How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it

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It’s in the name

Next month my passport’s up for renewal. The question is this; do I make a straightforward renewal in my married name, or revert to my maiden name?

This wouldn’t be an issue at all if

a) I’d stayed married

b) I hadn’t taken my husbands surname or

c) it didn’t matter. But here we are.

I guess that

a) was ultimately my decision (I never should have gone there, though I loved him to bits).

b) also my decision, though long deliberated over. My guiding thought here was having the same name as my children, who already had their father’s name.  Goodness, we complicate things.

c) in a way doesn’t matter, because who I am remains unchanged no matter what name I answer to. But having adopted authenticity as my guiding principle, it kind of does. I was given a name at birth. That is my name. But to change back requires an immense rigmarole, affecting all my accounts and trappings.

I’ve no preference to either. They’re both fairly standard, get-on-with-it kind of names. Very practical.  My married name’s longer, so my signature drops off the planet at the end, which my first never did.  There was a directness, a vibrancy, in a short surname that I liked. Only two syllables in the entire name, which is as punchy as you can get. It irked when I was young, but now that simplicity appeals.

If I had my ex’s attributed name, things might be different.

My ex likes his coffee.  A lot.  He likes it particularly hot, so walks backwards and forwards to the counter in cafés getting it re-steamed.  This earned him the honorary title ‘Walks with Fresh Cup’, which is poetic for an expensive habit that became less poetic over time.

Thinking about it, I could have been Jane-who-walks-with-walks-with-Fresh-Cup once we married.  You’d walk tall with a name like that, but it would be harder to fit on the signature line. Logically, post divorce I’d be Jane-who-used-to-walk-with-walk-with-Fresh-Cup, which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue but is certainly memorable.  Not a name to mess with.

I’m digressing.

Its a mystery to me why the Western world pays so little deference or creativity to names.  It wasn’t always thus.  Not so long ago we had names like Constance, Faith and Grace. Names that spoke gravity and purpose. In Africa I met a fabulous dynamic young woman whose parents had the foresight to name her Independence. She was that, personified.

Oh to have a glorious name like Crazy Horse, Wind-in-the-Face or Touch the Clouds. Who wouldn’t follow a name like that?  A name that would lead a Chief to glory, despite himself.  A name to live up to.   A guiding light.


Western names are veiled, and unless you’re royalty or somesuch (Lord Louis Mountbatten springs to mind, though there are better examples).  I swear they do it to keep us down.  (No aspirations for you, my girl; Plain Jane will suffice).

Jane has Hebrew roots and means ‘God is gracious’, which is rather lovely and reflects a sense of cerebral gratitude. But you’d never know, unless I wore it on a T shirt. We just don’t seem to be that interested in our names.  So how can we grow into them?

When my first son was born, I wanted to call him Clay.  A name that was rooted, grounded.  Something about this new being inside me seemed to need anchoring.  But the resistance around me was palpable.  Clay was not to be.

Instead we called him Jasper (I discovered later it’s a common name for a dog), considering that it held a certain dignity.  And yes, we could envisage it on the side of his briefcase.  He could be a solicitor with a name like that. Or a musician.  Whatever his life holds, Jasper will deal with it bravely.  He has that in him.  A nobility.  It’s in his name.

The thing with names, I’m learning, is they are just the beginning.  We absorb them, and they can bring us forward in the world, but ultimately our actions, our being, can surpass them.  Whichever surname I go with (I could lump them together, but it seems a little OTT for someone who advocates simplicity) will be just fine.  My job is to be the best that I can be, and lead my life the best I can, whatever my name might be.

And quite honestly, I could do without the added paperwork.

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Who’s captain?


Take yourself back, Jack. Go ahead.  I’m with you all the way. But were you really stolen? Or did you give yourself away?

We can all blame others, because that’s what we’re used to. Sometimes too easily.  I’ve done it.

It’s your life. Take charge. Keep being yourself, always. If you’re not being truly yourself things will get dodgy.  

Look out. Look left, look right, look straight ahead.  Whichever direction you can.  But always ask; Am I being myself? The quicker you notice, the faster you can rectify. Be you. Always. And learn to notice when you’re not.

And when you’re not, get yourself back.  Awesomely and with pride for doing it.  But don’t blame anyone, just learn the lesson.


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.


Less ‘getting’ and more ‘becoming’



I love words, and grammar, because occasionally they trip you up. You’re in the flow of an idea and three sentences ahead of yourself in conversation, when a question mark shows up; that didn’t sound right, did it? Dammit, now you’ve lost your thread. Totally lost.

Its important, getting it right, and I really, really admire people who can hold an illuminating, engaging conversation in a lucid way. That inspires me. I’d love to be Mel Gibson (yes, I’m quite sure he wrote that speech himself and paints himself with woad on his days off) leading his band to glory. Or Joan of Arc, all valiant and Gallic.

In my heart, I’m Martin Luther King. I’m Gandhi. I’m Joan Armatrading. Bono. Anyone, really, with passion and vision and personality. But more importantly, someone who’s able to really communicate it.

In reality, I’m just me walking through town after dropping the kids off at school. I can just about order my coffee on a Wednesday morning. No hint of Joan of Arc leaves my lips. Eloquent I’m not. Coherent even less so. It’s a shame. I would love to be a better speaker. Occasionally something approaching fluidity happens if I’m caught off-guard. Best to be happy with that, for now, and work on the written word instead.

Once upon a time I wrote ‘what happiness is and how to get it’,or something like, on my blog header. Drat.

I knew at the time it was clumsy at best. I mulled around a bit. Frankly, I doubted the longevity of my blogging sojourn. Not much time in the day, and all that. So I left it. It was the best I could do at the time and it’s still there, teasing me.

Can you get happiness?

To get happiness sounds snatchy and undeserved. There’s a grabbing ring to it.  If happiness was a dodgy geezer vigorously shaking your hand you’d pull away pretty sharpish.

We can gain happiness, but that sounds like hard work. Hard work seems contradictory on the path to happiness. There’s also something about ‘gain’ that’s a little ungainly. Even vulgar. As if we’ve secretly stolen it. It’s not quite right. (Maybe this is just my stuff; maybe it doesn’t sound like that to you at all, and I’m exposing my inner nature).

We can strive for happiness, but that’s another action word, all purpose and vigour. We might stride so purposefully as to walk right past it. (“Excuse me? Can you point me towards happiness?” ” Yes love. You’ve just missed it. Go back 500 yards the way you came and you’ll see it just there on your left hand side”). Wood and trees.

We can attain happiness. Now that sounds nice. Very nirvana.

Or even nicer, we could just be it. Just drop everything and be it. That would be ideal, dropping all our bags and being. Right now. Thank heavens.

Really? That simple?



For myself, I’ve learnt to be realistic. I could aim to become more happy, most of the time. Because despite what I’ve learnt, sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not. Good days and bad. It’s a bumpy ride fuelled by habitual anxieties.

One tree at a time.

We all have to start somewhere, and best to start from where we are, no matter what day it is.

I’ll work on my wording. I’ll change that heading. I’ll think before speaking. I’ll read the dictionary occasionally. I’ll be kinder and less expectant. Step by step, tree by tree.

I don’t need to order my coffee eloquently. I just need to savour it when it comes. That would be far more becoming.


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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.


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Making happiness your purpose


A purpose differs from a right.

True happiness requires cultivation.

If you are happy, be grateful.

If others are happy, be glad. Happiness breeds happiness.

Being around happy people is a gift.  You have a teacher to hand. Observe their attitude, what they create around them.  How are they with others?

Put your observations into practice.  Be purposeful.  Learn to be happy. Make it your goal.  Only you can make your life a happy one.

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I promised you this…

Yesterday I promised to summarise Gyles Brandreth’s seven secrets of happiness.

Here they are (with my paraphrasing and comments; the bold type is his, but the rest is mine, so don’t quote me beyond the bold type; read his book instead!)

  1. cultivate a passion How many times have you heard this as a recommendation for longevity, and a happy life?  (Nonagenarian marathon running is apparently one of the fastest growing sports!)  Keeping an interest in life, finding new dimensions and passions, is a key element.
  2. Be a leaf on a tree As I said in yesterday’s post, a sense of connection to the community is crucial.  It keeps you happy and healthy.
  3. Break the mirror.  Avoid narcissism and introspection.  A healthy awareness of oneself is good, but too much leads to separation and unhappiness.
  4. Don’t resist change.  Go with it. Grow.  Evolve.
  5. Audit your happiness.  I like this one.  Essentially, look at what makes you happy and unhappy in your life, and do something about it to address the balance.  You can’t blame anyone else, basically.  It’s your choice whether to be happy or not so stop moaning and get on with it. (I hope you agree, Gyles!)
  6. Live in the moment.  Ah yes.  It’s that mindfulness thing again.  Carpe Diem.  Sieze the day.
  7. Be happy.  Choose it.  Whenever you feel it’s absence, bring it to mind.

Is that a good list?  I think/ hope so.  Be happy, people 🙂