Joy

The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years. 

It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.

Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’. 

So what makes for joy? Here’s what The Book of Joy says:

Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness. 

I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:

However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: 

  1. Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
  2. Our ability to experience gratitude
  3. Our choice to be kind and generous

These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.

I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging. 

As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi


This rather wonderful documentary was recommended to me nearly four years ago, when I visited Japan. 

With the hustle and bustle of family and working life I’d forgotten it; but thanks to the digital traces we leave everywhere, I re-found it the other day. 

I hardly ever watch TV and never have time to watch a film alone. But I consumed this in four (sushi-sized) chunks on my iPhone over this weekend. 

Jiro has made sushi for more than 70 years: and lives, works and dreams of nothing else.

It is Japan – its culture of craft and specialisation and seeking perfection – in a nutshell; or an eggshell given the 10 year of apprenticeship Jiro expects before you are allowed near the eggs…

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The Emperor’s Questions 


I think I increasingly knew this; but sometimes you need someone to express it clearly for you. Thich Nhat Hahn quoting Tolstoy does the job: 

“One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

  1. What is the best time to do each thing? 
  2. Who are the most important people to work with?
  3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. 

Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice. 

Someone else said that certain matters required immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord. One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors.

The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.

The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.”

It took a life and death experience with a hermit (here) to reveal the answer to the emperor, which Tolstoy says quite simply is this: 

“The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. 

The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you.

The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

As Thich Nhat Hahn goes on to say: 

“Tolstoy’s story is like a story out of scripture: it doesn’t fall short of any sacred text. 

We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service for others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world-but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all. 

If you cannot serve your wife or husband or child or parent – how are you going to serve society? 

If you cannot make your own child happy, how do you expect to be able to make anyone else happy? If all our friends in the peace movement or of service communities of any kind do not love and help one another, whom can we love and help? 

Are we working for other humans, or are we just working for the name of an organization?”

As I’m increasingly finding – here, now and by paying attention to the person in front of me is where kindness, a feeling of connectedness and a happy life is found.

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Slimes of Passion

Some weeks ago I started to notice blobs of candy-pink sludge in the bottom of cups… The outbreak spread to larger food containers, before regularly plaguing all three sinks in the house…

Then my shaving foam started moving about. Tackling my eldest, she was concocting slimes. With a bit of huff and puff on the messes she was leaving, I left it and moved on.

Some weeks later there was a regular psst and a pervasive whiff of artificial fragrance seeping from her room… 

It transpires cans of Airwick 6-in-1 are the last source of ‘Borax’ left in the European Union. It was banned in cleaning products a few years back; and borax is the indispensable companion to PVA glue in the slime makers art.


She and I had a rewarding if ultimately costly and unsuccessful weekend down the seaside Pound Shops – trying to find an alternative to Airwick. But we did find some handy pots – and the following week two types of slime hit the underground school slime market at 50p and £1.


So I googled borax again – not least since all of us had developed a splitting headache from the fragranced fug in the kitchen and found… Kershaw’s Traditional Laundry Starch! 


No fug, no headaches and the slime maker is back at work – now the only psst is my shaving foam being expertly worked into a particular variant. We have styrofoam balls and glitter on the way for ‘crunchy’ and ‘sparkly’ to add to the range.

I said last weekend watching her at work: “It’s great you’ve found a passion, Honey.” She said “It’s not a passion Dad, its just fun.” And indeed it is… I took a particularly excellent slime in to work this week, which delighted two of my colleagues; reminding them of ‘potions’ and ‘flubber’ from their childhoods.

Simple pleasures, and sharing an interest with your kids and colleagues; is there any better combination?

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CRACK!

It’s never too late to learn, and it’s always worth a try…

Two good mottoes – exemplified by the resounding crack my neck gave this morning; as something which feels like it’s been out of place since the mid 1990s cracked back into place!

I can now look 180 degrees right, there is no ‘grating’ sound when I turn my head and apart from a little muscle soreness – no pain in the neck!

Any number of different pillows, handlebar adjustments, panniers and changed posture on my bike, driving left-handed on long holiday jaunts; nothing got to the bottom of it… but a simple stretch, suggested by my ever-thoughtful son has…

About six weeks ago I mentioned my neck and shoulder ache again and he said why don’t you try this: 

Taught him by his PE teacher at school, a bit like Heineken it has found the part nothing else has for 20 years!

The Boy Wonder has cracked it again – five stretches night and morning for six weeks and CRACK – I’m fixed. 

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Green Shoots

Spring feels like it’s almost here. Green shoots, buds, birds twittering – and the sun high enough in the sky, yesterday, to get over the building line; lighting up and warming a corner the quadrangle where I work. I stood in that couple of metres squared of sun yesterday – for a minute or two – which warmed my face and the cockles of my heart.

Green Fingers: 

A couple of weekends ago (adding to my Christmas bonsai and January’s tiny cactuses from Amazon) I potted up some tiny fragments from a tray of forgotten succulents. They were struggling through the winter under a tree, in our slightly unloved back garden. 

All five of them have taken root. Now they are catching stray photons of weak sunlight on top of a chest of drawers, happily converting carbon dioxide into sugars and plumping up nicely. 

Much like children; I’m learning – helping a few plants to grow near you is a constant joy.


Green Socks: 

Sat on the Tube, in a bit of a rush, I spotted a smartly dressed chap opposite; a little older than me, he had a very smart pair of turquoise/green socks on display. 

Following Thich Naht Hahn’s advice I reflected on ‘interdependence’ – all the things that had gone into those socks… 

The dye, the chemists from Du Pont who almost certainly created the colour and the designers who adopted that shade; the makers, buyers and then the retailers who chose to make and stock them; the man himself – probably on the internet – who thought they were a particularly fetching shade… And that’s just the colour. 

From my time in branding and advertising, I know that colour was probably selected for this year’s palate about 7 years ago somewhere in Paris. And that’s before we get into the myriad machines, the power sources materials (natural and man-made) lorries, ships, trains and more which made and moved them. 
The whole world in a pair of socks… Then screech, beep, swoosh, ‘mind the gap’ and back out into London life.



Green Run

We packed off my daughter (at 3am) this morning on her first ever ski trip – which as I was dozing back off made me think of mine… Almost the same age, I remember the flight: reading Smash Hits with Annie Lenox on the cover, listening to my (vast) Sanyo Walkman, wearing my silver C&A ski jacket as we flew over the Alps about 35 years ago. 

As my dad reminded me this morning the catch phrases of my Italian ski instructor have become family lore: “Hey Disaster Boy!”, “Don’t bend your botham”, “Knees to the mountain, shoulders to the vaa-lley.” It’s bitter sweet seeing her all grown up, but it certainly brings back memories. 

As the book I’m reading points out – you don’t need to be sat in silence to really notice and enjoy what’s going on around you. Especially at this time of year.

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The Wonders of Walking…


My surprise discover of the last month is the wonder of walking…

For over 15 years I’ve routinely cycled to work; rain or shine, hot or cold – but not freezing cold. My one rule is not to cycle when it’s near freezing or snowing. Too slippy all round.

At the same time I’ve realised – thanks to my FitBit – that I burn about 130 calories on a half hour cycle to work. And sometimes as low as 95 calories when in traffic; a 20 minute walk burns more…

All that faffing about getting changed and locking up and remembering keys and lights and all the paraphernalia – and then a perilous ride dodging tipper tricks, taxis, buses; not to mention ‘friendly fire’ from Lycra louts whizzing inside and out on racing bikes. Plus the handful of times I’ve fallen off, it REALLY hurts. 

So instead, given the cold weather I’m walking – 20 to 35 mins – then either hop on a bus or sometimes a hire bike for the last bit to work. When you factor in locking up and getting changed same time taken; but lots more done…

  • More calories burnt (wards off the spare tyre) 
  • More phone calls made (extra mileage and running repairs with people at work) 
  • More music listened to (additional joy and nostalgia in the tank)
  • More thinking time (clearer view of the road ahead)

At the Science Museum (for work) this week, I briefly took in their lovely new Robot exhibition – 300 years of trying to make human-like machines. Some of them are wonderful, some spooky; one in particular heartbreakingly engaging – she gives you a fist bump and twinkles at you when you lay your hands on hers. 


But the one thing the roboticists struggle with the most is the human foot – it’s too clever by half. Given it’s so surprisingly special, good to make full use of it. All roads lead to more walking. 

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Groundhog Day


A simple but profound insight from both the Arbinger Institute and Chris Croft; time is much better spent making things go well in the first place, than trying to correct them when they’ve gone wrong.

Simply said. Harder done. But when the same thing keeps on going wrong, every single day, it’s well worth investing some time and thought on how to make it go better.

One such transformation has been wrought in my lovely son. No more confusion and cross words of a morning; he now falls out of bed straight into his clothes. 

And better still on weekdays, he arrives at the breakfast table to his homework which he now silently and efficiently cracks on with! Less than two months ago you would not have thought it possible.

By simply laying the right things out the night before, everything goes better – for everyone. So much so that on the one occasion the other week that I was out, he laid out his own school clothes for the morning. Unbelievable.

All the upset, anger, shouting, door slamming and plain old misery of the years of everyone trying and failing to ‘correct’ everyone else… Gone. 

No more Groundhog Day! 

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Knots, Seeds and Red Lights


I’ve just finished Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is Every Step’. 

It’s never a bad idea to have a Buddhist book on the go in the pile by the bedside. The basic precepts of living in the moment, breathing and mindfulness are always a good antidote to the hurry and rush of modern life.

This one is a little twee in places, but the Vietnamese Monk is as deep as he is light, and there are some memorable ideas in here.

Three that have stuck with me: 

1) Breathe when you see Red Lights – Thich Nhat Hahn points out that ‘while we are driving we only think of arriving’. So every time we see a red light (and in suburban London that’s every 10 seconds) as he gently puts it ‘we are not very happy’. Not half. His tip is to take a red light as a cue to focus on your breathing – and it really works… And not just in the car. I’ve found a couple of times on a bus this week that just as I’m starting to get het up at the queue of red brake light in front of us, a turn inwards and a consciously deep breath – and peace miraculously breaks out in my previously troubled soul.

2) Avoid Knots – any time something bad happens that we don’t understand Thich Nhat Hahn suggests a ‘knot’ is tied in us. If we deal with it – through reflection and understanding – the knot is easily untied. If we leave them though, the knots get stronger and tighter. And this is particularly the case with those we spend most time with. The best thing we can do for those closest to us is to help them untie their knots, but if you’re all tied up yourself the odds are you’ll be making them more not less knotty.

3) Think about the seeds you’re planting – like a pot of peaty soil we all readily grow the ’emotional seeds’ which are planted in us. Plant a healthy, ‘happy’ seed and more will spring from it – let a hostile, angry seed sprout and Thich Nhat Hahn assures us the seeds of hostility and anger will spread. 

A deep breath on the bus, a few of my own knots untied; but the most important things I did this week were to stop seeds of hostility sprouting in a few places at work. 

My top New Year’s Time Management resolution from Chris Croft has been to have a daily diary reminder titled ‘biggest problem’ as my first job of the day. 

Thanks to Thich Naht Hahn I changed it this week to ‘Biggest Problem/Most Difficult Thing’. And one of them was to email, while walking into work, to explain and apologise to someone I’d talked at and talked over in a large forum. 

Knot untied, seeds of future trouble nipped in the bud and onto a bus; red light – relax and breathe. Life is good.

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Scienceing the sh1t out of it

I met some old professional friends for an annual reunion yesterday; and was pressed (as we all were) to recount my year. This made me think. 

First what did I want to say, why and to what purpose? Second, write it down (good old Chris Croft at work here again).

So I chose to describe my last year/18 months through five books:

1) Fierce Conversations

Gifted me by some free coaching from my previous employer, I was far more honest than I normally would be in workplace assessment; and was suitably diagnosed as: perfectionist, passive/aggressive and chronically unassertive with a strong tendency to take the problems of the world on my slender shoulders.  

Prescription: more ‘fierce conversations’ to assert my needs and proactively and reasonably manage the expectations of others.  

2) Depressive Illness – The curse of the strong

Faced with the first sight of what my new job entailed, I realised I’d made a horrible mistake… Massive construction projects with big problems, chronically unhappy people, no status, no power, no levers and probably hired as a fall guy. 

A very deep and sudden slump in my mood was explained and then arrested by this priceless little book. And since I’ve helped three other people by buying it for them. 

The essence: if you always work harder when more pressure comes on, and you don’t feel you can escape, you will blow a fuse. Simple and unavoidable; your body does for you what your mind won’t and cuts the power.

Prescription: ‘leave the Hoover in the middle of the room’ as I’ve written before; learn to deliberately leave some tasks undone, and some people potentially disappointed, as the inevitable reality of more demands than you can possibly meet.

3) Learned Optimism

Now this has been a BIG change… having written on it before I won’t rehearse it again.

Prescription: unless you are an Air Traffic Controller or a Loss Adjuster, as Eric Idle famously sang ‘always look on the bright side of life…’

4) The Anatomy of Peace

The simple if obvious discovery, that, nearly everything that happens to you, spirals out from your own attitudes and behaviour towards others. Correcting the behaviour of other people directly (however selfish, antagonistic or hurtful) is impossible; the only way to change things in others is by startling with yourself. 

As I said to someone this week, quoting Oogway from the marvellous Kung Foo Panda: “a man often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it” as here

But I have discovered progressively (since an epiphany half way through this book on our family holiday in Italy last summer) change how you yourself are ‘being’ and everything else changes for the better. 

Prescription: stop trying to correct things in others and invest in listening, understanding and accommodating them.

5) The BIG Book of Happiness – 87 Practical Ideas

My current favourite – there’s just so much to learn from this as here

Having reeled of my five books and the linking story, one of my pals said: ‘it’s quite impressive how you’ve analysed, researched and read stuff and figured out a way through all this.’

That struck me as very kind. I’d simply thought of it as ‘installing new upgrades’ and a few ‘power ups’ as my son would say. 

But on reflection later in the day, I concluded I’ve largely followed Matt Damon’s advice from ‘The Martian’ when he was faced with a hostile climate and a low apparent chance of survival – I’ve scienced the sh1t out of it. 

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