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Source of happiness

I think this trough is located somewhere in Parque da Paz in Almada. But surely similar fountains can be found in other parks, located in other cities and countries.

Looking at this photograph, many may think - What happiness expressed on the faces of those children! How wonderful childhood is! or What beautiful times those were when I was a child and knew what happiness was! There may be other opinions, but I am sure that these sentences are consensual among many. But the last sentence makes me think precisely about this question of happiness and what is the source of it. The search for happiness, just like the search for the fountain of eternal youth, is not new. For example, as far back as the fifth century before Christ, people have been talking about the latter in the writings of Herodutus. Or later, in the 16th century, when Ponce de Léon decided to look for the blessed fountain by travelling to Florida in 1513.

But what about happiness! Where does it come from? For example, when I hit the traffic in the morning to get to work, something that happens quite easily, I stop and look at the people in the other cars. And it's not hard to think that that chaotic, and daily lived situation causes a negative impact on many of us. I speak for myself when my wife tells me on the phone that it has nothing to do with me being bored with the traffic. And we may be talking about situations other than traffic. For example, if you think that on any cooler morning as it has been, imagine that the gas or electricity is out, and at that very moment you are having a hot shower in a relaxed way. As we can see, daily mood can be influenced by a range of experiences.

Daily life experiences contribute to daily mood fluctuations, and negative emotional experiences that continue over time affect a person's mood in the long term and can lead to depression. And therefore, understanding the daily sources of emotional experiences could provide opportunities for prevention and intervention to decrease negative mood, while promoting positive experiences to increase well-being and quality of life.

This thought leads us almost immediately to think of those groups of people who are more prone to negative experiences that continue over time and how these potentiate and function as factors that maintain the person's own emotional and other difficulties and diminish their wellbeing and quality of life. Autistic people, for example, come to mind very quickly. And thinking of continuous situations throughout time, I think of adult autistic people. As such, it seems important to know with this group which are their sources of happiness and also of unhappiness. And to be able to help enhancing the former and contributing to decrease the latter.

But if we pay attention and read about what is being investigated in autism, there are still very few studies that try to investigate the daily experiences of this population, and not only in relation to the symptoms and difficulties found. In other words, it is important to understand how autistic people live their days in their daily life and how they feel and live their experiences. And so - what makes an autistic person happy? This question usually refers to what some people think are behavioural issues causing difficulties. For example, if we think about the interests that many autistic people develop over time since childhood. Or other behaviours such as stimming. That is, although many therapists already think differently regarding these two examples, and try to integrate them in therapy and in the identity of the autistic person. There are still some currents which think that these and other behaviours are causing problems in the environment and in the relationship and, as such, should be eradicated.

And, by the way, what causes happiness for non-autistic people? Typically, the life experiences that promote happiness among neurotypical adults revolve around achievement, social interactions, relationships, work, religion, and involvement in leisure activities. Now, on a quick reading of this sentence one might think that there will be many autistic people who will not be able to be happy! Why is that? Because very often they experience difficulties throughout life in reaching certain achievements, school, professional or other. But also at the level of social interactions. And it is not that autistic people do not wish to have these interactions, because they do. But these social relationships often generate discomfort. And so, besides we may think that autistic people are not and/or cannot be happy. Once more, we focus on the difficulties felt and perceived. And we will deviate from the experiences and perceptions of what makes them feel happy. This should also make us think about our understanding of happiness and how to measure, observe and understand it.

For example, I could ask an adult autistic person what in their life made them feel happy. And get no answer. Or get an answer that would not be able to help me understand the existence of moments of happiness. But if we think that the autistic person may well have some compromise in autobiographical memory, he or she may well not remember at that moment a moment or situation that generated happiness. Or the adult autistic person has a different understanding of happiness as I am measuring it and as such does not fit the construct. These examples can help, on happiness but also on other constructs, to think together with autistic people, what that means for the person. However, if I ask the autistic person what has caused him/her unhappiness in the past, I might be able to collect a larger number of answers. Although in some autistic people we may have more difficulty in the way the person thinks about what unhappiness is or feels unhappiness, which in the latter case may lead us to the issues of the presence of Alexithymia.

But if we ask an adult autistic person what made him/her feel happy in the past. We may well hear the answer - Having managed to build my own business and spend time with my son! And as such, we can immediately get the idea that what makes an autistic person feel happy is what a non-autistic person feels too. But we shouldn't stop there. I love my family and feeling my sister's hugs and not accepting hugs from anyone else! might be another possible answer. But also - Being able to get on an internet forum and randomly chat with someone and no one cares about it or my opinion and way of being! Playing online games with friends and having a laugh when most of the time they tell me I don't even know how to smile! Practicing the violin! Spending hours tending to my garden! Watching my daughter play in the playground! Spending an afternoon with my cat on my lap and petting her!

As we can see in these answers, we find many that are similar to what each of us, being non-autistic, would answer. But also others that may be much more characteristic of the autistic person's profile. And these need a special look, so that they can be potentiated and not the opposite. And, of course, not to forget all the others that are part of the inheritance of our belonging to the human species.

What makes us happy? Probably a little bit of everything and in different ways throughout life. And even though there are common experiences that cause happiness, it is fundamental to understand that it is each person's choice what makes them feel happy. It is fundamental to think that the autistic person throughout life needs to see his/her relationships and family ties improved. To achieve this, it is important to continue diagnosing earlier, but also to help family members to understand what autism is and, more specifically, the autism in this family member. But also to be able to make school contexts, whether with peers or teachers, to be accepting of the difference. But they can also, together with the autistic person, celebrate this same difference, and preferably in joint interaction.

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