How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it


Why we need to say small things


Here’s an account of a chance introductory encounter between two economists and a dentist, from Nick Powdthavee’s book ‘The Happiness Equation’.  It’s a small mind-blower:

‘So tell me, are you happy being a dentist?’

‘Happy? I’m miserable as a dentist’, replied the man.  

Chuck smiled to himself.  ‘What? If you’re so unhappy, why on earth did you choose to become a dentist in the first place?’

I didn’t choose to become a dentist.’ The man took another swig of his drink before delivering the final hammer blow. ‘Its that stupid kid eighteen years ago that chose to become a dentist. Not me.’

Here’s the thing; as children we go about growing up. Much of that process is working out who we are. We find out what we like. We search for what we’re good at, and we use that information to form our habits. And that’s where we start messing up, because we look for external indicators. We watch our mum, dad, teachers and friends to see where our talents lie (we’ve not been on this planet long, so it makes perfect sense). We listen, and form our self-view; I’m this and that. I’m not that. If I work hard I could be this…ok I’ll do that. We move from I-like-animals to she-thinks-I-like-animals to I’d-make-a-good-vet.

Job done.  I’m a vet.  Or a dentist.

All from what we perceive others can see in us. It’s all perception. And perception is as tenuous as the wind.

This week was a small mind-blower for me.  I don’t promote my blogs on facebook (I forayed.  It felt wrong).  But my friend Tony did for a recent post, and two others took up the mantle.  It blew me away.  The icing on the cake was a beautiful, generous comment a friend added, that came from nowhere and left me standing gob-smacked with my shoes half a kilometre on the road behind me.

I had no idea she ever reads my posts because, as she said, she hadn’t ever commented.

That’s the thing.  We don’t know, because we don’t say.  But the things we don’t say could have been the things that make the enormous difference; the things that take people off the path of being a dentist and on to the path of being a trapeze artist, or economist.  The small comments that can take our breath away.

Thank you so much Claire.  Thank you Charlie, Laura and Tony.  It makes all the difference.  And that’s well worth sharing 🙂


How our thoughts define our experience

F.E.A.R.  False Evidence Appearing Real. That’s a helpful tool at times, when our minds take us to scary places.

Stories can be great illuminators too. Here’s a lovely one to illustrate how our thoughts can affect our everyday lives.  And I do mean every day. You may have heard it before.  This version is from Philippa Perry.  I like Philippa, not least because she’s married to Grayson.  It’s from her book How to Stay Sane, a pocket-sized jewel.

The Jack Story

The deserts of America are lonely places; miles can go by without any other cars or a single house.  In one of these wildernesses a driver heard his tyre blow.  He was more annoyed than worried, knowing that he kept a spare tyre and a jack in his car boot.  Then he remembered; he got the jack out last week and forgot to put it back.  He had no jack.  But things could be worse, because he passed a garage about three miles back.  As he started walking, he talked to himself: ‘There aren’t any other garages around here.  I’m at the garage man’s mercy.  He could really rip me off just for lending me a jack.  He could charge me what he wanted.  He could charge $50.  There is nothing I could do about it.  Goddamn, he could even charge $150.  People are terrible to take advantage of others like that.  Hell, what bastards people are.’ He continued absentmindedly telling himself this story until he got to the garage.  The attendant came out and said in a friendly way “How can I help you?” and the traveller said “You can take your damned jack and you can stuff it.’


We all carry personal versions of this story with us.  The trick is to recognise them when they rear their heads.  If we did, the world we experience could be a very different place.

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30 secrets for starters..

here's a secret..

here’s a secret..

Occasionally it helps to write things down. These are reminders.

  1. Find out who you are.
  2. Say thank you. And mean it.
  3. Parents are just people in disguise.
  4. Giving is really important.
  5. It’s up to you. No excuses.
  6. Ask. Learn. Be smart.
  7. Redefine problems.  There are challenges, obstacles, blocks, surmountables, learning curves, new experiences, growth curves, different viewpoints.. all these are positives. Choose one of these instead of a problem.  Much nicer.
  8. Friends are family you’ve chosen yourself.  Let them know you value them.
  9. Expect more from yourself than from others.
  10. Grace is seriously underrated.
  11. Think big.
  12. Learn when to shut up.
  13. Don’t wait for others. Get on with it.
  14. Exercise is key. Walk to the shops.
  15. Your mum was right about food. Eat well.
  16. You are really, really amazing. Honestly.
  17. There’s always help.
  18. Asking for advice is a good move. But you don’t have to act on it.
  19. Look people in the eye and smile.
  20. You have one mouth and two ears. Use them in that proportion.
  21. There’s always a way.
  22. Don’t wait for others to invite you. Call them.
  23. Everything’s connected.
  24. Learn the difference between belief and focussing.
  25. Staying in bed solves nothing.
  26. Go one step at a time, all the time.
  27. Think first (your actions might bite you on the bum one day)
  28. Other people notice.
  29. Greetings are important.
  30. So are goodbyes.

That’s just a few. Do share yours.


Signposts and baskets; redefining bad habits on the road to happiness.

Often I wish that I could apply the same quality of advice to myself as I seem able to give other people.

Looking externally, I have a fairly perceptive analysis of feelings, circumstances and meeting points. As an advisor I manage to cut to the nub of a situation pretty well. Sometimes I surprise even myself by my insights and advice, which is nice. With my own life, however, I’m pretty rubbish. I over-analyse from too many perspectives. Then I freeze.

It’s not helpful.

I know too well that if friends came to me and presented scenarios for reflection I generally give good advice, and positively, with a warm smile and a light touch on the arm that says ‘you can do this. You have the skills to deliver and get through’. And off they go, with a list of actions and approaches to take them forwards.

So why can’t I do this for myself? What’s the stumbling block here?

Bad habits.

I know that ultimately the way I think and react is a choice. No matter what’s been modelled to me, what I’ve observed, how I’ve been instructed or what messages I receive, there’s always a choice. I have a brain. I have eyes, ears, feelings, instinct, intuition and experience. I’ve been a child, a daughter, a student, a teacher, a mother, a lover, a wife, a friend. All those people! And within all of those was a thread that has been myself. And I’ve learnt that I, and only I, have responsibility for my happiness.

Somewhere (or somewheres) I picked up an idea that my learning isn’t quite as thorough as other people’s; that it’s somehow flawed. That idea means I don’t quite trust my own advice, even though I’m more than happy to dish it out to others!

But just because I’ve picked it up doesn’t mean it’s a fact. If I asked my friends if they hold that perception of me, they’d say no. I could put it in my basket labelled ‘bad habits I carry around with me’.

549963647c69b_-_hbz-jane-birkin-article1If I know something is a habit, I can be gentler. Instead of haranguing myself I can raise an eyebrow and waggle a playful finger. There’s opportunity for change. A redemption clause. Instead of sinking into a pit of self doubt, I can look for the Exit sign and go there.

My first habit, then is a biggie; that the part of me I’ve designated my own ‘manager’ (my rudder in perplexity, my self-advisor) has become my judge. Once I know this, and put it in the basket, it shrinks. It’s just a habit. No more scary than picking my teeth or chewing my nails. It’s labelled ‘the habit that looks like a judge but underneath gives good advice’. A weighty habit merits a hefty label.

Where I developed this bad habit doesn’t really matter (I could tie myself in knots of unhappiness trying to unpick it). All I need to do is provide an alternative action.

All habits need to be replaced with something new, or they won’t go away. In this case I could add ‘pretend it’s someone else you’re giving advice to’ because I already know that my manager gives good advice to other people.

It’s worth a try.

There are all manner of habits, big and small, which I could replace with better ones. Each time I reach for chocolate, for example (which is far more often than I usually admit) I could put on the label ‘eat a banana or apple instead’.  It might help if I kept an apple in my bag.

Because I want to improve my yoga (my balance is appalling) I could use the habit of cleaning my teeth: As I look in the mirror, I could add the label ‘stand on one leg whilst you’re doing this’.

Quite probably I will need a big basket and a lot of labels. There’s a lot of ground to cover. But that’s ok. That’s progress.

Learning to redefine faults as habits makes sense. They’re not static any more than we are. If we rework them into new habits we want to embrace, they can be signposts to happiness.


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Don’t hold on too tight


You need only look at the history of medicine (for one) to recognise the profound truth of this statement.

Things change, minute by minute. You and I included. But knowing that we are very likely to be proved wrong in the future doesn’t always stop us spouting off. Sometimes my arrogance can shock me. It dances on my tongue and there it is, a rabble of unleashed words and statements freshly laundered from my ego.

If my memory was half-decent, I’d hope it could present this quote before my next outpouring. If it did, I’d be enormously grateful.

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Smoke, mirrors and the short path to happiness


Seeing this reminded me of a study published years ago.  When asked what they would change about their appearance, over and again people really only wanted to change minor things; the line of their nose, a freckle, hair texture.  In all, despite our general perception that people were unhappy with their appearance they were in fact quite happy.  Their self-image was familiar and reassuring. They felt ok. They were happy.

We might be fed too much by the media. There might be fashions of body type. We might feel undertanned. But things pass and trends change. Ultimately, our faces and bodies tell our stories. That pleases us. We are confirmed.

For most of us, the vision of true happiness is only a small shift away; a slightly better car, another bedroom, a more interesting view.  On the whole, we are happy with our lot. Especially if we have friends or family around us.

My hair’s never behaved itself, but when I look back at old photos I’m surprised at how good it looked. A reminder that today’s less-than-perfect present will one day provide glossy nostalgia. Sometimes it takes the passage of time to reveal the perfection of the present.

Perhaps in time I’ll reconcile that understanding, and learn to sustain the art of mindful awareness.

True happiness isn’t far away. Just a blink of the mind’s eye. Just a smile in the mirror, and maybe at a pinch a short trip to Paris.



Hmmmm. Happiness..


I like this.

Often we think of happiness as something that’s out there to be got. Something elusive and evasive. Something others have and we deserve.

Nobody has a right to happiness.

What we should have, though, is the freedom to make our own choices. And it’s choices that bring happiness.

We learn what works. What brings us together. What feeds our soul. What makes us smile.

We are all responsible for our own happiness. No-one can do it for us. Others can show the way, sharing opportunities, actions and fortunes, but ultimately our happiness is self made.

The Dalai Lama attributes gratitude and altruism as primary source of happiness. No-one else can feel grateful or give on your behalf, or mine.

I guess he’s looking straight at me. Another pointer on the road. Hmmm.