How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it


Being your own Great Aunt Vi

Have you ever done that thing when you cheat on the cleaning?  I mean when you’re mopping the floor and there’s a bit (under the table, or in the corner, or under that tangle of flexes) where you think ‘really? Is that necessary?’. That thing.

You pause, and consider; who is this for, exactly? Is it for me, for my family’s cleanliness and health, for the joy of being super-shiny and lovely? Or is it because my mum, or Great Aunt Vi (long since deceased) would disapprove and I can FEEL their disapproval of a job Not Done Well and I will never sleep, knowing the shame of my inner slovenliness.

Do you know that feeling?  I do. People pay me to clean their floors, so I should know better. But still the temptation to skimp arises because, frankly, it’s dull and tiring work. I had that same feeling today.  And as before (I confess, I have these sinful thoughts recurrently) I reminded myself of the story of Jake’s work experience.

Jake is lovely. He’s a darling. He’s creative and funny, warm and entertaining. But aged 16, he wasn’t the worlds best contributor at home. And that, dear reader, is why 16 year olds go on work experience. It’s also why I wasn’t surprised. It went thus:

Me: How was your day?

Jake: Good and quite fun really. We had a laugh and then he went off for a bit and asked me to sweep the leaves. I got bored and laid down and fell asleep. I woke up when I heard his van and picked up the broom but I don’t know if he saw me. Hopefully it looked like I was working.

It’s a small story but resonant. And there was I, this morning, mopping and revisiting the same conundrum; Do I make it look like I have been working or do I (and this is a mature grown up thinking) actually cover that extra few inches with the mop (ergo, work)? Do I adopt the teenage work shy approach, or do I get on with it and hold my head up high?

Because that’s the crux – holding your head high. Setting your standards by the highest markers around you, not the lowest. Being your own Great Aunt Vi. And of course I did the job properly, as always, and as I knew I would even as I approached the conundrum. The Vi in me wins; not because I want to be virtuous, but because cheating just doesn’t sit well. And there’s a neurotic part of me that wouldn’t want to be caught out with a hidden camera.

Job completed, I sat down with my book. I’m reading ‘Moranthology’ by Caitlin Moran. I’m on the bit where she talks about what it’s like to be 35% famous; about how being recognised by people, just a bit, leads her to be nicer – to compliment, or encourage, or acknowledge. She’s noble enough to recognise it’s not pure altruism, more a fear of what others might say about her. The more visible you are, the more it matters how you act. Like Superman; with great power comes great responsibility.

I bet Superman had a Great Aunt Vi.


this is a truth


All my life I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that I never really knew what was going on.

Instead of  dissipating, (which I hoped/ expected to be the case), the further I progress along the mortal coil, the more this observation holds.  In fact there’s a recognition of such massive complexities around me that any given situation seems so far beyond comprehension or opinion as to be almost out the other side.

The enormities of my un-knowing have reached so far that I stopped watching the news several years ago.  Now it seems radio too is so steeped in judgement that all I pick up is the judgement itself, and not the content.  So again, I reach for the ‘off’ button.

Conversation on current affairs sees me backing into corners.  Asked for an opinion, all I can offer is ‘it’s more complicated than that’.  Because I know it is.  There are truths, more truths, individual and collective truths.  And all the feeding and steering in between, that we participate in and strengthen with each opinion voiced.

I’m conscious that this could sound like an anti-propaganda rant; an anti-them, us-against-the-state stream of bitterness.  But it’s not that.

I’m looking at the judgement we seem to enjoy so greatly.

How would it look if our urgency to express an opinion, to belong in a camp of thought, to be on this side or that, wasn’t such a driving force?  I’ll bet the content of articles on our news programmes would change.  It seems to me that each news article exists primarily to create judgement, to generate strong feeling.  And I suspect that without this driving force, the programmes might disappear altogether.  I wonder.

My son is saturating himself with history.  He knows so much about world war 2.  More, and differently, I suspect, than those who participated in much of it.  How confusing that must be to them.  We talk about war crimes.  We discuss judgement, and punishment.  The need people have to punish for a crime committed in a different time, a different place, an altogether different set up, that we really can’t comprehend, in the here and now.

I wonder about that.

I wonder if the reason we object so strongly call so vehemently, isn’t purely the fight to have one’s opinions venerated and accepted.  And if it has anything at all to do with the crime itself.

I hear there’s a Buddhist philosophy of ‘no blame’.

I like that.  No blame.  If we removed blame, what are we left with?  A little empathy, perhaps, some compassion, an effort to understand, to deal with, to mend, learn, and grow?  Is that really so scary?

I don’t know.  I know less and less.  But it’s worth considering.



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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a quiz to help you :)

If you’ve not yet read Gretchen Rubin’s book ‘The Happiness Project’ I’d recommend it. It’s fun, practical, honest and insightful. And there’s a follow-up out next week.  It’s called ‘Better Than Before:  Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives’.

The further I look into how to make ourselves happy, the more I recognise how important it is to honestly understand yourself, and work from there.  Gretchen’s new book looks at what we need to do to change our habits, and she’s distilled her findings into distinct types which show how you respond to outside expectations of you and those you have for yourself. It’s a well considered model, and you might like to have a go at this quiz to gain deeper appreciation of how you operate. Once determined, there’s more detailed supporting material too. Have a go at Gretchen Rubin’s personality quiz.  You might find it helpful and fun.

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A motto for January


A year can go fast.

This time each year I play a game. I scan over the previous year’s flavour – it’s course, events, emotional stamp and goals. Then I take a deep breath, and feel where I am now, and pick a little motto that summarises what I feel I need to do this coming year. It has to be authentic (it’s for me after all; I don’t emblazon it on a T-shirt, just hold it in my head) so I sit with it for a few days, and if it still feels right, it becomes a guiding light to return to when I get a little uncertain.

Past mottos have sometimes been financial guides; ‘claw back’ was one year, ‘reign in’ was another. Others have seen ‘look sharp’ ‘get to it’ and ‘hang in there’. They’re not fancy, but a hook to reconnect where I am occasionally. It helps me.

Some years you just know will be about play, or growth, struggle or challenge. But you know that next year will have a different theme, or a different kind of learning. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes simply remembering that can really help. No matter how stuck you are, life does shift. And especially, you have the power to shift internally. Always. And if you know that, then it will.

A year can be like a step forward towards a goal. The important thing is to recognise each step taken, and then take the next. Don’t linger in no man’s land, afraid to make the next move. Be bold and move your life forward. It won’t happen without you. You have to steer the ship.

Take a motto. Take several. Let your friends know what they are.

Mine’s ‘Be Kind’ (to others and to myself). What’s yours?


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Placing value on improvement

As a teacher, I’m a firm believer in the importance of communicating to children and adults their ability to grow. The baseline of my teaching is that facts, knowledge, perception and perspectives are (and should be) transient, flexible and expansive. And that is the basis of creativity. Awareness brings ideas, which drive humanity and individuals forward.

So here is a talk to share with you. A little piece about a gentle but expansive concept from psychologist and educationalist Carol Dweck; a ‘not yet’ approach to progressive learning. The basis of this is providing motivation through awareness of our ability to improve, that success is a journey. A recognition that goals can take time.  It applies to all of us, and might touch a note with you. I hope you enjoy it.