How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it


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For Grandma

I’m choosing some flowers for my Grandma’s funeral.  I’m thinking of Grandma, and looking at photos of arrangements on a website.  None fit.  None are quite….Grandma.

Grandma loved flowers.  She loved vigorous colours; jubilant, tenacious, glorious, audacious.  The bolder the better.  She tolerated sophisticated subtlety, bowing to good taste, but a canary burst of daffodil would really do it for her, or a splurge of violet iris on a dim spring day.  These formulaic wreaths try their best – all good intention – but even the more colourful versions; carnations, iris, yellow roses, don’t have it.  They don’t push through with the sheer joy that pulled Grandma’s heart.  They don’t scream ‘I’m alive, just for a short while, and I’m glorious’, which is what she loved.

My Grandma loved life.  Loved people.  Not just with interest, but with care.  She knew the fragility of their souls and conditions.  She recognised dreams, and wrong turns.  She knew disappointment.  She witnessed mistakes.  Everyone she met, she would soon know.  Asking questions, being interested, caring.  My Grandma was special.

She saw her own failings more than most, and would sigh – just a little, and shake her head.  But she would laugh too.  Such a great laugh.  And brush the sadness away with the candour and the knowing and the sheer power of it all.  Until you were left with ‘these things happen, even though we try so hard.  It just is’.  All of us together, trying and noticing.  Being alive.  Being colourful.

I don’t believe you get to be 97 without loving life.  And she did.  She should have made 100.  At least.  And she would have, if she hadn’t done the ‘stupid thing’ and not waited for help getting to the bathroom, and lost her footing.  Because she was proud, and independent.  And not stupid at all, but just wanting to live her life.

So what wreath, what flowers, for the lady who wanted her funeral to be full of them?  Grandma, I looked at them all, and I picked one that had a hint of show, a touch of sobriety, a hint of natural colour and a generosity of spirit.  I chose one that I liked, genuinely, because I felt that was the best I could do for you.  To choose the one that felt right, even if it wasn’t quite you, and not quite exuberant enough. Because in the end you knew as I do, that we do the best we can.  And it doesn’t matter if it’s not exactly right.  We just try our best, and enjoy the colours.  All of them.

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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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How our thoughts define our experience

F.E.A.R.  False Evidence Appearing Real. That’s a helpful tool at times, when our minds take us to scary places.

Stories can be great illuminators too. Here’s a lovely one to illustrate how our thoughts can affect our everyday lives.  And I do mean every day. You may have heard it before.  This version is from Philippa Perry.  I like Philippa, not least because she’s married to Grayson.  It’s from her book How to Stay Sane, a pocket-sized jewel.

The Jack Story

The deserts of America are lonely places; miles can go by without any other cars or a single house.  In one of these wildernesses a driver heard his tyre blow.  He was more annoyed than worried, knowing that he kept a spare tyre and a jack in his car boot.  Then he remembered; he got the jack out last week and forgot to put it back.  He had no jack.  But things could be worse, because he passed a garage about three miles back.  As he started walking, he talked to himself: ‘There aren’t any other garages around here.  I’m at the garage man’s mercy.  He could really rip me off just for lending me a jack.  He could charge me what he wanted.  He could charge $50.  There is nothing I could do about it.  Goddamn, he could even charge $150.  People are terrible to take advantage of others like that.  Hell, what bastards people are.’ He continued absentmindedly telling himself this story until he got to the garage.  The attendant came out and said in a friendly way “How can I help you?” and the traveller said “You can take your damned jack and you can stuff it.’

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We all carry personal versions of this story with us.  The trick is to recognise them when they rear their heads.  If we did, the world we experience could be a very different place.