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.


Would you be happier if you won the lottery?




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.


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.


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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The grumpy guide to happy food


Many of my best memories are butter-fed.

Gigantic foil-wrapped potatoes, baked in the fire embers all evening until singed,  burst open symbolically with a deep cross-cut and excitedly stuffed with slatherings of Slightly salted. Bliss. (Years later, at uni, I had my first and last microwave-baked potato. Stunned by its fibrous texture and thick odourless flesh, I developed an immediate, irreversible aversion to the appliance). Dad’s egg sarnies, delivered with love for Sunday tea, were legendary. Thick fresh bread, soft yellow, melt-in-your-mouth. Made as the sun went down over the church, somehow a little of its warmth fell into the filling. Unbeatable. Even mums charcoaled toast was made delightful by the boats of butter that swam on the surface.

Somehow butter, custard, egg, yellow, sun and happiness all became an infused entity. Just as deep green foods to me represent calm and sustenance, and pink foods (beet root, tomato, red cabbage, onion) warmth and vibrancy. It’s a colour thing.

Never margarine. Not ever. Not in our house. Our food was resolutely wholesome, homemade, local, thoughtfully cooked and presented. Mum knew food mattered. Wonder products and cholesterol threats come and go. Good food and margarine didn’t couple easily.

Do anybody’s eyes light up at the sight of toast dripping with insipid marg? I don’t think so. If food doesn’t make you happy (the sight, the smell, the look and the taste) then in my book, it can’t be good for you The proof is in the pudding. If it tastes good, and delivers beyond its promise, then it’s good food. Job done. (Clearly there’s no scientific substance behind my theory. I simply uphold a suspicion that if what goes in makes you happy, it must be good for you).

Does that mean I should consume shed loads of chocolate and marzipan?

On one level, perhaps but Ive tried it and the result wasn’t happiness, not even the second or third time. No, experience tells me that a small amount of fabulous food is, simply, fabulous. More of the same isn’t more fabulous, or fabulous-er. in fact it makes you feel sick. Nothing fabulous about that.

A thin square of dark chocolate, then. Just the one; eyed with pleasure and expectation, experienced with the nose, melting on the tongue, savoured.

That to me is happiness. And I know (though I’m still not wise enough to follow) that a second piece only brings nostalgia of the first. Nothing beats the first sip of Baileys at Christmas, the first crunch of roast potato. Subsequent helpings are simply a clamour for a repeat hit of joy. It never comes.

Moderation, then. Lovely food, small helpings, enjoyed and appreciated.

This week I’m elated. I’m vindicated. It’s official: Butter is good. Not only that, but it seems that exercise isn’t the key to good health after all. Food is.


I wouldn’t uphold for a minute that exercise isn’t good for you. I know that my 15 minute cycle ride into town leaves me happier, stronger, and flatter-stomached. Again, moderation. I’ve no desire to do the Tour de France, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t make me all that much happier. Being fit is good. Super-fit just doesn’t seem necessary or desirable.

It’s tiresome, all this coming and going. Jumping from one uncertainty to the next, one fad to another. Are we looking at things from the wrong angle?

Instead of cholesterol levels, calorie intake, fibre quantity, in a culture that has the enormous good fortune to be able to do so, shouldn’t we be concentrating on enjoying food that is very simply delicious? Food that makes us happy? Have we forgotten how to celebrate? Is it taboo to enjoy taste?

I’m on a campaign to love food, and be thankful for it. I didn’t ‘get’ saying grace as a child, but I do now. I’m thankful for avocados, pineapples, mangos and fresh peas. I’m thankful for lime, coriander, mint and nutmeg. I’m gloriously thankful for raw chocolate, raspberries, blueberries and emmental.

But I’ll pass on the margarine, thanks. And you can keep the microwave, I’ve no need of one. Ever.



‘Proper’ info on happiness boosting foods available here:




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.



Humble thoughts and honest reflections

Bertrand Russell.  Now there’s a man.  From the days when people thought, and other people listened, and changes were made because what those people said made sense, and had vision.

Bertrand Russell

Yesterday I was pondering on my own actions, delving to see where the roots of them lay.

Here’s the picture;

I’ve been pre-occupied with trying to pay off my mortgage (does this ring a bell?) but there’s a pay-off with that. Making lump-sum early payments is a prudent way of safeguarding my family’s finances.  If I pay it early, that puts me in a better position to help my children’s transition to adulthood. Especially if interest rates increase.  From many angles (I won’t bore you) it makes sense.

There’s a big however, though.

Unsurprisingly, it means a financial shortfall in the here-and-now.  And there’s the dilemma. Because that money could facilitate opportunities and experience that could formulate memories for my children.  Not big things.  Not trips to Disneyland, not ‘tick list’ stuff, but things that feel right, like a trip in a campervan.  Things that I always felt, as a parent, I would want to give to my children.

It’s not rocket-science.

And I wondered; have I been following this path of simplicity too far? Have I become an addict of abstinence? Has what I set out to achieve become somehow inverted?  Where is the tipping point between simplicity and slavery?

It was at this point that I read this quote:

Conscious self-denial leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed; in consequence it fails often of its immediate object and almost always of its ultimate purpose.

What is needed is not self-denial, but that kind of direction of interest outward which will lead sponteneously and naturally to the same acts that a person absorbed in the pursuit of his own virtue could only perform by means of conscious self-denial.

(Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness).

Perhaps I’ve been trying too hard.  Perhaps the time has come to rest a bit, to play a little.  Time to step back from worrying over the future, and get on with the present.  Before it’s gone, and there’s no time left to make memories with.  Less in, and more out. Perhaps it’s not so much about identifying a plan, but the feel of what I’m hoping to achieve, and making all my actions resonate with that. Now that would be a plan worth having.




Does happiness grow on trees?

money-treeA few days ago my youngest said to me “Mum, I’m glad we’re not poor”. I think that’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever heard (aside from him saying “Mum, why do people write diaries? Why don’t they just tell their mums instead?”).

It resonated because I’m one of those people who grew up hearing ” money doesn’t grow on trees”.

In reality, I’m a single mum and whilst I’m creative, conscientious and hardworking we actually don’t have much cash. Our lifestyle is very simple, and we’re fairly solitary. I don’t buy much for them and we don’t go overseas for our holidays. In fact we don’t do much at all!

But when things come up at school or clubs I always ask if they are interested and if so I pay up, no question. (After all, paying for one child to go to France is cheaper than all 3 of us going, so I’m grateful). The upshot of that is that they don’t feel guilty, and they feel they can have what they want. Somehow, despite my frugal economics, they feel they’re living the life they want to lead. And I hope this will see them into a positive relationship with money, not an anxious one.

There are habits around money I’d like to teach them; looking after the pennies, and staying aware of debt, but if they learn these in an atmosphere of clarity and confidence I will be happy.  Meanwhile they’re forming the habit of not having new stuff all the time, and recognising that, actually, they have everything they need, and there’s not much they want either.

It’s difficult to shed messages that cloak every desire for growth with guilt. I’m still battling with it, and struggle with every purchase. If that pattern stops with me, I can pat myself on the back. For now I’m delighted that my son doesn’t feel impoverished, and feels secure in the world.


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.