The party: Code Black. The mood: boisterous, fun, and sexually-charged. The rules: wear leather. And be happy.
Admittedly, happiness wasn’t so much of a rule as a given: why would you stay if you weren’t having fun?
The time is midnight, and my friend Jonathan is experiencing that wonderfully seasick moment of depression where you feel alone in a roomful of people you know. The bigger the crowd, the louder the solitude.
He treads water on the dancefloor, aware of his sinking mood like a slow leak from a paddling pool. The darkness of the room was stabbed by the occasional laser, giving Jonathan only glimpses of faces around him; silhouettes and shapes.
That’s when he saw him.
Over in the corner, a man stands alone, slowly enjoying a beer. Oddly Christ-lighted by an overhead halogen bulb, he nods to the music and surveys the crowd. He smiles, pleased with what he sees. He is grounded, happy, and precisely the opposite of how Jonathan feels.
He is also very attractive.
“I wanted to go over and talk to him so much,” Jonathan tells me a few days later as we catch a train into town for lunch. We’re surrounded by a cosmopolitan bunch of travellers, including two Japanese women in striking traditional yellow dresses with giant red bows on the back.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I looked over at him, and my mind started racing,” he replies. “Where will this go, I thought. Something might happen, we might hook up, it might get serious, it might go somewhere…but then I’ll just end up back here again.”
Jonathan has recently been through a break-up. It’s left him feeling a bit futile about his future happiness.
In cognitive behavioural therapy, psychologists have identified a number of thinking patterns that hold us back from happiness in life. Jonathan has fallen prey to one of them: jumping to conclusions.
When anxious or depressed, our minds become soothsayers, predicting the future with perceived certainty but little precision. We also lose the power to reason rationally, instead letting our emotions take over: simply because we think it, we assume it to be true.
Jonathan keeps his eye on the man in the corner, who disappears for a while then returns with another beer. Still alone. Still smiling. Still bathed in an ironically angelic light, in sharp focus while the room around him dissolves into a Gaussian blur.
This is my second chance, thinks Jonathan. Should I take it?
Overgeneralisation is a big word. Psychologists like big words. For the rest of us, it’s merely a term for another unhelpful thinking style where we take the outcome of a single situation we’ve experienced in life, and apply it to all future instances.
We scratch ourselves from the race before it even begins, because we believe that the same fate will befall us again and again.
And that’s what Jonathan did. He scratched himself from the race and was home by 3am, plagued by a troubling sense of melancholy that lasted through the rest of the night and into an alien afternoon, as we climbed an escalator at Parliament station.
“What was so attractive about him?” I ask.
“He just seemed so confident, so peaceful, just enjoying being there,” Jonathan answers.
When he next looked up, the man in the corner was gone. The light was still there, but a little dimmer. The lasers continued to pulse their rhythmic, hypnotic patterns.
“Maybe you imagined him,” I say flippantly, thinking this might be vaguely reassuring, or at least amusing. “You projected everything you wanted and created an angel in the corner that was a figment of your imagination.”
Jonathan raises an eyebrow and considers his missed opportunity. “Well, he was a very handsome figment.”
The figments of our imagination are not always handsome, and sometimes we need to have the courage to ignore them.