about joy, usually I compare joy to Christmas with the bright lights on the Christmas tree at midnight, and also, amusement to me is like a mother feeling good(?), watching her child playing – like motherly love.
    I don’t always want to put words to emotions but “beautiful” to me is reserved for the view for the whole world rather than people and “colourful” is used for describing things that give me intense emotions.
    Of course I understand that everyone sees and feels differently, it’s absolutely fantastic and at the same time utterly sorrowing. And as I say, music is emotion in itself, or simply “colourful”. How do you see music?

    This is a lovely article, thank you for writing this. I recall a few years ago I used to obsess over the dictionary because just reading the adjectives made me feel different things, usually by empathising with scenarios I came up with my head to fit the definitions.The difficulty for me is feeling the right emotions in the right scenarios and wearing the right facial expressions, however people have told me that I don’t need to consistently show my emotions (I don’t want them to feel awkward in not knowing how to react to me though). Sorry if this is too long. ^-^

  7. Immediately upon reading this, I began making my own constellations of emotions! Still working on it, and it’ll probably take a lot of refining and fine-tuning. But in the 14-ish months since I’ve been diagnosed (I’m in my mid-twenties), I’ve been yearning and praying for some resource to help me label and articulate my emotions better, especially when they’re negatively intense! THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS BLOG!!!

  8. I just found your blog, and as someone on the spectrum, it’s been so nice reading about your experiences and thoughts on our differences from NTs, even if I was already aware of those differences myself. Validation is a nice feeling, and I love gathering up fresh perspectives that might inform my own.
    As for the physical sensation of emotions, I obviously can’t speak for NTs, but I also experience what you’ve described. Something in particular that I’ve noticed that most NTs cannot relate to is the fact that I experience emotional pain as very real, physical pain. The worst is that particular feeling of despair/rejection/loneliness whose bitterness you can taste on the back of your tongue. Whether real or fabricated from something I’m reading, it manifests itself as a sharp, cringing pain that lances down my inner arms to settle and fester in my palms. People talk about an ache in the chest as normal, but this is no ache, and it only vaguely originates from my chest. It ranks pretty high up there with worst pains I ever experience barring traumatic injury, and I suffer from chronic pain. Feelings are weird.

    1. @Kelsey
      I feel that way too! This was one of the biggest issues for me at the bipolar disorder support group I attended last year (before I got my additional diagnosis of ASD). They were all about trying to change thoughts so that you’d change your feelings, but I was wanting to change the feelings in order to change my thoughts which they said wasn’t how it works. (Yet the CBT says its a circle and each feeds the other, so why can you only step in at the behaviour/thought stage and not deal with the overwhelming feelings head on to prevent behaviour or thought problems?)

      I feel all my feelings acutely as you described them. When you described those feelings physically, its like you were writing from inside my brain! That is exactly how I feel different emotions. I can tell how extreme my feeling is based on which body parts are affected at the time. But when I try to describe this to NTs, even trained psychologists who you’d think would have a bit of a better understanding of these things, they are totally and utterly perplexed. Or say “that’s not how it works”, thus negating what I am trying to get across.

  9. Hi Musings,
    I’m aware that this is such an old post, but I’m a young Aspie at university. I’m only recently diagnosed. I found you when searching for answers about Aspies and anger. I’ve found your posts to be insightful and eye opening.
    You have my sincerest thanks.

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