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.

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

Happiness Matters Ceilidh

Saturday March 22nd – band and dancing starts at 7.30pm 

Join local band, Bricks and Brussels, for an evening of dancing, laughter, learning and fun. No experience is necessary as there will be a caller to explain all the dances. If you have never been to a Ceilidh before, now’s your chance! Bar opens at 7.30pm.

Tickets  are £10 for adults and £5 for children under 14 and are available directly by clicking here to email Happiness Matters or from the Corn Exchange Box Office.

The Bedford Happiness Experience

Saturday 22nd March 2014 – FREE ADMISSION

Life is too short not to be happy, and yet many of us don’t give our happiness the attention it deserves.

The Bedford Happiness Experience brings together a wide range of happiness inducing activities for you to enjoy – music, poetry, mindfulness, games, laughter yoga, acts of kindness, gratitude, and even DIY!

For adults and children of all ages – come along to the Harpur Suite from 11am to 3pm and get into happiness action. No tickets required.

‘HAPPY’ – the Movie 

Thursday 20th March – 7pm – FREE ADMISSION

In collaboration with The Bedford Film Festival, we are showing this inspiring feature length documentary which leads viewers on a journey across 5 continents in search of the keys to happiness. The film addresses many 
of the fundamental issues we face in today’s society: how do we balance the allure of money, fame and social status with our needs for strong relationships, health and personal fulfilment? Through remarkable human stories and cutting edge science, ‘HAPPY’ leads us towards a deeper understanding of what and how we can pursue more fulfilling, healthier and happier lives. 

Come and enjoy this inspiring film with us while enjoying tea, coffee and delicious cakes in the lovely surroundings of Coffee with Art, 82 High Street, Bedford.

Due to limited capacity, tickets are required and are available free from  http://happythemoviebedford.eventbrite.co.uk

Be a Leaf on a Tree

Photo courtesy of Brandon Holmes – Dreamstime Stock Photos

I recently went to see Gyles Brandreth doing his show ‘Looking for Happiness’ in Edinburgh. Being a happiness coach and enthusiast, it was an obvious choice, and I enjoy his wry humour, often at his own expense. We trusted him to be kind and polite, so we chose to risk sitting on the front row, generally a dangerous choice if you go and see a comedian as you often get picked on, sometimes with humiliating consequences!

One of us lived to regret that, as she was invited on stage to lead the audience in the Hoky Koky. Not too challenging you might think, but Amanda has never once stepped foot on a dance floor in all the years I have known her. She confessed afterwards that she had no idea how to do the Hoky Koky, and the video I took of her reveals that pretty clearly.

Apart from the hilarity we enjoyed at Amanda’s expense, the show was entertaining and thought provoking. As someone who has read a fair amount about the science of happiness, I was intriguing to hear what he had to say on the subject.

My favourite tip from his show is the title of this article – Be a leaf on a tree. It is a lyrical and evocative way of summing up the benefits of community.

Being individual and existing in the world as a unique entity with the freedom to go your own way through life is important for us. At the same time it is well established from research into happiness that connection to other people is central to our emotional health and well-being.  That connection could be accessed through any number of relationships or communities – with our families, friends, colleagues, clubs, sport teams, or religious groups.

If we liken those connections to the trunk, branches and twigs of a tree, we can see how the leaf can exist individually whilst being dependent on other parts of the tree for the necessary strength, support, and security and nurturing to flourish in the world. Without being part of something bigger it will quite quickly wither and die.

Happiness is affected by our connections with others, and our happiness affects our connections to others – it is a circular process. People who have the most social connections are generally happiest and those who have the fewest are the least happy. And the happier a person is, the more likely they are to have a large circle of friends, a romantic partner, be satisfied with their family life and social activities and receive emotional and tangible support from friends and colleagues.

Why not take stock of the connections in your life. Think how you can become more involved, more connected, and as a result nourish yourself, gain greater support and security, and feel happier.  And ask yourself – if not now, when?

Step into someone else’s shoes

Photo courtesy of Christophe Villedieu – Dreamstime Stock Photos

My post ‘The Golden Rule’ talked about compassion and treating others as you would like to be treated yourself. This is an excellent basis for compassion and kindness, and will no doubt lead to more tolerance and understanding. On a personal level though, I prefer the following: Treat others as they would like to be treated. I confess that I can’t remember when and from who I heard this, which is a shame as it has stayed with me and I quite often consciously apply it.

This came to mind this morning as I was thinking about someone I know who is really unwell at the moment and we are keen to visit him, try to cheer him up and give him our support in person. However, he is resisting our offers and says that he would rather be on his own. The temptation in this kind of situation is to think about what you would want from others if you were in his situation, and then push to deliver that, even if that person is saying they don’t want it.

What might work better for people you want to support, is to think about them and the kind of person they are and to ask more open questions about how they would like to be supported. This way, you are showing your understanding of them as a person and also giving them the chance to tell you what they might need, which might not be something you would have thought of yourself.

I know myself that I really don’t like people telling me what to do. It pushes my stubborn button and I find myself immediately resisting whatever it is they are suggesting, even if I rationally know that it is a good idea. I guess that is why I like coaching so much, as the answers always come from the client and not the coach! Anyway, if someone was to apply the ‘treat others as they want to be treated’ idea and knew me well then they would ask me what I wanted to do about a particular problem before giving me any suggestions of their own.

Sometimes we might do something for someone which we think is really kind or thoughtful, and not get the reaction that we might have wanted or expected. This could be because we have treated someone as we would want to be treated and not as they would like to be treated. On a simple level this can happen with gifts – we sometimes buy people things which we like rather than things they might like.

A example of this could be tidying up when staying with a family member. One person might like to be really organised and tidy and therefore think that they were doing someone a favour by tidying up and cleaning while staying with them. In their world, that is a kindness and would be much appreciated by them. However, the other person might live like that for a reason. If they wanted it to be tidy then they would in all likelihood have tidied it themselves by now. The tidier will no doubt feel pleased with themselves for being so kind and will expect the recipient of the kindness to be grateful and the reaction may instead be of irritation or annoyance rather than gratitude. That is not the way they would want to be treated, so the good intention is lost.

Next time the opportunity arises to help someone, ask yourself how you think they would like to be treated in that situation rather than how you would like to be treated, or even ask them and see what changes.


Pay It Forward Day

Today is Pay It Forward Day in the UK. The movement was inspired by a book of that name by Catherine Ryan Hyde. The book is about a boy who was challenged along with his classmates by a teacher to come up with an idea to change the world. The book was made into a film starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Hayley Joel Osment.

The boy’s idea was that he would do something good, kind and generous on a large scale for three other people and that they in turn would do the same for three more people, and so on. What would follow would be a tidal wave of selfless and generous acts of kindness.

In celebration of the day and the idea, how about giving it a try and doing 3 things you would not otherwise have done today? Here are a few ideas if you need some inspiration:

  • Write a letter of appreciation to someone who plays an important part in your life
  • Smile at some people you don’t know and say good evening
  • Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while
  • Tell someone how much they mean to you and why if you haven’t done that in a while
  • Appreciate someone at work for a task well done or for having a really good attitude
  • Buy treats for the office (sorry this a bit late in the day – you could delay till Monday!)
  • Buy a stranger a drink if they are waiting at the bar with you
  • Stop and have a chat with a Big Issue seller as well as buying a magazine from them.
  • Help someone with their shopping, with a pram or with their luggage 
  • Thank someone for good customer service
  • Write an email to a company or club which you feel do a great job
  • Pay It Forward at a cafe or pub – leave some extra money with the staff and ask them to use it to buy a drink for someone who looks like they need cheering up that day
  • At a restaurant, ask for the bill of another table from the waiting staff and pay it for them, and write on the bill that it’s a pay it forward gift
  • Make a donation to charity or sponsor someone

Not only will this make someone else’s day, it will also contribute to your happiness so it’s a win-win concept. What have you got to lose?

Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns.  ~ Author Unknown

Marathon Euphoria

I am a marathon runner.

I really never thought I would say that, and how wonderful it sounds. I think I may even become a serial marathon runner, which is even more unexpected. I had it in my mind that one would be more than enough, when in fact I loved every minute of it. Having said that if you asked me to run another one today, I would politely decline. There is a significant amount of grunting and groaning going on whenever sitting down, standing up or going downstairs is involved.

I got up on Marathon Sunday knowing that large part of my challenge was already in the bag. With the generous support of my friends and family I had already exceeded my £2,000 commitment for the Samaritans through sponsorship alone. That made the day all the sweeter.

Marathon 1

The day got better and better as it went on. The preparation of those long runs, sometimes in pretty harsh conditions, paid off. I paced myself well, slowing myself down initially, and ran between 7.92 to 8.68 km per hour throughout. This really helped as I had plenty left in me by the time I got to the 20 mile mark. That famous wall didn’t hit me at all.

The crowds were brilliant. There were so many people out and so much encouragement  along the way. Wearing a vest with my name on was definitely a bonus. When I felt that I needed a boost I ran closer to crowds and smiled, and immediately got a response with people calling my name and telling me how well I was doing. The only time this didn’t work was when a rhino, Andy Pandy or Super Man was running near me – I didn’t get a look in then!

Marathon 2

There was some fabulous music along the way – steel, brass, and rock bands as well as my personal favourite – the Taiko Drummers. There’s something primeval about that sound, along with the great memories it evokes of the time I spent living in Japan, that always moves me. It was the only time in the race that I felt near to tears. Emotion welled up inside me. It was a feeling of joy; of great connection with people; and gratitude – for the chance to experience such an incredible race.

People were so generous along the way with their endless clapping, cheering and smiling, as well as many who must have spent a lot on jelly babies, Haribo, Starbursts, oranges and bananas, all of which were very welcome. The volunteers on the fuelling stations were also really enthusiastic, shouting words of encouragement as they handed over the water or Lucozade.

I’m so grateful to my friends who came out to support me on the day. I didn’t manage to see all of them which is a shame although it helped my time – I stopped for a sweaty hug about half a dozen times and am blaming that for not getting in under 5 hours! It was worth the stop every time – I felt euphoric to share that moment with people dear to me. I didn’t even feel daunted by starting off again which I thought I might. I was excited to finish, which I did after 5 hours, 2 minutes and 45 seconds. I expected to cry and didn’t. I hugged the lady sobbing next to me and felt alive and invigorated.

The Samaritans had taken over the Playhouse Theatre and my friends had gathered there to see me and it was a great feeling to walk out on stage to a welcoming cheer. That first pint of lager shandy was amazing, as was the hot shower, the massage and the second pint.

I wore my medal with pride for the rest of the evening, and wore it again last night at the Bedford Harriers induction evening for new runners. And I will again this weekend when I see some other friends. It was hard earned and I value it all the more for that.

If you ever had even the smallest desire to run a marathon, I urge you to stop procrastinating, join a running club and set yourself a target. The sense of achievement is unbeatable.

£2,295 of my £2,500 target raised so far and still time to sponsor me here!