How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it


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Desires? Moi?

 

 

 

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There’s a message in my inbox.  ‘Submit to your desires, Jane’ it says.  (I’m not kidding).

Ooh, I thought.  (What else could I think?) A melty feeling washed over me.  Nice.  I watched it doing it’s melty thing, recognising an unusual experience.  And in recognising it, the thought came in; ‘what desires?’

The thing is, as nice as the thought of submitting to them was, in that moment I didn’t actually have any.  I was desire-less.

It was beautiful.

Last year my values became my motto.  Authenticity and simplicity.  I’m aware it could sound pompous and lofty, but it works.  When I’m not sure, I go back to it.  I test my thoughts (my wants, generally) against it to see where they fit.

I’m a shopper, hands up.  I was trained by shoppers disguised as bargain-hunters (now there’s a skilful deception) and I’m left with a trolley-load of meshed consumer habits to unload.  I’m skilled and abhorrent about shopping.  It’s a tough life. A day shopping could feed a month in therapy for me.  But ‘authenticity and simplicity’ sorts the men from the boys.  It’s put the brakes on. It’s given me space.  Sure, old habits die hard.  But I see them for what they are, at least.  It’s a relief to walk away.

I have no idea what the content of that email was.  Or who it was from.  Some gifts are best left unopened so I pressed delete and sent it packing.  On this occasion, no content could have exceeded the packaging.  I’m a grateful receiver of a large slice of wrapped space with a label attached, like an illustration from Alice in Wonderland.  A sensual reminder of how stuff consumes me and how not pandering to it leaves space for a whole lot of other stuff, of a much better kind.

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Would you be happier if you won the lottery?

 

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Apparently, lottery winners tend not to report themselves any happier ten years down the line.  In fact, within just three months of a significant lottery win, statistics show we return to the level of happiness we had before.

Oh dear.

Do I buy that ticket, then, or not bother?

Well, buying a ticket is our way of putting our hand up; “yes please, I’d like to be happier”.  No harm in that, aiming for happiness.  We all want to be happy.

You’re right.  But I’m sure I’d be happier if I won just a bit. Enough to pay off the mortgage, or get a deposit on a house.  That would do it.  I could relax a bit.

Sounds good, I agree.  I met a man once who did just that, and bought an extra field and a horse.  He took his horse and a cart around the village every day after that, and was very happy.  A simple life.  That’s all he wanted.

Cool.  But didn’t he want anything else?

No, he was happy enough.  He’d lived in the village all his life, with his family and friends.  That was enough for him.

There you are then.  You only need a bit.

Yes, but how much is a bit?  I met another man who had won £2,000.  “Lucky you”, I said.

“No, he complained.  It’s a kick in the teeth, £2k.  What can I do with that?  That’s only enough to keep the wife happy for a couple of weeks”.

“A kick in the teeth?”

“Too right.  I’d rather not have won anything”

“But for some people that’s life changing.  They could buy a car which could get them a job”.

“Yeah right”.

OK I get your point.  If you’re miserable by nature perhaps money can’t help.  But that was only £2,000.  The other guy obviously got more.

He did.  He won £80,000 in a syndicate win with his friends.  But I got the feeling that the first would have very happy with an extra £2,000, and the second probably wouldn’t have been any happier with the jackpot win.  It’s just the way they were.

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Is that it, then?  Just the way we are?

I think so.  It’s nice to think that a magic ticket would change our level of happiness just like that.  But imagine… say you got your gold lamborghini, did your round-the-world-trip, bought your dream house and had champagne for breakfast.  Six months later you’re sitting in your dream kitchen and your champagne breakfast is nice, granted, but it doesn’t have the same wow-factor that it did the first week. And you realise that breakfast is breakfast, wherever you are, and you are still the same you.  You might have a touch more tan and whiter teeth, but you’re still the same underneath.  The only difference might be that you’ve nothing left to dream about because, frankly, you’ve done it.  So what now?  What’s left?

Another holiday?

And then?  That’s the trouble; we keep chasing our tails.  Once we’ve got something, we want the next fix.  It’s like an addiction.  A habit we’ve got ourselves into, that we all subscribe to.  We link money with happiness without thinking.  Our whole society’s bound up in it.  Ultimately, money fails us on a personal level.

Point taken.  But I could give some to my friends, too.  That would be nice.  And some to charity.  It’s not all bad.  A few million could go a long way!

Yes, altruism is certainly a contributor to personal happiness.  Giving is good.

But lottery winners get hassled, don’t they?  Everyone asking for money.  And working out how to distribute it.  That’s a big responsibility.  Hard to do the right thing.

Sure, there’s a lot of thinking to be done.  And a lot of discernment.  Working out who’s genuinely motivated, where best to focus your money, all those things.  Not a bad problem though.  Not if you can do good with it.

A tough one, though.  You could lose a lot of friends and be left very untrusting.

Yes, it happens.  And our friends are one of our primary ingredients for happiness.  So it can be a major loss.  Being without friends can make us more unhappy than we were before, very quickly.  We’re social beings.

It’s not looking quite so attractive, winning the lottery…

Well, there’s a lot of good that can come of it.  But as superman said, with great power comes great responsibility….

Maybe it’s responsibility we should be working on, then.  You don’t need money for that.  And friendships.  Friends are free.

Not a bad idea.  We could put the money we saved on tickets towards self-help books to share with friends.  A self-help library!  Then we might not feel the need for a ticket! 🙂

Is that the answer, do you think?  Work collaboratively with our friends towards a happier society?

Funnily enough, they’ve been doing that in Bhutan since 1972.  They made ‘Gross Domestic Happiness’ a priority above economic wealth.

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You’re kidding!  For real?

Yes, and they’re officially the happiest country in the world (the UK is about halfway in world ratings).

Why can’t we do that?

Why indeed…  Here’s the World Happiness Report, compiled in 2013 by Richard Layard, John Helliwell and Jeffrey Sachs. Their aims are to end extreme poverty, achieve environmental sustainability, embrace social inclusion and operate under good government. Maybe you could use your lottery winnings to propel these aims?

Good idea, if I win.  But I’ll start at the source.  I’ll think more carefully about what makes me happy every day, and make sure those things feature regularly in my life.  Friends, yoga, walking, making cakes… all that stuff…. perhaps I’m happier than I thought!

 


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Why we need to say small things

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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 🙂


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You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes…

I confess. I’ve been lamenting.

I’m pretty good at focussing. I’m not a dynamic whirlwind of materialisation like my friend Tamsin, who can manifest a second house by the sea, move internal walls to create spaces where none ever existed and organise a party for her inlaw nephews and nieces – all 13 of them – whilst smoking a roll-up and downing a tumbler of Shiraz. That may be my aspiration (and she’s an excellent role model) but I’m not there yet. I get stuff done though. I move forward. I tick boxes and enjoy accomplishments. Life’s there to push against, to find what you’re made of.

But I lament nonetheless. I lament the dreams I held as feasible goals, that now seem less so.

In my head are telling fragments of lyrics (I’m not clever enough to pinpoint my moods without internal prompts);

This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife……………. my God! How did I get here?’ (Remember that? Talking Heads).

And on my iPad, 5 open tabs brandish my state of mind:

  1. 5 bedroom riad in Marrakech (my most extreme vision)
  2. 3 bedroom riad in Fez (there’s some flexibility.  Not much, but some)
  3. My local used car dealer ( my car broke down irrevocably today. RIP car. ‘Oh dear’ says bank account)
  4. Youtube (for complimentary inspiration and distraction)
  5. This one. Edit Post. Which could be a metaphor for my life at this point (any point, if I’m being philosophical).

A clear demonstration of goals and reality at odds.

I’m a great one for advocating steering our own ship, or we end up in the wrong harbour. But I wonder sometimes: are dreams really our raisin d’être, or are they just a habit, an idealised form of a vision we had when, let’s face it, we had a very small view of what life was, what humanity is, how people behave and what formulated beauty?

I don’t know. I’m simply pondering.

But what if the vision you had, the one you strive for and value, the thing you seek, the thing that gives you purpose and drive, isn’t actually what is good for you? What if your desert island proved an unbearably lonely place? What if Tamsin gets burnt out by her efforts? And isn’t that why some of us just keep on pursuing the wrong partners, to the exasperation of our friends?

What’s more important? The beautiful pursuit of a dream and accomplishment if our life’s purpose, or the pursuit of reality and accomplishment of a life understood?

You tell me.

Here’s the Rolling Stones from 1969 with a silver lining on the subject.  Wise young sages they were.


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Don’t wish you did it. Do it.

Once my house was broken into. They took the kids’ DVDs, rifled through my underwear drawers looking for cash (none found, obviously) and through my jewellery box. None taken.

They made a mistake there, because amongst my small collection of insanely cheap jewellery that no one but I would choose, lurked the valuable gold charm bracelet my great aunt left to me.

Aunty Win was my godmother and a very special lady. She was tiny and twinkly-eyed, with a false hair-piece and a black poodle. She loved a cocktail and had a wicked, ready and throaty laugh. The kind you don’t hear any more.

When I wear the bracelet I can see and hear her.  The charms are tokens from Uncle Frank and keepsakes from exotic travels. Her life.  There were five unattached charms when I inherited it.  My friend Matt, a goldsmith, added them for me.  My present to Aunty Win; an intention completed.  A thank you, for a beautiful gift and a beautiful person known.

There are two other pieces I value.  One is my own silver charm bracelet, given to me when I was eight with a solitary St Christopher charm.  Over the years others were added from holidays with my parents, birthday gifts.  They are tiny.  Running my fingers over them each one has a familiarity and a story that makes it feel huge.  Each is a small world within my life.  They evoke rooms, smells, events. When I wear it a soft tinkle accompanies me. The weight of it reassures.

I used to wear it every day. But the safety chain broke, and a charm fell off.  It seemed tired.  So I returned it to the box with an intention.

The other is a silver bracelet I made as a student 25 years ago. My friends still remember the sound of the saw I used to shape it. It’s a distinctive, weighty piece and the only remaining piece of silverware I made. It looks good with black and gives me a sense of my skills, resourcefulness and creativity. I feel taller when I wear it.  The design is asymmetric and one piece is very slender. A few years ago it wore through, and was also resigned to the box.

Last week I passed a jewellers. I’m not one to spend out on items, but was conscious of the absence of specialness. Time, perhaps, for something new. A treat.

I let the thought sit.

It sat.

Today I called in on my friend Matt. I collected a beautifully shiny hoard of silver; a bundle of trinkets assembled on a simple chain, and a smart, proud bangle beautifully resurrected and polished.

It cost a fraction of what I’d anticipated to be mended, and I have a priceless gift in return. My bracelet is back on my wrist, and I can stroke the charms with my fingers as I walk. My whole life revisited, brand new.  And a magical tinkle to boot.

Intentions are only that, until they’re actioned.

Things are really just things, but small actions can resurrect lives.