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.


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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Me, Tracey Emin, and The Last Great Adventure on the Redefinement Bus.

Do you ever stop in your tracks and honestly redefine yourself?

It’s a shocking experience. Like being consumed by a giant wave from a giant puddle generated by a gigantian bus.

Forty-eight years I’ve been living on this planet. Feeling and sensing, thinking and responding. Picking up signals. Converting them to a sense of him, her, you, me, it, them, us. Trying things, holding out, holding on, letting go, moving on, going with. A journey that once held a sense of linear purpose. Now a loose and vital sense of wonder.

I was stuck this week by a statement from Tracey Emin about her new London exhibition ‘The Last Great Adventure is You’. Tracey writes

‘As you get older, life feels heavier, more cumbersome. Things get harder to carry around, literally and spiritually.’

The exhibition mainly deals with the physical body— ‘I’m trying to work out why my body has changed so much…I’ve gone from being a really thin girl – even when I was 40, I was thin – to becoming matronly and womanly. I’m trying to come to terms with the physical changes. There’s a big difference between being 35 and 50. Massive.’ Words that could be applied to any aspect of life. You can read the article at The Guardian here.

I like her work because it’s more about thinking and processing than the work itself. It upsets me when her work is lampooned. They’re missing the point. It’s the artist that’s the treasure, not the work. As she says, ‘the kind of work I do, you’re not going to be losing yourself. You’re going to be digging yourself up.’

If you want to dig yourself up, try writing a profile for a dating agency (my style is casual/ smart/ formal/ designer/ natural/ sophisticated/ minimal….please tick). Err…well in my teens I would comfortably say ‘scruffy with aspirations’ moving into ‘earthy meets ethereal’ followed by ‘trying to be professional’ and last time I looked?..ok let’s go with natural. I’d say that’s the underlying, pervasive theme.

Really? What am I?

Walking around I carry a general sense that I’m a pretty good person. A good guy. Some of my friends say I’m lovely. I’ll buy that. It helps to promote that collective image of myself. Yet last night I’m pretty sure that I was a bundle of grumpiness to my kids. And this morning I shouted at my eldest for general tardiness. What would his up-to-the-minute profile of his mother be? Not lovely, that’s for sure.

Clearly the outside profile and the inner one aren’t quite in alignment. Not yet, anyway.

My currently held watchword is redefinement. The next is integration. The questions are how, and what. The actions are watch, apply. The rule is honesty. Always, the rule is honesty. There’s no going forward without it.

As Tracey said, to quote Descartes;

‘Even when a candle melts, it’s still made of wax’.


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spotting lies and promoting truth

I don’t know about you, but I for one find it hard to spot a liar.

If you grow up expecting truth and honesty it’s a fundamental catastrophe to meet with lies. To be presented with a lie is not just an affront, an aggressive act. It’s a removal of your universe. With the lie comes the destruction of your fabric of being. You are left bereft of trust, your ability to ‘read’ personalities shattered. Ultimately your relationship with everybody and every situation is thrown into uncertainty.

Today this TED talk by Pamela Meyer was posted. The content is useful. The ultimate message is resonant. Let’s focus on truth and honesty.

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You can only be happy if you want to be (you can have your cake and eat it)


‘I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become’

Carl Jung


I was brought up on the expression ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’.  I can’t say I really understood it, but it stuck in my mind (as a lover of cake) and I adopted it as wholeheartedly as I could (seeing as I didn’t really get it).  Kind of ‘you can’t have everything’ was the general gist. In reflection it was a bum move. I’ve spent most of my life being very grateful for the happiness I experience, but not really expecting my life to be all that great. That’s for other people. The special, shiny ones (you know the ones I mean).

A few days ago I suggested that gratitude is the first step to happiness. There was an assumption that we all want to be happy. Certainly I think we all would like to be, and many philosophers have said that is the primary aim in life. But actually I think the first requirement of yourself (on a route to happiness) is honesty. And the first question that needs to be addressed is do I really want to be happy?

No I’m not kidding.


Theres a lot to be said for being unhappy. Your friends feel sorry for you, for starters. They might buy you a coffee or invite you round for dinner. Nice. It’s a good excuse to not push yourself outside your cosy zone too (no I can’t come out tonight because I want to sit at home feeling sorry for myself, thanks. I would much rather cry in the bath than listen to a bunch of happy people). Being unhappy can actually serve you quite well. For a while, at least.

Thats not you, obviously, because you’re forward thinking, intelligent and grown up.and quite possibly you’re in a state of gorgeous happiness right now. Maybe even a little smugly so. But I mention it just in case, and without judgement. It doesn’t, after all, really matter to me whether an anonymous reader of this is happy or not. Your life is your own, and it’s up to you decide. I’m just writing stuff in case it helps. I would, though, like to share that it’s really important that you properly make that decision before you embrace happiness. Because frankly it’s impossible if you don’t. So think hard. And be very honest with yourself. That’s rule number 1.



If that’s you, then I’ll share something else. Not so long ago I had a shift in perspective.and I realised that whether you believe in the afterlife, or reincarnation, or whatever, is immaterial.this is the life you are in. In this place, in this time. And one day, sooner or later, that will end. No matter what your creation myth or your spiritual perspective, it is undeniably amazing that you have a cellular structure that has put you together in this way. So actually, why worry? Instead of giving yourself and others a hard time for what you or they have done and how miserable it all is, why not just say ah well, here I am and that’s that.and while I’m here in this remarkable cell formation I think I’ll just go ahead and be happy. Because this might not happen again (and certainly not in the same body and the same time, even if you’re a Time Lord) and you have the chance right here and now. It’s really very simple. And so is being happy. Piece of cake. But you have to want the cake.

Even if you’re feeling pretty rubbish, there are things to be thankful for. You’re in an awesome body with a vote, a fairly stable economy and all sorts of yummy stuff in the supermarkets. Good start. Go, you. Get out there and be happy. Make your life work for you. You’re the only one that can. Eat the cake. Not only does it look good, it tastes good too. Yum.