What’s the key to happiness: an exciting life or a comfortable one?

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In her early 20s, while at university, Annie Ridout was asked about the type of life she’d like to lead. Back then, it was all about adventures. With hindsight, she wonders whether the answer to happiness might be stability…

Years ago, a friend asked me a question that I often come back to. At the time, I was about 22, at university, and living with friends. My life probably looked quite fun: parties, travelling, raves, festivals, lots of friends, various jobs – in a graffiti shop, a nightclub, on a magazine.

He said:

Would you prefer to have an exciting life or a stable one?

Back then, he probably put me in the first category and himself in the second. He was in a long term relationship, and didn’t particularly drink or touch anything else. He didn’t go to festivals. He worked hard at university and spent a lot more time in the library than I did.

I answered, without hesitation:

An exciting one.

After all, I thought, who would want a boring, comfortable, ‘stable’ life? What fun is there in that?

I finished uni, moved back to London – and in with friends, in Hackney – and continued to party. There were more trips away, raves, festivals. More adventures, more excitement. I never said no to anything – and there wasn’t any sign of it slowing down.

Travelling in Bosnia with friends

And then I met someone I really liked. We started a relationship at the end of the summer, in August – our first ‘date’ was at Notting Hill Carnival. I began my Masters in the September, then moved to Somerset to live with him and write my dissertation the following May.

Life changed. There were no more weekly parties. Still a few hangovers, and we had an amazing time at Glastonbury that year, but our focus changed. Now life was about being slow: cooking lovely meals together on a Sunday, whipping up chutneys, running down country lines and going on long walks.

By Christmas that year, we were engaged. The following summer, we got married in a field in Somerset. And less than a year later, we returned to London – for work opportunities, and because I wanted to be closer to my family and our friends.

We felt a bit on the edge at first. We’d only been away two years, but it’s amazing how much can change in that time, especially when you’re young. New friendship groups had formed, people had moved or embarked on new careers. But everyone was still partying hard.

Glastonbury Festival with my sister

Occasionally, we’d join them. But not like we used to. And after we’d been back in London for a year, I was pregnant. That’s when life really changed. I was 28 and working full time. Pregnancy made me tired and really sick. I’d meet friends for a cup of tea, but stopped going to parties.

Our daughter was born mid-June and the following week, all our friends pushed off to Glastonbury. I remember feeling a bit jealous and left out. I was delighted to be lying on the sofa with my beautiful baby in my arms, but none of my friends had babies yet, so I also felt a bit isolated.

When she was one, we left her with my parents and went off to Glastonbury for a couple of nights. I partied on the first night, but started missing her on the second. By the Sunday morning, I was desperate to get back to her so I left, on my own. It felt like that part of my life was definitely fading.

Eventually, my sister and friends started having babies – and this changed things again. Now everyone was slowing down, to some extent. Those who weren’t having babies were focusing more on their careers. No one was really have a wild time any more.

Swimming in a lake in Slovenia
Swimming in a lake in Slovenia

Like it or not, motherhood changes everything

I remember putting pressure on myself after giving birth to my daughter to accept every invite – to parties, events, holidays. Even if I hadn’t had much sleep. Even if I didn’t really want to. Even if I felt panicked about the idea of it. I was determined to not let having a baby change everything.

But of course, that’s exactly what it does – whether you want it to or not.

When my son was born, two and half years later, I did things differently. I didn’t leave the house for two weeks. We had no visitors. I ate chocolate, watched telly and snuggled up in front of the fire. I got to know my son, and helped my daughter to understand this huge change.

But I still had a tiny part of me saying: you don’t want to miss out! So when I was invited to two events in the March, to mark International Women’s Day, when he was two months old, I said yes to both. The plan was to put him in the sling, hop on the tube and have a great time.

It never happened. I listened to my body and decided to stay put. Early nights and staying close to home were imperative to aiding my post-birth recovery. Late nights and booze weren’t going to work. Also, at that stage, small talk with strangers was low on my priority list.

I was reminded of this recently, as the invites for this year’s IWD events have started rolling in. This time, I’ve said yes – knowing I will be able to go. My son sleeps more and breastfeeds less. I have some freedom again. In fact, I’m going out tonight – to drink, dance and chat with a girlfriend, and I can’t wait.

Now, it’s about enjoying my freedom when I can – occasional nights out but nothing too wild. A weekend away with friends, when it feels manageable. It’s about fitting in the fun, while making sure life continues to flow fairly smoothly with two young kids, a partner, a business and freelance work.

I now look back to the time my friend asked me that question and realise that I was chasing something but never quite catching it. I wasn’t particularly happy. I craved stability – in my relationship, career, home life; really, I wanted to be where I am right now.

But life is like a colourful patchwork blanket. Each adventure or experience is represented in its own patch and then woven into the bigger picture. At a glance, it’s just one big blanket. But when you get closer, you can see the patches that have gone into making it what it is. So I have no regrets.

The answer to happiness will be different for everyone. For me, now, it comes from: early nights, lying in bed with a novel. Long hot baths. Laughing with my children. A run in the morning. Writing. Healthy food. Good wine. Loud music and dancing – but around the kitchen, rather than at a squat party.

If my friend asked me that same question now? I’d probably say that I’d like to be somewhere in the middle. I don’t see the two options – an exciting life, a stable life – as mutually exclusive. More poignantly, my idea of what constitutes ‘exciting’ has changed.

What’s do you think – is the key to happiness an exciting life or a comfortable one?