“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.
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.