Tag Archives: happiness

A happiness revolution

I was an anxious child, more fearful of the world than excited about it. I can’t remember not being aware of the threats and hazards around me and the importance of being very careful about everything all the time.  I grew up understanding that the important things were to work hard and be good, to learn and be useful. Everything I did I was supposed to do well – mostly I fell short of the mark. Wasting time, mucking about, playing – these were not encouraged. 

I have a suspicion that the knack for being happy is to a large extent a learned skill. I suspect it helps a lot to have emotional support around doing things simply for the pleasure of doing them. For children who are always supposed to be learning, practicing and improving themselves, how to be happy is a skill that might not be in the mix. For adults, much may depend on the expectations of the people around us. Are we allowed to have fun? What kind of fun are we allowed to have? Outside of sport and alcohol, the options can be sadly limited.

I’m not terribly good at being happy. There always seems to be something more important that needs my energy and attention. The state of the world doesn’t help with this and it often seems impossible to be happy when surrounded by so much suffering. The question of what I can do that would be good, or helpful always looms large.

At this point, philosophically it all gets a bit awkward. I believe that happiness is a good goal, a needful part of human life. I don’t think we’re going to save the world by martyring ourselves. No one is going to effectively dismantle colonialism, capitalism or patriarchy while working themselves to death. Joyfulness is radical and essential.

I’m fairly good at taking brief delight in small beauties – light on leaves, a moment of cat cuteness, a wildflower, a bee… I know how to appreciate that sort of thing. What I don’t know how to do is how to build a life where gentle, sustainable happiness is at the core of how you live. I’m convinced that kind of life is possible, but I don’t know what it would take to achieve it. I particularly don’t know what that would even look like for me, which is an interesting problem to have.

What is there that would be enriching without having to be focused on productivity? What could I (or for that matter anyone else) do for the pleasure of doing it? Clearly it would be good to do things that do not feel essential, are not economically oriented, and that are intrinsically rewarding. Happiness that doesn’t revolve around work or consumption, would move us all towards more sustainable ways of living. Certainly our current ways of doing things aren’t uplifting or emotionally rewarding for most people.

Looking ahead, and something like resolutions

I changed tack with New Year resolutions some time ago, having figured out I was just using it as an opportunity to beat myself up. No diets for me anymore. No unworkable aims to somehow bully my body into being thinner despite that never having worked for me. Instead, I started coming up with ideas and aspirations to improve my life. That’s gone well. Last year I was short of ideas. This year, I am not.

I need to plant trees. This has been a thing for me for more than a decade, but until now I haven’t seen how to do it. I don’t have a garden at the moment. I do however have a cunning plan that will, in the coming year radically change my life as a whole, and move me towards the orchard I long for. More of this as I go along.

I aspire to having my normal working week be under 30 hours, and to work a four day week. That won’t be feasible around events, but I want to do it when I can. I will use the time this gives me for taking better care of myself, and doing non-economic things, like planting trees. I will read more, dance more, live differently.

I will spend more time in wilder places and at the coast.

I’m making the headspace to think more about how we do Druidry in the current political climate and in face of climate disaster. I’m going to be taking about that more as we go along.

I’m going to learn Welsh.

I want to wake up in the morning and wonder what I will be doing that day, and get to decide – clearly not all the time, but at least some of the time. I want to start the day feeling excited about what it might bring me.

I want to spend more of my working time doing work I am genuinely excited about. This looks increasingly realistic.

I’m going to treat my happiness and wellbeing as important – which I’ve not really been doing. I’ve got to the point where I can afford to, and there is no one who needs me to do otherwise. I’m going to re-invent my life, on my own terms, and in collaboration with the people who are choosing to be part of my life.

Food and happiness

When the subject of food comes up in relation to happiness, it’s usually about comfort eating. And certainly, there are times when comfort eating is a thing. I’ve found toast really helps me ward off low-level depression – there’s nothing like low blood sugar to quietly bring you down. Food has a lot to offer us in terms of happiness.

Hunger, poor nutrition and low blood sugar will all contribute to feelings of gloom and misery. Eating a diet that supports your bodily and mental health obviously contributes to happiness. People dieting can be quick to cut out the fats, but brain and skin alike do need fats – plant derived ones are best. Amino acids from protein are essential for brain function, it is harder to feel happy if you aren’t getting enough amino acids in your diet. Protein is expensive, so poverty diets are likely to increase your unhappiness.

We live in a culture where fat shaming is normal, and where food is loaded with social and emotional messages for many people. However, food is essential to life, and as social creatures, food plays an important role (or can) in our interactions. Creating spaces where food can be approached in a comfortable and relaxed way, can really help improve happiness. Sharing nutritionally good food in easygoing company can be a source of great comfort, joy and pleasure. Being cooked for often registers with people as an expression of care. I’ve also heard many stories about older relatives who expressed love through food – and so long as that’s not your only expression, that’s fine.

Eating well takes care of some of our most basic needs. To eat well in a physically comfortable space as part of a community where you feel safe and welcome, answers a great many of our most basic needs. Taking the time to do this can be really powerful. When we feel under pressure to rush about, and eat solitary meals in a hurry, we miss out on a lot of good stuff, and we miss the social bonding that can happen around food.

I appreciate that for anyone with an eating disorder, food is stressful and problematic. I don’t have the experience to speak to that in much detail, I’ve only ever been on the edges of it. I think any of us can help with this by making food more comfortable and less stressful – not loading it emotionally with shame or with demands, not putting pressure on anyone over what they do, or do not eat, not making body size or appetite an issue – it all helps make eating less of an issue. Acceptance can be powerful and enabling.

If you’re concerned about someone else’s body shape, or about what they do, or do not eat, and the person is not your own small child, it’s not your job to tell them. A great deal of food-related bullying comes from people who are convinced they are being helpful. As though overweight and underweight people are unable to tell what’s going on with their bodies. Yes, sometimes illness distorts body sense, but if you aren’t either a mental health professional, or absolutely aware of how the person sees themselves, you’ve got no basis to take this on. Challenging people over their eating and body size usually has the effect of making them feel worse, disempowered, ashamed and miserable. None of these feelings enable a person to move towards a more sustaining relationship with food.

If you want to help someone have a happier relationship with food, quietly model that relationship, and give them a safe and supportive space in which they can make changes for themselves.

Rest and Happiness

There is nothing like being exhausted to bring on the depression and anxiety. There is also nothing like pushing yourself to work when exhausted to lower self esteem and make you feel awful. Rest is a basic human need, and if for some reason you can’t have it over long time frames, your mental health will suffer, as will the rest of your body.

We need rest to heal, to recover from illness. We need time to draw breath, reflect on life, make plans, regroup and digest what we’ve learned. Life without this is stressful and feels like constant fire fighting.

I’ve done seven day weeks and twelve hour days – when you’re self employed and not very well paid the pressure to try and do some extra thing for whatever extra pay you can get, is vast. Some years ago I ditched hard work in favour of smart work. I started taking better care of myself. If I’m not teetering on the edge of burnout all the time, I’m faster, more effective, and more efficient. I’m also happier and better able to enjoy what I’m doing.

I normally take weekends off. Sometimes I take afternoons off, or a day in the week. At the end of December I had the wonderful luxury of a whole week off. I plan rest and recovery into my week. As a consequence, I get more done and feel better while I’m doing it. I’ve also seen marked changes in my self esteem. I’ve spent most of my life with low self esteem, easily persuaded that my wants are irrelevant and that my needs aren’t proper needs anyway. Everything and everyone else has always seemed more important. In putting my own need for rest on the list I’ve challenged those beliefs head on. It’s been interesting.

Having made room for my own needs, I’ve become less open to people who want to run me until I break, or use me until I’m used up. I’ve chosen better, healthier and more supportive spaces to be in. This has also greatly improved my happiness and wellbeing.

When you suffer from low self esteem it’s hard to give any priority to your own happiness and wellbeing, or to get out of situations that aren’t doing you any good. Failure to meet basic needs makes you feel even less like a person. Something as simple as resting can have a massive restorative effect. Not only does it replenish the body, but you also affirm your sense of worth and personhood by doing it. You have the same needs as any other person and the same entitlement to meet them, and that can be a huge building block to better feelings about yourself and having better standards and boundaries that will serve you, not someone else.

Resting gives you the time to look at how your energy is used and to reflect on what’s working. The person who is run ragged all the time doesn’t get space to plan an escape route, or energy to question what’s happening. Rest enables reflection, and reflection helps us make much better choices. Not only does rest help with mental health issues, it opens the way to being actively healthier and happier. It’s not a quick fix – the more entrenched the problems, the deeper the exhaustion the longer it takes to get on top of this. To begin, you have to treat it like it matters, and that can be hard. If you can’t treat resting like it matters, there are some huge questions to ask about your life, and you’re going to need to make the time to ask them. No one can run flat out forever.

Seeking abundance

If you’re reading this blog, the odds are you spend most of your days exposed to a stream of advertisements. Those adverts sell you dissatisfaction, fear and a sense of insufficiency to get you to buy the latest new, improved, shiner, faster thing that you can’t afford and don’t need.  It is a planet destroying approach, and constantly undermines our happiness and creates vast social and economic pressure.

The antidote, is to deliberately seek a sense of abundance that doesn’t depend on buying stuff. It’s an approach that doesn’t depend on being wealthy. So long as your basic needs are covered, you can have abundance if you know where to look for it.

There can be a tremendous sense of abundance in giving things away and taking care of other people. The well-off person who is seeking abundance can do it in part by helping others. Donate to the food bank. Give away old clothes. Buy someone lunch. Solve a problem for someone else. You get to feel heroic and powerful, and to make a difference.

There is no greater richness than being time rich. Time is finite, it is the stuff our lives are made of and it is easy to feel like we don’t have enough of it. Time that isn’t scheduled, time to do as you please, to do nothing – this is an incredible abundance to be enjoyed and celebrated. Turn off the machines of an evening, and great swathes of time can appear, rich with possibility. Learning to do nothing is a great antidote to information overload and fast lane nonsense.

Health is another great richness. Devoting time, energy and resources to your mental and physical health improves your quality of life and again, creates that feeling of abundance. If economic activity becomes more important than health, we end up deeply impoverished, ill and miserable. Claim back whatever time and energy you can find to put your health first.

Enjoy the small things. Every day life is full of wonderful small things – moments of beauty, kindness, inspiration, laughter. If you look for them you’ll see them. If your attention is always focused on some distant goal, you may miss all the good things that are right in front of you. Taking the time to enjoy what you’ve got increases feelings of abundance.

Stop treating hard work, long working hours, exhaustion and stress like some kind of virtue. There’s a lot of social support out there for doing this, which is of course why we end up doing it. These are not virtues, these are social ills and we need to free ourselves from them. Celebrate sloth, daydreaming, quietness, non-consumption, lack of speed, days off, and you start celebrating quality of life, not your economic usefulness to someone else.

Abundance is not some future goal to buy our way towards. Abundance is something we can only have if we look for it here and now.

The price over everything and the value of nothing

Christopher Blackwell comments regularly on this blog, and I greatly value his sharing of insights and experiences. He recently responded to a post –What is your worth? with such a long and thoughtful comment that I felt it ought to be given a bigger platform. So, I’m re-blogging the comment, with Chris’s permission. Over to Chris…

Here in America it is often said that we Americans know the price over everything and the value of nothing. To some extent this is true as this is very much a consumer society. I watched a two year old in a grocery store rush to get a cola from a cooler, already trained as to which brand he wanted. I mentioned to his mother so young and already knows the brands to want.

But even if trained and taught to behave this way from a young age, one should start to question as one sees that money and having things owned does not guarantee happiness. One begins to note that being happy with ones life in general is rare in our world and start to ask the question of what would make me happy in various parts of my life. Once you start asking the question then you can step out of the slavish consumer framework that you have been trained to follow.

The first thing that you learn is there is never a one size fits all, contrary to the advertisements on the Telly. Each of us is different with quite different needs. It is in discovering what our true needs are and fulfilling those needs that we stand a chance of becoming happy. That means first that we have to discover just who we are, not the imaginary person that we have been told that we are suppose to be.

There is some risk to doing this in that many of the people around you may think you are strange because you do not slavishly follow the herd from advertised need of ownership and changing fads like everyone else. But there is no real happiness if you become a fake to fit in. Letting others determine what you should be gives them too much power over your life and no matter what you do, or how much you give up to fit in, you will find that you never will be good enough for some people. It is control of you and your life, not your happiness that they want for you.

Discover what is different about yourself, what makes you unique and then develop that difference and enjoy it. Sure some things will be similar to the people around you and that is fine, part of being human. However there are differences that you need to develop and cater to if you are going to be generally pleased with living your life. Becoming a happy person is the real success. It is not only important for you, but for the people around you as you give out what you have. If you are miserable, then you tend to spread misery around draining the happiness out of anyplace and person. If you are happy, then you start to light up the people around us. Become the person that you would like to be around, and others will likely want to be around you as well. Those that don’t can always move to be around the people that they are comfortable with. You are not required to please everyone.

Happiness in perspective

Misery attracts introspection. We are also more likely to challenge miserable people, while the question “what have you got to be happy about, why don’t you look on the downside more?” is never thrown at the relentlessly cheerful. Perhaps we assume that happiness is the natural default and misery the aberration. Perhaps when we’re happy, we’re too busy being happy to ask what’s going on. Misery affords more time for reflection. The trouble with this is, not knowing why you are happy means you have less idea how to get there when it doesn’t turn up automatically.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks being consistently more cheerful and upbeat than I’ve probably ever been at any other point in my life. Why? And how do I get to spend more time here? There are a great many factors involved. I’ve been outside and walking more – this reduces stress and helps me sleep better, and when I sleep well I tend to suffer less pain. I’m crafting more, and that is a thing of joy, and I’m crafting for people I love, and that cheers me greatly. The prospect of carrying on doing more of that also cheers me. I’m spending more time out and about with people I enjoy being around, this causes happiness. I’m getting more interesting things into the mix. All of the work I’m doing feels worthwhile, but none of it is pressuring me to breaking point – I have achieved near perfect balance. The weather has not been to cold or grey. I have more time off. My bloke is less stressed and my child is overcoming challenges too. Everything is moving the right way.

Of course sooner or later something won’t work out. I’ll get ill, or something will go wrong, or a problem will arise, or I’ll misjudge something and suffer as a consequence. Such is life. I don’t imagine I have seen off depression and anxiety forever – that would seem overly optimistic. However, knowing I can get to places of being peaceful and happy, knowing I can pull out of the gloom makes it easier to deal with the rough patches. Of course life will grieve me, it will send me setbacks and break my heart from time to time. The key thing is knowing that I can get up, having some idea of how to do it and the belief that it can be done.

I don’t want much. I have the basics covered, and do not feel drawn to the accumulations of material goods that seem to be the focus of modern, western life. I can live cheaply, I do not need to work myself to death to make ends meet. What I do need is time under the sky, time with people, shared creativity, good stories, surprises, friendship, hugs, pretty things, wild things, and time to gaze out of the window. I need people who are fine with me as I am – whatever that is today, more and less upbeat, more and less physically able… acceptance. I need to be doing something worthwhile, and I have an increasing sense of how to make sure that’s the case. I have fabric offcuts to play with people to see… and of these small and simple things is sustainable happiness made.

A life full of riches

Wealth does not equate to happiness. Look around at everything at everything you have. Your grandparents, or maybe great grandparents if you’re a lot younger than me, had far less than you. There were no telephones or television in my mother’s childhood. My Gran talked about the arrival of hot running water. Outside toilets, single glazing, no central heating, no fitted carpets, most of them did not have cars, foreign holidays were rare or non-existent. We have so much more material wealth than they did. If it is owning stuff that makes people happy, we should be living in bliss. And yet, we aren’t, and depression and anxiety are widespread.

People with very little can be surprisingly happy. History was not a uniformly miserable place, for all that life expectancies were shorter, diseases often uncurable, and not a one of them had a games consol. On the whole I think our ancestors were better at enjoying what they had and making the most of things, than we are.
My grandmother was born in 1920, and lived through the second world war. She saw poverty, and shortage, rationing, and difficulty. She never had much money and there were many things that were hard for her – poor health especially. But she took joy in music and natural beauties, in the colour of a sky, in friendship. Her life was not devoid of happiness.

We are constantly being sold the idea that what we’ve got isn’t good enough. From our bodies to our diets, our cars, kitchens, decorations, homes, gardens and holidays – we are told to want more, bigger, faster. All the time. We are exposed to a constant stream of messages that tell us to be dissatisfied with what we’ve got. And so we end up working long hours to pay for things we have little time to enjoy. I recall a friend some years ago in a job that wrecked his social life and destroyed his sleep and health, telling me he could not afford to stop. He had to pay for the car, and the sofa and some other things, he was in a ‘wealth trap’ as he called it, and there was no way out. This is the reality we build for ourselves.

When I’ve blogged before about wealth and happiness, I’ve had people tell me that no, really, for them the money and what they can buy is joy. It is the point of life. I’ve been told I am only happy with an open horizon because I make the best of being poor, if I had the money to spend on better things, I’d never look back. One chap who was especially vocal on this, was working 50 hour weeks and more to pay for the things he wanted. He never struck me as being terribly happy, for all that he claimed otherwise.

There is no peace in the constant need to have a new better faster shiny thing. There is no peace in the fear that your stuff is out of date and that people will judge you over it. You do not rest easily at night if the pressure to own and work leaves you no time to wind down. Get that wrong, and the bills, and the debts will leave you anxious if not worse. We pay a high price for our luxuries. We pay in time and life, in happiness, and we pay over and over in terms of the quality of life we live. Yes, a big screen TV may seem like a wondrous luxury, but if all you can do is stagger to the sofa and collapse there in a weary heap between working and sleeping, maybe that’s not such a great deal.

We have more wealth than our ancestors could have dreamed of. What do we do with this? We watch other people pretending to live.
The more I give away, the lighter I feel. Paring my possessions down to that which is needed, useful and life improving, is liberating. I don’t want much. I’m happy with what I have. I feel no lack, and little desire for the things that occupy other people’s time and money. I make ends meet, I get enough of a life, my health is decent. I spend time with my child, and my partner. I have a kind of wealth that would make sense to my ancestors, and I’m not sure how many modern westerners can actually say that.

The Quest for Happiness

Thinking about what makes us happy has been the business of philosophers pretty much as long as there have been people sitting around thinking about stuff. The quest for the good life underpins many religious ideas and political approaches. What makes us happy? What is truly good? In our consumer orientated culture, we are sold ideas about the happiness we can purchase, but I’m not at all convinced it’s working for most people.

I’ve realised two things on the happiness front in the last few days. Firstly is that I am happy when I’m working. I have no problem working long hours and having demanding, difficult jobs to do. I need to feel that the work is valued and useful. It’s all about morale, so I am vulnerable to certain kinds of feedback. Given me a worthwhile job you need doing, and I’ll run for you. Criticise me and undermine me, and, faced with the same job, I am half as useful, maybe less. When morale is low, it sweeps across all areas of effort; I don’t compartmentalise. If something really makes me miserable, it can wipe me out across the board.

As a consequence, I realise I am happiest when working with honest and straightforward people who are mostly fussed about getting needful things done well. They don’t have to be nice to me. They don’t have to be gentle, or reasonable in their requests. They do have to make sense and I need to be able to see what the point is. That is all. I can be really happy working for a focused tyrant who has a really important vision and demands the nigh on impossible of me. I like the challenge, the sense of purpose, and the things that can be achieved. I’ll take that any day in preference to dealing with the person who sounds nice, but whose thinking doesn’t add up, or who is more interested in appearance than action.

It occurs to me that the people I like most, are for the greater part, an arsey and difficult bunch. Opinionated, passionate, with high standards around key points. People who ask difficult questions and aren’t afraid to say when something isn’t good enough. People who care enough to be grumpy when things are wrong. People for whom getting it right is more important than upholding the illusion of being right, or the illusion of being nice.

I have also realised that without exception, the meanest, most difficult, unreasonable and selfish people along the way were all intent on seeming nice. Each one of them cultivated an impression of niceness, and were willing to get the knives out, behind backs, to keep that impression viable. People who wish to seem nice won’t be honest, if the honest answer is a tough one. Right up until the whole thing goes too far and explodes. The nice mask crumbles, another face emerges. Then afterwards, you have to pretend none of that happened, or that there was a perfectly good reason to explain why it was not their fault.

Kind people are entirely different. Kind people know that you have to put suffering creatures out of their misery – which is seldom nice. Kind people know about the not-nice puss, shit and tears that come as a side order with genuine care sometimes. Kind people understand the brutality of certain choices, and are often willing to fight for what they believe in. I like kind people, although most of them are not superficially nice all the time.

It gives me a clearer sense of where I fit and what I need. Perhaps more importantly, I’m getting a much better idea of who I need to stay the hell away from, and why. Other people will undoubtedly find they need different balances, and that is as it should be. It is important to ask, not just what makes you happy, but who makes you happy, and why?

Pampering the Druid

What do you consider to be a luxury? What do you turn to for indulgence and a sense of abundance, to reward yourself, as a pick-me-up or a feel-good thing? Becoming a Druid is very much about re-imagining all aspects of your life, and is also an on-going process. If you want to be a Druid, there is no point at which you cease to do the work of becoming a Druid.

I’m not going to be all ‘hair shirt’ about this one. While I do believe in living lightly and trying not to consume excessively, life without anything that you consider to be a luxury can be bloody depressing. Feeling deprived of the good stuff is not conducive to good self-esteem or a sense of wellbeing. However, it is worth noting that a sense of abundance, luxury and wellbeing does not depend on specific external sources, but on how we think about them. If you’ve pegged your sense of self and your happiness to having very new, very fast and expensive cars, only that thing will do it for you. The marketing world encourages us, on a daily basis, to feel that only their product can deliver us the sense of inner peace and happiness we crave. This is of course, bullshit, but we are subject to rather a lot of it.

More often than not, the wonderproducts do not deliver for us, or have inbuilt obsolescence. Many of them are only luxuries, (in our minds) because of their newness. Once they are older and a bit tatty, those shoes, that gadget, no longer delivers and we ‘need’ another one. We fear being seen as poor, behind the times, out of date, and so we get locked into buying things we don’t really need simply because we are told on a daily basis that without them we cannot be happy or fulfilled.

One of the most reliable places to go for a sense of luxury, abundance and indulgence, is the body. There are balances to strike here because while one cream cake can seem like indulgent delight, a whole packet has implications. There are pleasures to be had in using the body (assuming yours works passably well) movement brings its own rewards. Walking, dancing, singing, working up a sweat, making love… if we have a mindset that recognises these as good things, rather than horrible and unwelcome impositions, they can be delightful. Making love, having the time and space to do that slowly, sensuously and with someone you really want to be with…. That can feel seriously luxurious.

Sleep is another. Early nights and long, languid rest periods, letting the body and mind unwind, relishing the smell of the clean sheets, the softness of the mattress… If you struggle to see how glorious a good bed is, spend some time camping, or sit on a hill all night to get a bit of useful perspective. A hot shower or long bath can feel deeply indulgent, relaxing the body and bringing sensory pleasures.

The company of friends, a few glasses of wine, a good view… feel indulged depends a lot on what you consider indulgent in the first place. That is a choice; one we are often influenced in by people who want to sell us stuff. What really makes you feel good? How can you get to that without it costing the world? The Druid path is not one of abstinence and denial; it is a path of finding your happiness in a way that does not take too much. What underpins this is a perspective. Learning to be genuinely happy, rather than reassured by participating in consumer society, is incredibly liberating.