What’s the problem with happiness?

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-happiness-concept-image25376084Seriously, I wonder sometimes, what the problem with happiness is.

If you were stopped in the street and asked what you wanted most out of life for yourself and those you love, it’s very likely you would choose health and happiness. It’s possible you might include wealth or success, but most of us know intrinsically that the vital things for us as human beings are those two fundamental things which boil down to physical and emotional well being. If we have those two things that the rest is icing on the cake.

I totally agree. And so does the UN as in 2102 they introduced the UN International Day of Happiness on March 20th. This acknowledges that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal, something which everyone deserves to be able to aspire to, and the importance of which governments should recognise through public policy.

Brilliant. It’s vital that the importance of happiness is recognised at government level. It is, in my opinion, even more important that it is also recognised by individuals.

It seems to me that there is a distinct reluctance to talk about happiness, to learn and understand more about it, and to take positive steps to develop it. I get the impression from talking to people about happiness, which I do a lot as it’s my job, that it can be seen as self indulgent, like some kind of luxury. Although we all know we want it, we feel inhibited from focussing on it.

We also fall into the trap of thinking we know what makes us happy, but often we are barking up the wrong tree. We can spend a lot of time chasing status, possessions, or partners, with the expectations that acquiring these will bring that elusive happiness.

In reality, it’s much more about the way we are as human beings which makes the difference. Practicing certain ways of being, habits or behaviours can contribute much more to our sense of well-being that relying on external factors. A major benefit of these ways of being, habits and behaviours is that they don’t require any training, you can start immediately, they don’t have to cost money, and more often than not they create a ripple effect. It can be something as simple as a smile. Producing one for someone, usually creates another one. Smiling is infectious, so chances are the one you have inspired may be passed on to another, and then another and so on.

Likewise with kindness, it’s also infectious. We were discussing this yesterday at my Happiness Workshop and people felt that the more they showed kindness, the more they felt they received it. Kindness benefits the receiver of course, but it also benefits the giver. We feel more connected to other people when we show kindness. It can enhance our self perception and improve our self esteem by helping us to think better of ourselves. It can also, interestingly, lead us to think more positively of others.

To celebrate UN International Day of Happiness this week, I’d like you to understand that you have the power to enhance your happiness. My question to you is, what’s the problem with doing that? If the answer is ‘nothing’, then I encourage you to learn more about it, and to start practicing those ways of being, habits and behaviours which will make a positive difference.

If you’re fortunate to live near Bedford then you can also join The Happiness Workshop, a 6 month group programme which will get you into happiness action.

Take your happiness seriously, and get into happiness action today.


Time to Take Stock

Winter tends to be a time for slowing down, for hibernating a little bit, before re-emerging in the spring with renewed energy. The end of the calendar year offers a natural line in the sand – the end of something before you begin afresh. It provides an opportunity for a clean slate. Now is a good time for you to think about what positive changes you want to make in your life. Some of you might be creating your wish list for next year – setting yourself some goals perhaps.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-mind-map-setting-personal-life-goals-image9267662As a coach I am all for this, although I am not a fan of resolutions as I explained last year in my post Out with Resolutions. In with Goals. What I think we don’t do enough of at this time, is to reflect and to take stock. It’s easy to keep moving forward, thinking about the next athletic challenge (guilty), the places we want to visit (guilty), the activities we want to start (or stop – guilty), or the new body we are going to create through better nutrition and increased attendance at the Crossfit gym and Friday night circuits (also guilty). All this is good, and I will be setting myself some goals for 2105 for sure, no doubt around these topics.

However, what I am also planning to do and would encourage you to do also, is to carve out some time in the next few weeks to take stock of 2014. What were the highlights; what did you achieve; what went really well for you; what didn’t go so well; what have you learnt about yourself and maybe about other people around you from any upsets.

Life moves so quickly that we can easily forget all that has been achieved and experienced in the year. And sometimes the upsets, the sadness, or the hurt can overshadow the good things that we experienced. It’s helpful to write these down, and to see in black and white how much you experienced this past year – good and bad. Having a clearer understanding of the past year will allow you to think more broadly, and perhaps more ambitiously, for 2015. Or it might do the reverse. You may feel that 2014 was quite overwhelming, and what you could do with in 2015 is some consolidation.

This doesn’t need to be done alone either – why not have a family review over dinner one night, or perhaps introduce that into a conversation you have with your best friend?

I am meeting my friend Debbie over Christmas and plan to do this with her, as well as 2015 goal setting. We will have time and we have a similar outlook to challenges and will motivate and encourage each other.

Happy Reflecting!

What control do we have over our happiness?

I did a talk last week for a local WI group in Bedfordshire. I arrived as they were beginning to sing Jerusalem. I hadn’t realised that this was still done so I sat at the back and enjoyed the nostalgia of hearing that hymn which we used to sing so regularly at school.

I really enjoy doing these talks as it allows me to get people thinking about what they don’t know about happiness. It is up there for most of us as one of the top things we want for ourselves and for those we love. And yet how much do we understand about it?

I like to compare our understanding of happiness to our understanding of healthy eating or exercise. Think about how much information we are exposed to on the subject of healthy eating through magazine and newspaper articles, TV and radio programmes, and general conversations on a daily basis. Then consider how much information you also have about exercise – the options and the benefits of it. I’d hazard a guess that you get information on both of those in one form or another on a daily basis.

Now think about the last time you had a conversation, read an article, or saw or heard a programme about the subject of happiness. I’m guessing that happiness is going to be the poor relative in this comparison. Although it is one of the things we aspire to, we don’t really know much about it.

I think a lot of us believe that our happiness is pretty reliant on our personal circumstances. Perhaps it’s about wealth, or education, or a good job, or a loving relationship. We can often think that once we have one or more of those things then we will be happy.

The research tells us something else, and that is that our personal circumstances count for about 10% of our happiness, while a more important 40% is attributed to ‘intentional activity’. This means essentially what we think, say and do.

Determines-Happiness-Pie-ChartIt’s not so much about the stuff that happens to us, which is less within our control, but more about what is generated by us and therefore very much in our control. And the kinds of things which make a difference are not things that cost money to implement, or take much time to do, or require any training.

They are ways of being which include:

  • connecting with people
  • being kind and compassionate
  • practicing gratitude and appreciating the world around us
  • using positive language and having a positive attitude
  • being curious and learning new things
  • being part of something bigger than yourself
  • having goals to look forward to and achieve
  • getting exercise

If you want to find out more and join some other like-minded people getting into action, come along to a free taster session for The Happiness Workshop.

What’s in it for me?

My volunteering career began fairly radically.

As it is for many people, my working life was all consuming for a long time, and left little time for volunteering. It had been bothering me for a long time though, in that low level kind of way, that niggling feeling that something about the way I was living my life wasn’t right for me, that something was missing. At that time I wasn’t aware of the concept of values, and in hindsight I can see that my work wasn’t satisfying my core values and that is what was leaving me feeling dissatisfied. I ignored this for a awhile, but eventually I was forced to acknowledge it and in 2004 I decided it was time to investigate working in the charitable sector.

The internet is a wonderful thing, as it can expand our thinking on so many levels just through the results of a google search. In my case that was ‘working in the charitable sector’. Various charities in the UK came up, as did Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). When I saw the site, I knew that was what I was going to do.

I applied in October 2004, was accepted by the end of the year, and left from my job as Sales Operations Manager for Carnival Cruise Lines in April 2005. Having sold my house and most of my possessions, by June I was on a plane to India.  So from not volunteering at all, I was now a full time volunteer in India for a 2 year contract.

Sundergarh Project 039I worked for the Centre for Youth and Social Development in Bhubanswar in Orissa as a Communications Advisor, and loved it. It was challenging on so many levels – adapting to the weather, the food, the accommodation, a new culture, learning a different language, a massively different sector of work, and hugely different ways of working, office politics, hierarchy, and social life.

It’s not possible to explain in a few words what I got out of that experience. I learned so much about another country and culture, built some wonderful relationships, had some excellent adventures, and experienced a great sense of achievement over and over again as I learned how to survive and then thrive in this new world.

I left with an overwhelming feeling that I had gained so much more from 2 years in India than I had given.

I could not go back to corporate life now. Luckily an opportunity arose to set up a new international volunteering programme funded by DFID, and this allowed me to support less advantaged young people to gain a similar kind of life changing experience that I had had doing VSO. It was fantastic to hear the Platform2 volunteers talk about what they had learned, and how much the experience had changed them and their perceptions of themselves and the world when they returned.

I have been quite itinerant in my life, moving house, changing cities, moving to different countries, and this has made local volunteering a bit challenging. When I made the choice in 2011 to come back to Bedford to settle, I felt I now could commit to some regular volunteering. I applied to be a listening volunteers for Bedford Samaritans and started the training over 8 consecutive Saturdays, in May 2012.

10One of the things I love about volunteering is the people I have met. In our day to day lives, we tend to mix with people who live in the same areas, work in the same place, have the same hobbies, are mostly the same age. But when you volunteer, you meet all kinds of people you might not normally ever connect with. I have met some wonderful people through Samaritans, and I find the work to be very rewarding. It sounds odd to say that I enjoy listening to people who are in distress and despair, but I have heard so many Samaritans say the same thing. The most important thing I get from doing it, is a sense of perspective. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own lives and lose sight of the good things about it, the things we take for granted, and the things we are lucky enough to have in our lives which others can only dream of. I always leave a shift feeling grateful for my life, and for the people in it and my relationships with them.

My personal experience of volunteering and what I have learned from other volunteers is that it enriches our lives enormously. It might contribute to society, but it also contributes to us personally, giving us a sense of purpose, of connection with other people, of self worth, and perspective.

It’s for these reasons that getting involved in things bigger than yourself, volunteering, getting involved in community activities, are all great contributors to your long term happiness.

1926690_10154755957505311_6725906107665652856_nAnd it’s because of my feeling about volunteering that I was touched to be the recipient of the Silver Heart Award at the Bedfordshire Business Women Awards last week. The award, sponsored by Heart FM, is given to someone who may volunteer in her spare time or fundraise for charity, and recognises dedication and commitment and rewards them for their selfless attitude and kind heart.

Find out more about volunteering with Samaritans here. Or get in touch with Voluntary Works, a consortium of local organisations working to promote and support the voluntary and community sector in Bedfordshire.

Life Lessons from Running

Life Lessons From Running

My name is Caroline and I’m a runner.

Even now when I say that I feel like a bit of a fake. It seems to me that there’s some unsaid, definition of a runner, and somehow I don’t match up. I hardly look like a wippet, and believe me I don’t run like one either. However, a guy called John Bingham summed it up nicely when he said – ‘If you run, you are a runner.’

2008-07-19 342My running history began in 2003 when I ran my first half marathon, the Great North Run (GNR), with my Dad. I was 37 and my Dad was 66.

He beat me.

Life Lesson #1 – Don’t worry about what others are doing or seemingly achieving. It’s only important to challenge yourself.

 I had trained for the race but by the end, I was utterly finished. All I could think about was who would contemplate the complete madness of a full marathon? That involved doing that whole thing all over again –and at the time that seemed like an impossibility.

I did get over the pain though and I entered again in 2004 and then a third time in 2008.

 That last GNR was SLOW and it hurt like hell. Life Lesson #2 – No matter how many mistakes you make, or how slow your progress, you are way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying.

 In 2008, I moved to India for a couple of years, which rather limited my running – it’s too hot, there are no pavements, and too many people staring at me in my lycra! Actually this was a bit of an excuse and reveals Life Lesson #3 – don’t be stopped by not getting started. Often the most difficult step in any endeavour is to actually make a start.

So at the start of 2011, while living with my sister in Brisbane I trained for the Twilight half. This one felt better, easier, less utterly exhausting that the previous 3 attempts.

The fact that it wasn’t quite so exhausting and my training that year to become a life coach, inspired me to up my game. I wanted to challenge myself in various areas of my life and to get out my comfort zone with some big goals and a marathon seemed just about daunting enough!

Life Lesson #4 helped big time at this stage – Set yourself a goal and break it down into smaller chunks.

Wellingborough cross countryThinking about running 26.2 miles is overwhelming. By breaking it down into smaller goals, it becomes more achievable. If you can run 13 miles, it’s likely that 15 is possible, if you can run 15 then 18 is possible, and so on. And then you reach a point at about 19 or 20 miles when you start to believe you might actually be able to do a marathon.

Up to this point, I had always run alone. It hadn’t occurred to me to join a running club. That was for runners and I wasn’t a runner. However, I realised I needed extra motivation and support so I joined Bedford Harriers. Life Lesson #5 – Connecting with people, especially through common interests, helps to inspire and motivate us to achieve more.

In March, the Oakley 20 mile race which was part of my training plan, was cancelled due to snow. My delightfully mad friend Sarah thought it would be a great idea to go to Grafham Water instead and go round it not once, but twice which we did, through deep snow and slush, with a bit of wind thrown in for good measure.

Snow run GrafhamLife lessons #6 – hang out with people who get you out of your comfort zone and push you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do in your life and to achieve more than you would on your own – it keeps it interesting and rewarding.

Grafham Water was a beautiful run that day, and Life Lesson #7 is to be present in the moment and aware of your senses. It’s easy to be so much inside your head that you lose the chance to enjoy what is actually in front of you.

Sams 6For as much time as I remember to, as the thoughts do take over, I focus on enjoying the sights, sounds, smells around me and on how my body feels, and how the wind feels on my skin. And I think to myself – this is it, there is nothing else apart from now, and it’s perfect.

I’ve done a lot of challenging and exciting things in my life, and the marathon is probably my favourite. I loved every minute of it until I stopped and completed seized up. So once you’ve done a marathon, what’s next? Life Lesson #8 – Don’t get stuck in a rut, change things, keep things interesting and challenging.

This year, my friend Kim and I wanted a challenge to keep us running long distances regularly rather than training for a peak and then lessening off. The ‘12 in 12’ challenge has given up that. 12 half marathons in 12 months, with a cheeky sub challenge to do 3 in 3 weeks at some point.

I have now completed 11, and our finale is on 16th November at St Neots. From doing 3 halves in 5 years, I have progressed to managing 3 in 3 consecutive Sundays – which I did in September with Northampton, Richmond and Ealing.

1977114_10152655667603833_5851137282106676993_n-2Life lesson #9 is an important one – celebrate your successes. I suspect we spend more time thinking about the things which didn’t go so well, rather than cheerleading ourselves for our achievements. Thankfully after so much practice, I am no longer good for the nothing after a half marathon, and can now function pretty well, so Kim and I will be having a good lunch and a celebratory drink or several on Sunday 16th November.

Half marathons are run of the mill for me now – a phrase that I would not have expected to say in 2003 after being beaten by my 66 year old Dad in my first half marathon. And I have now also run a marathon, something which I used to strongly believe was impossible for me.

I leave you with Life Lesson #10 – Don’t listen to the voice in your head which is saying you can’t – it’s a liar.

Kim and I are using our challenge to raise funds for Bedford Samaritans who support people in distress and despair and have a page on Virgin Money Giving for people to donate to support us. We also have our 12 in 12 facebook page if you’d like to follow our finale.

Why I love a good ceilidh

Happy memories from our childhood can be really powerful. They take you back to a time when you experienced a strong positive emotion. And this is what a ceilidh does for me. I grew up in Lanark, in Scotland, and every year my family went for a weekend with my Dad’s sister and their cousins, and all their children. We stayed in a place called Otterburn Hall which is in the North East. For us kids, it was a magical place. It was a big old pile in the country with peacocks in the garden, a boating lake, a croquet lawn, and most importantly a big dance floor and on the Saturday night there was always a ceilidh.

I loved it. Having music from a live band, with one of the band members calling the instructions for each dance, made it exciting and dynamic. Everyone joined in, young and old, and people would dance with anyone and everyone. For some reason, the music and the dancing breaks down the usual British reserve and people who don’t know each other will be laughing and joking with each other while they bumbled around the dance floor with enthusiasm, if not skill.

I often say that ceilidhs tick a lot of the happiness generating boxes – you are with people, in fact touching them by holding hands or getting into a dancing hold; you get a lot of exercise; there’s lively music; you are learning; and there’s invariably a lot of laughing as people head off in the wrong direction after being swung round and round a few times.

There’s a range of dances, some for couples, but mostly they are for groups of 6 or 8 people. The steps and movements aren’t complicated and are repeated so you’ll get the hang of it quickly. The caller is always there to remind you what to do, and others in the group will put you right.

I loved it as a child and I love it now – the exuberance of the dancing is a thing of beauty!

If you’ve never had the chance to experience one, then get yourself along to one of ours. You’ll find details here.


Slow Dance

SLOW DANCE by David L Weatherford

Have you ever watched kids
On a merry-go-round?
Or listened to the rain
Slapping on the ground?
Ever followed a butterfly’s erratic flight?
Or gazed at the sun into the fading night?
You better slow down.
Don’t dance so fast.
Time is short.
The music won’t last.

Do you run through each day
On the fly?
When you ask How are you?
Do you hear the reply?
When the day is done
Do you lie in your bed
With the next hundred chores
Running through your head?
You’d better slow down
Don’t dance so fast.
Time is short.
The music won’t last.

Ever told your child,
We’ll do it tomorrow?
And in your haste,
Not see his sorrow?
Ever lost touch,
Let a good friendship die
Cause you never had time
To call and say,”Hi”
You’d better slow down.
Don’t dance so fast.
Time is short.

The music won’t last.

When you run so fast to get somewhere
You miss half the fun of getting there.
When you worry and hurry through your day,
It is like an unopened gift…..
Thrown away.
Life is not a race.
Do take it slower

Hear the music

Before the song is over.

My 100 Day Challenge

I was reading an article the other day in a magazine about a lady who had done 100 comedy gigs in 100 days – wow, I thought, that’s really going for it. Her rationale for it was that you only get good at something if you practice every day for a sustained duration of time. It seems there’s a movement out there – #100daychallenge.

Without making myself feel inadequate by comparing myself to extraordinary people, I began to think about what habits I would like to introduce into my life, which would make a positive difference.

Having gone through a hurtful break up very recently, which rather knocked me sideways, this challenge appealed to me as not only would it create some good habits, it would also allow me to get back some control in my life.

I also know that challenges suit me, particularly ones that take some time. The sense of achievement as I continue to reach smaller goals motivates me and keeps me going.

I began with one habit – the one I have been dabbling with off and on for a few years now, without managing to make it a daily habit – meditation. That didn’t seem challenging enough though, and I wasn’t sure if it would create enough change or instill enough discipline. So I added 4 more:

  1. Wake up at 6.30am
  2. Meditate
  3. Read my reference books for at least 30 minutes
  4. No snacking between meals
  5. Tweet at least once a day

I figured the first one is the key to getting the next 2 done also, as I can tackle the first 3 before anything else in the morning. So far that seems to have worked as it gives me the motivation to stick to the other 2 for the day.

For this to work for me, it required a gold star progress reporting structure, so my fridge now has my 5 daily goals and a grid with 10 x 10 boxes with a number from 1 to 100 in each box. Each day I get to cross off a box and for every ten days successfully completed I get a gold star. Love it!

I am already 10 days in (gold star being awarded today), and feeling strong, and confident that I can do it and that it will have a very positive affect on my life.

The Power of Perspective

Last night I went to see a viewing of Dead Poet’s Society in memory of Robin Williams. The showing was put on by Bedford Film Festival and hosted at The Pad – a great night.

The part which particularly resonated with me this time involves the Robin Williams character, Mr Keating, standing on the desk to get a different perspective of the world, and then encouraging the boys to do the same.

As it happens, this morning I was reading ‘Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (which I would thoroughly recommend). The opening quote was,

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking out new landscapes but in having new eyes – Marcel Proust

The chapter talks about how we often get a different view of a situation with some minor change in circumstance, and this can happen in seconds. The example they use is seeing a landscape in cloud and then in sunshine – this happens quickly and can transform our experience. In a similar way, our response to someone can transform from fearing them to feeling warmly towards them, by a simple change in expression from a frown to a smile.

Viewing people, places and situations in a different light or from a different perspective can happen quickly and it can also happen with the passing of time. Think of something that really bothered or upset you yesterday, and then imagine how you might view that same situation in a month’s time. The impact of even quite significant emotions changes over time, sometimes we even get to laugh about things which at the time made us cry.

Changing your perspective can transform your experience of life, and we can do this consciously, as well as subconsciously. We can do this as a result of a change in circumstance – response to a smile or the sun, or as a result of time passing. We can also do this by choosing to look at things from a different perspective, from a different point of view, from another person’s point of view, from a distance.

This is a powerful tool if we choose to use it, and one which is unique to humans. What’s bothering you today which you could choose to view differently?

UN International Day of Happiness

On 12th July 2012, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 20th March the International Day of Happiness. By doing so, it recognises the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world.

In celebration, Happiness Matters is running three events in Bedford.

Happy the Movie

The Bedford Happiness Experience

Happiness Matters Ceilidh