Tag Archives: happiness

The happy Druid

I’ve met a lot of people along the way so far, from people who were penniless and living in single rooms in Bed and Breakfasts, to people who have big country houses and go skiing every year. People who have been invalided out of the workforce, the self-made and the downright lucky. I’ve known plenty of wealthy people who were a long way from being happy, whilst misery and poverty go together very easily. Without a doubt, the happiest people I know are either retired, or self employed, doing something they care about and feel has value, and have strong friendship networks.

Often self employed people like me work longer hours than regular employees and do so for less money, but, you get to say no when you need to. You can fit your work around your life, and I see a lot of that amongst the self employed, especially around child raising. People who work for themselves always have more scope to be creative, and get more direct financial reward for the things they get right. There are more risks, but these days most regular employment is so insecure that the risks seem a lot smaller than they used to. At least when it’s your company you can really fight to keep it going and don’t have to depend on whether anyone else is determined to make sure your job continues to exist. What I hear from regularly employed friends suggest that increasing numbers of workplaces are becoming unreasonable, disrespectful pressure fests. The self employed may not have as much cash, but we don’t endure any workplace bullying unless we do it to ourselves.

There are basic essentials that we all need. Recent discussions on facebook around food budgets demonstrate that a person who knows their stuff and has enough wriggle room for some bulk buying, can live well on fairly little. Less desire to be fashionably dressed keeps the clothes budget down. Feet as transport save money, and the cost of gym membership. There’s an art to being less affluent, and one of the key requirements is knowing that cash does not equate to happiness. Yes, life without the basics is miserable, but that’s not always a money issue. Rest and sleep are basics, plenty of highly paid, high flying jobs will deprive you of those. Human relationships are also a basic human need, and if you’ve got to work all your waking hours, or deeply antisocial hours, money costs you in terms of relationship.

The first secret to finding happiness rests on knowing what actually makes you happy. That’s going to vary for all of us, but whatever you think you’ve got, it’s worth poking it. The joy of shopping, for example, can often be about getting a temporary sense of power out of spending money, but if you run up debts, that disempowers you, it can become like an addiction. Getting drunk can feel like happiness, but there’s thinking out there that our young people do this just to blot out the reality of the rest of their lives. So just how happy a state is that? Merry is great, slightly pissed can be wonderful, but so off your face that you don’t know which way is up? Its popular, hugely expensive in terms of police costs and antisocial knock-ons.

I am able to get by on very little because I know what I need. I have books, online articles and radio 4 to supply me with intellectual stimulus on a daily basis. I have good company in the form of my bloke, my child, fellow boaters, excellent friends and a wide selection of casual acquaintances in the wider world. I need time outside and most especially, panoramic landscape views. Enough food, exercise and rest are possible to achieve, although I don’t always get that balance right. Lying in bed, snuggled with my man, cat purring in my ear, child giggling at the other end of the boat as he reads Pratchett in bed… of these things are contentment made. Happiness is not a big, dramatic sort of emotion. If I need thrills and adventures, moving the boat on a windy day, cycling a hill, undertaking an epic walk – I can challenge myself. I don’t get bored. I have the freedom to think and feel as I please, to choose a lot of what happens, or negotiate it in ways that work all round. I am free from bullying, and unkindness doesn’t feature much in my life. I feel very lucky in all of this.

I’m happy when small things go well, and when what I do works for other people, when publishers say yes, and the child says ‘today was an awesome adventure’ or things to that effect. I’m happy when I feel that I’m acting ethically, and walking my talk in some way or another, and when what I do manifestly benefits someone else. Money can be nice, especially when it represents people who bought my books. But money does not buy me the call of the cuckoo, a child’s laughter, or the man who looks at me with adoration in his eyes.

The Druid balancing act

Which may (as a title) conjure mental images of stacking up Druids in humorous ways… but sadly no, I am not poised to offer amusing photographs. The idea of balance as a virtue is nothing new. The Greeks had it (forgive me, I am rubbish with names, can’t tell you who). The middle way, the median, avoiding excess on both sides – it crops up in all manner of traditions and philosophies. Generally speaking, balance gives you something more viable and sustainable than the absence of balance will. Sometimes there are issues around the scale of the balance as you consider it – what may seem out of balance close up may be part of a bigger and wholly balanced picture, after all.

I’ve become increasingly conscious of the need for balance in my own life. Right amount of sleep balanced against right amount of food and right amount of activity is critical. Get it right and I can do a great deal. Get it wrong, and I plunge into bodily pain, exhaustion, depression and become more vulnerable to anxiety. I got it wrong a bit over the last few days, and am rebalancing now, in a very deliberate sort of way. I need some time with no drama, to get re-centred. I also know that too much time with nothing exciting happening also drags me down. I need a balance between stimulation and reflection. I need social time and quiet time, active time and time to be still, and I need that in ongoing cycles from one day to the next.

I can work off-balance for a while, and there are times when that is necessary, productive or interesting. Living there isn’t viable. It’s so easy though, to be sucked in to a mind-set that accepts excess. From surfeits of food and alcohol, to overwhelming noise, and excessive consumption, the opportunities for gluttony are many. The pressures towards sleep deprivation, starving yourself, not getting enough exercise, and other forms of damaging insufficiency are also many. With more people finding themselves pushed under the bread line on a daily basis, the scope for not enough is huge. People who are overweight from too much carb and cannot afford fresh fruit, veg and good proteins, who are both starving and swelling at the same time. Such is our modern culture.

Balance is so much more important than growth. Balancing the economy, balancing the personal chequebook – matters. Getting the money straight is good, but in that balancing act things like health and well-being need to be given a value and added to the scales. We are too quick to place no value on that which cannot be converted directly into cash. Mental health. Happiness. Quality of life. These are not cash issues and often cannot be sorted out by throwing money at them.

Balance is not about avoiding excess, it’s about not having too much of one kind of excess all the time. Some fasting for spiritual work is fine. Fasting all the time, isn’t viable. Some staying up all night dancing and drumming is fine. Doing it all the time takes you out of other aspects of life. Some pain, some rapture, some madness, some office banality… in balance with other things, a great many extremes are visitable. We can have wide and wild experience without burning out. It’s just a matter of knowing when to stop for a while, when to step away, when to do the other thing instead. Today, a little quietness and drawing breath, a little domestic work, a lot of resting. Tomorrow, some other thing…

Redefining luxury, Druid style

What does luxury mean? We’re back to ideas that are sold to us from the outside, because it’s so easy to respond to that question with a vision of something that costs a fortune. The push towards ever greater consumerism is often one that asks us to turn old luxuries into things we consider essential, and then to hanker after even bigger, more expensive things.

For the sake of the planet, luxury needs to be a sustainable idea. I don’t think that’s quite as nuts as it sounds either. I do not believe that we’re going to save the world with a hair shirt mindset. Most people are not prepared to suffer for their own gain, much less anyone else’s, and we’re up against all those adverts that keep telling us that we should never experience a moment’s discomfort or inconvenience. Hair shirts are not going to enlist anyone. Not even me. But what if we could de-comodify the idea of luxury? What if we could make luxury, or the experience of the luxurious, that bit more affordable and sustainable? That would shrink a few carbon footprints.

You can’t indulge when you’re on the run. If you’re doing the ‘hectic lifestyle’ routine, grabbing instant food whilst running like a headless chicken from one assignment to the next, you can’t enjoy anything. So the luxury that makes all others possible, is slowing down. And often, slowing down is pretty cheap. A few hours off work will give you that.

A lie in is not expensive, but what is more luxurious than being free to sleep until you wake naturally, and then being leisurely about getting up? You don’t have to wallow in the duvet all day to feel the benefit. An extra hour, stolen from the hectic schedule, is a most lovely bit of self indulgence. Or how about having the time, just occasionally, to soak in a bathtub, to indulge in good massage or leisurely lovemaking? Time is the most precious thing we have, so using that time in pleasing, indulgent ways can create a feeling of luxury at little cost. And equally, no matter how much cash we spend, if we don’t give ourselves time to enjoy the indulgence, we don’t get much out of it. What good a vastly expensive cruise if you’re on the mobile talking to the office all the time?

One of the big mistakes we make, is finding a good thing and then indulging all the time so that the treat becomes normal and all sense of reward is lost. Some such treats become addictive and destructive when continually ‘indulged’. Alcohol for one. Luscious food, for another. Eat ice cream every day, and you’ll barely even notice it. Strawberries all year round are not as good as strawberries that only come fresh from the garden for a few glorious weeks. Preciousness and rareness often equate, but if we make something a regular feature, we deprive ourselves of the sense of a treat. Over exposure to anything can just de-sensitise us, so that we cease to appreciate, or even notice.

I used to sit out overnight to watch the mid summer sunrise. It’s a good opportunity to break with the normal routine. A mattress never feels so magical as it does after a night on a hill. A duvet becomes a gift of the gods then. A roof is a profound blessing. Contrast is good. Contrast allows us to see the real value of things. The more we wrap ourselves in ease, the less we get to enjoy what is good. The less able we become to notice the good in our lives. Coming in after working in the snow, hot soup is sublime.

I’ve stripped a lot of the twenty first century ‘luxury essentials’ out of my life in the last year – more from necessity than spiritual devotion, but it’s been good for me. Happiness is a sunny day when I can dry laundry, and just sit outside and enjoying being alive for a while, knowing that the batteries are charging. Happiness is having the time to soak in lots of hot water. It’s watching grebes dive outside the boat, and sleeping until 8 in the morning. Happiness is not having to cycle in the pouring rain, and happiness is also knowing that, if needs be, I am fit, well and strong enough to do that cycle ride in whatever conditions I get. Going to the pub for internet, electricity and cheesy chips is the pinnacle of self indulgence.

I am bloody determined that as my life swings back towards more conventional options, I am not going to forget these perceptions. The more I am able to enjoy the small things, the easier it is to be happy. The smaller my luxuries, the smaller my impact upon the planet. The closer I get to only having what is needful, the more I experience the indulgent quality of having more than is essential. And the more I see how few things really are essential after all.

The nature of happiness

When I talked about how the gods may challenge us, Helgaleena made some great comments about not wishing distress on anyone even for the sake of learning, but that happiness exists as part of a bigger cycle. I want to jam on those ideas a bit today.

Much of human understanding depends on knowing things in comparison with other things. When we make subjective judgements, a great deal depends on what our context is. My idea of luxury will be very different from the ideas held by a millionaire, and from the ideas of someone in a war or famine zone. However hard we try to be objective, we experience the world in the context of what we have already experienced. Thus there is a relationship between my knowledge of joy, and my knowledge of pain. I might appreciate things less if I had more. Experience of bad relationship makes me count my blessings in this good one. A great deal here has to do with what we choose to believe about our experiences and what we choose to focus on. Some people can find the good in anything, some people always see the one thing that isn’t perfect. Recognising that as a choice, and seeing where other choices can be made, can radically change life experience.

Familiarity may well breed contempt. If we eat cake every day, then cake seems like a staple, not a luxury. We may enjoy it less as a consequence. We may even grow bored with it, or we may balloon in the midsection and become miserable as a direct result of too much cake-related happiness. Excess of indulgence can lead to both desensitisation and misery. Excess of pain or horror can also desensitise and is equally miserable. Happiness lies in the balance, and requires things to be less than perfect some of the time.

It’s only after slogging my way up the hill in the rain that I feel the exhilaration of pushing my body to its limits. Only in learning how to jump from a moving narrowboat have I become confident in my judgement and physical abilities. Only in confronting the anxieties of the court room could I have come to this current place of confidence in dealing with my ex. My fear of him has reduced, my confidence in the system increased, but only because I’ve gone through a thing. The celebration of success, the joy of achievement, the knowledge of being better than you thought you were, only comes by taking on a challenge. The challenges themselves may well be fearful, may include risk, cost, pain… to be meaningful they cannot be easy. The challenge of climbing a mountain or learning to swim is no different from this.

We only learn and progress by taking risks – the bard risks public humiliation if they muff up the words or forget the tune. The Druid risks satire and public attack if they get on television and defend their faith. But until we act, express, step up, we cannot fully be ourselves. Being happy requires that self expression. It’s a lot easier to be happy, or at least upbeat and optimistic when you have a sense of your own strength and potential – a sense that can only come from being tested.

Of course when there’s no respite between tests, it can be harrowing and exhausting. The places of respite are vital. Otherwise there’s every chance of being worn down. When we’re picking our own challenges, that can be managed, but life dishes it out with little consideration of whether we can take another blow. There is always a far side, or a moment when things ease off. It helps to know that on the far side you will have greater confidence in yourself. At the very least, you will know you were the person who was tough enough to survive. You learn to trust yourself, and you learn how precious all the small things are.

The person who needs adulation, wealth, material possessions, cheerleaders and all the rest to feel happy, is going to spend much of their time being sorely disappointed, or trying desperately to get on some reality tv show. The person who knows how to relish the small things, can find little pockets of happiness in almost any day. A person who knows how to cherish the little things can get out there and make those moments, put on the song that makes them dance, play with a dog, call a friend. Happiness is not something mysterious that happens to us, it’s what we make out of what we get. Life is life a box of chocolates… leave it out in the sun too long and it gets sticky and unpleasant.

Today happiness is not being rained on too much. Happiness is a warm cup of coffee, and sitting next to a very lovely man. If the sun comes out, I shall be ecstatic. I have chosen a life in which it does not take much to make me smile, and so, I smile a lot.

If you ruled the world

As international economies wobble and systems threaten to fall down around us, now is a very good time to be asking questions about what life is for, what we actually want, and what we consider important. It’s easy to be carried along by the flow of the prevailing culture, but that doesn’t make it optimal, or even good. Governments like GDP, they like tax revenues, high employment. What governments care about is money, and because this is the priority, we are all encouraged to live lives that move money around in ways that make governments happy.

The current wisdom that market forces can fix everything doesn’t stand up to any serious consideration. Market forces are short term, are not driven by demand but by what demand is imagined to be, coupled with then selling the idea. Market forces do not fix inequalities, show compassion, do blue skies research or anything else very interesting most of the time. The idea that we can have infinite growth with finite resources seems inherently flawed to me, but our whole economic system is based on ideas of continuous growth. We put money before quality of life. We treat the acquisition of physical wealth as the priority, even at the cost of our health, families and happiness.

Increasingly people are talking about the ways in which the whole philosophy underpinning modern western life doesn’t work. I saw on facebook yesterday material rejecting the idea that rich people generate wealth. That’s been a political assumption for a long time. Rich people are good for the economy. Rich people make jobs and wealth for others. Without our rich people, we would all be in trouble so we should look after them, keep them happy, make sure they stay rich. I don’t believe wealth trickles down, but I do think if the poorest people have a decent standard of living, you know, by definition, that everyone else is fine economically too. If we decided instead that small businesses, and workers were the real powerhouse of economic growth, we’d organise a lot of things differently. We give big business and the superrich too much leeway only because we believe that we can’t get by without them. What if we can?

There is scope for real change, but until we start questioning the norms, it’ll be hard to achieve. So let’s start asking those questions, and encourage people around us to ask them as well, and think. Let’s ask our politicians as well. Do we want a system that is all about the movement of money? Or should we be thinking more about quality of life? Could we perhaps reject the idea that wealth and quality of life are entirely connected, and that striving after money is the only solution to everything? Could we perhaps instead be talking about people getting to live meaningful, rewarding, happy lives without automatically equating that to working as a wage slave? Could we stop seeing financial contributions as the only useful contribution a person can make to their community?

Money is a way of moving things round and getting things done. It’s a tool, but it is not a measurement of anything else. If the insanities of the financial sector are anything to go by, the acquisition of it may have far more to do with a willingness to gamble than with ability, merit or effort. Money attracts money, the absence of it makes it easy to get into debt and difficulty. Money is not the impartial system we want it to be, nor is it inherently fair. Your best chances of being rich are still to be born into a wealthy family.

I’m not proffering any answers today, just questions. What actually matters to you? What makes you happy? How do you want to live? If you were made ruler of the world tomorrow, how would you change things? If you had the power to redesign the systems, to reinvent the structures we all use, how would you do it? What are your priorities? None of us is going to wake up tomorrow and find that we can start putting plans into place, but where we live in democracies, our ideas can count, and the more of us share them, the more impact they will have.

I think the era of capitalism is coming to an end, because it just doesn’t work. I have no idea what comes next, but there is the potential for it to be wiser, more compassionate, more sustainable, more human. We need to stop collectively worshipping currencies, and start figuring out how to live.