Diced Relevant-Complexity

Having codified it three years ago, I amply proved the central premise of relevantcomplexity.com:

“But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.”

I got bored of it.

Thanks goodness for Sonja Lyubomorsky… in the How of Happiness (which is also a website here) she sets out compelling evidence for two things which have really helped me this winter:

1) Hedonic Adaptation: pretty much anything which happens in your life – house move, significant gain or loss, any purchase from car to Concorde – you will have adapted to within three months; and then very importantly…

2) Happiness Set Point: you always return, inexorably, to your genetically determined default happiness setting; as proven by identical and non-identical twin studies. If you’re a miserable so and so, you likely always will be; if you’re a ray of sunlight, the same. Identical twins separated – with completely different life circumstances – have almost identical happiness levels. Non-identical twins living near identical lives, have widely divergent default happiness levels.

This sounds like a recipe for Stoicism (of which more anon). But the good news is you can better your Happiness Set Point – not by getting a better job, car or house… but by tricking yourself. The only way to beat your Happiness Set Point is to catch yourself out!

This explains (and links) my experience with Relevant Complexity and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. My Happiness Set Point is a comparatively gloomy one. I was (initially) enjoying Relevant Complexity because of the variety and novelty. Then Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, “flow” went away – and inexorably and inevitably like a Newton’s Cradle I returned to my default ‘same old same old’ Happiness Set Point and lost enthusiasm for Relevant Complexity.

But now I’m back! The secret? Dice…

As Sonja Lyubomirsky sets out, the key is to trick yourself. So now I have dice and lists. When I’m pottering in the kitchen: the dice decide whether I’ll listen to a podcast, an audio book, the news in Italian, classical music, 80s hits, footie or talk radio. And each time I get bored; simple – roll again.

Similarly in a morning instead of fighting the randomness of which bus arrives first (and it’s never the one I want) I’m just hopping on. Make some progress, watch the world go by and change where there are more options. Embracing – even imposing – randomness seems to brighten up both me and my day. And it has certainly got me back doing the Relevant Complexity thing again.

But I’m not kidding myself… I’ve got three months before I have to come up with something new; you can’t cheat Hedonic Adaptation and your Happiness Set Point for long!

Happy Tracks

Sitting in the car singing along, I’m reminded to be eternally grateful for one of Chris Croft’s top tips from the Big Book of Happiness: get yourself a playlist of ‘Happy Tracks’.

Quite simply these are pieces of music which always make you happy. I’ve been building and editing mine for a year; and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

From Sinatra to Leadbelly, Beyoncé to Chumbawumba, Finlandia to Bach; I’ve got every genre. Some came from the radio, some from Spotify – one I was reminded of over a supermarket tannoy…

But wherever I am: standing crushed by the stairs on a fully loaded bus, schlepping across a windswept Waterloo Bridge or bowling along on a Santander bike; ‘Happy Tracks’ reliably puts me on top of the world.

Happy days.

Dam; Busted

After a month of refusal, obstruction and obfuscation… on Monday the dam finally broke.

Under siege from my other and better half, out thought and out argued by my eldest; and finally advised to throw in the towel by my youngest… I gave in. Tomorrow we drive to the south coast to pick up a small brindled bundle of energy and potential joy called Romeo.

My daughter’s well argued PowerPoint put a massive crack in my defences

Our friends bringing his sister Winnie round last weekend brought the proposition to life…

So tomorrow we embark on by my guesstimate circa 17 years of having a hound again. Here he is looking rather down in the mouth with his breeder:

Albeit I know I’ll end up schlepping around in the rain, cold and dark for myriad hours as a result; I also know – in my heart of hearts – this is a statement of genuine optimism.

A dog brings mess, bother, responsibility, cost and ultimately great sadness – in their inevitable and sometimes painfully protracted decline. But a dog also brings joy, unconditional love and companionship; no one more pleased to see you when you open the door than a dog.

Every home is a happier home with a hound.

And so to our old dog. Poor old Mr Tumnus went downhill very badly in his last months; but he was a very fine hound for a good 7 years. It has taken half a decade but it’s time to welcome another big fella into our lives.

Wise Words

The BBC reported this week that two notes written by Albert Einstein, including his theory for happy living, sold for $1.56m.

Given to a courier in Tokyo in 1922 instead of a tip, Einstein (who had just heard that he had won the Nobel prize) told the messenger that, if he was lucky, the notes might become valuable one day.

When the courier came to his room to make a delivery, Einstein didn’t have any money to reward him.

Instead, he handed the messenger a signed note – using stationery of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo – with one sentence, written in German:

“A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.”

As I hove towards my 50th birthday; and find myself this lunchtime, sat with a nice cup of tea, in the kitchen listening serendipitously to Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on Spotify – I think Einstein had a point…

More of Einstein’s wise words (thanks to the BBC):

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.”

“When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.”



After two house moves in two weeks; last Sunday, post visiting a loved one in terminal decline and absolutely physically and emotionally shattered – I cried for the first time in a decade. It was just too sad.

But five days later the sun has come back out. Life is very simple. Get some sleep, be kind, work hard, do stuff, and crucially (as I’ve recently discovered) ruminate less; and the sun comes out.

My single biggest achievement in the last year – and arguably in my life – has been to train myself to think, act and be more positive. If you’re kind, interested, positive and helpful there is no situation you can’t improve.

For me it is a feat of application, discipline and will. It’s not my natural disposition. But sunny is the best way to be. Today it absolutely was; and I absolutely have been.

: )

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.

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. 

Happy Christmas

I’ve had a Happy Christmas and a joyful start to 2017; not thanks to Santa, but a dead sensible British bloke who has written a book I’d recommend to anyone.

‘The Big Book of Happiness 87 Practical Ideas’ is a no-nonsense guide to how to live.

The point of it all, self limiting beliefs and behaviours, getting organised, writing down and pursuing your goals – and the value of dabbling in things. It’s a cracker.

If you read nothing else this year read this… If Aristotle were around today, it’s the book he’d write.

Empathy, Pain and Compassion

New Scientist (11 May 2016) – How sharing can make you sick
Something I’ve done a lot in the last decade is empathy. Indeed it has become one of the things I do the most at work: connecting with people and quite literally ‘feeling their pain’.

Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and you see the world differently; better understand different opinions and why people do what they do – even when it seems to be hurting both them and you.

But it comes at a cost. Connecting with the pain of others is painful for me too. It hurts to see someone hurting; and even more if you go with them to the very source of their pain – deep fears, anxiety, sadness and loneliness.

And this is a problem, because once you’ve seen the contents of someone’s soul, you can’t just shrug and say: “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”

Not least because neuroscience is proving that our own brain copies the pain and suffering of others when we empathise. We do literally ‘feel their pain’ when we listen and put ourselves in their place. Mirror neurones fire in sympathy – in exactly the same pattern as in the sufferer; and the suffering is shared.

So I was fascinated to read in the New Scientist (in the article pictured above), that we should consider cutting the empathy; and boosting our compassion instead.

What’s the difference? I’m not sure I exactly know – but I can ‘feel’ the difference… Empathy feels like touching a person and connecting directly with their emotions – literally feeling what they are feeling. The science says that’s also what’s happening in your brain.

The problem is that in sharing, experiencing and absorbing the pain of others, we lessen our own reserves of optimism, energy and resilience. And that means ultimately we are less able to summon the strength to help or improve anything. Empathy feels draining.

Compassion feels different. Compassion ‘connects’ like empathy does but instead of firing the pain-mimicking mirror neurones, compassion digs deeper: for warmth, care, appreciation and common humanity. 

I reckon this must be how the Pope, aid workers and others who have the suffering of hundreds, even thousands of people thrust upon them daily must cope. Not by directly empathising; but by digging deeper for compassion. Certainly it’s the Dalai Lama’s philosophy.

One thing’s for sure I haven’t cracked it yet. Now I know it, I can feel the difference – beleaguered by too much empathy; strangely strengthened by tapping into warmth and compassion.

But I can’t manage compassion confidently yet; I still want to say at the end of sad conversations “I feel you pain.” But I know now that’s the invitation and trigger to fire those mirror neurones, and carry away my share of another’s suffering.

Talking to a very smart work colleague about it this week, we concluded: if a person is in a deep dark hole, you’re not always helping them that much, if you just jump in next to them. 

Similarly if you do try to feel another person’s pain and offer the classic line “I know how you feel” you risk real failing yourself and the person you’re talking to – how can you really know how someone feels? 

When someone is in a dark place this week’s realisation is the answer isn’t necessarily to join them in the gloom. Compassion – if I can learn how to channel it – creates the same connection, but offers a better chance of staying happy and healthy; and being some help.

Forme et fond

I remember, from working in advertising in France, the slippery distinction between ‘forme’ and ‘fond’ – broadly style versus substance.

Much of organisational life lies in the interplay between these two; what’s the underlying ‘thing’ you’re tackling and how do you package and talk about it; as Wikipedia has it here.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at work: it’s once you’ve sorted what you’re going to say; how you then say it will largely determine how it goes down – and that’s all about tone. Especially if it’s bad news, when some honesty and some humility are required.

The flip side though, is this week I’ve recognised when it comes to what others ask of me: I’m much better focusing on the ‘fond’ than the ‘forme’. 

Forget the wrapper, ditch the interpretation, don’t fret about being patronised, ignore any implied criticism, leave aside the irritation, accept any humiliation; just spot the action arising.

99 times out of 100, all that interpretation just makes you brood and ruminate: “can’t you see I’m busy”; “you really think I hadn’t thought of that”; or indeed occasionally “how bloody dare you…”

Leave all that alone and simply spot the action arising – edit the document, chase the right person, connect the protagonists; get the thing done. And the miracle of this approach is… No brooding (well not much anyway), problems solved, stuff sorted and even the odd word of thanks!

I conclude: if you want someone else to something; it’s all in the tone. If you are being asked to do something; ignore the style and focus on the substance – the action arising – however mundane, trivial or irritating; and do it directly. 

Rumination is ruination; happiness lies in action.