No Worries

I took the redoubtable Chris Croft up on his offer of a ‘Year of Happiness’ emails over Christmas. I told a friend, and she did the same.

She emailed me last week as below:

This made me smile – in truth 2020 has been a car-crash from start to finish. And where we are now: locked down and cooped-up – as the economy stops dead and we improvise field hospitals – is simply incredible.

Chris’s advice in this week’s happiness email is to ‘worry less’. For once I very nearly didn’t bother to read on.

But as always he has a point; and a practical suggestion… make a list.

To start with, make a list all of your worries. There’s something very therapeutic about writing things down, because it gives you permission to get them out of your brain, and that takes them further away from you, where they seem less important, and more easy to work on and to kill them off.

Usually, my list of worries would be the same somewhat improbable ‘sum of all fears’ one it’s always been:

  • Losing my job;
  • Not having enough money;
  • Having to sell the house;
  • The whole family confronting me and saying: ‘Dad, you’ve completely failed us.’

Thanks to Coronavirus though these are bang on the £££money – compounded by the very real fear of the lack of it.

But now I can add:

  • Facing a riot/riots at work;
  • Facing a riot in our street;
  • Having to stop paying people;
  • Having to furlough people (whole new worry!);
  • Having to make people redundant;
  • Having to hold onto people’s money who want it back;
  • Having to pay other people for things we are no longer sure we can afford;
  • Loved ones getting ill;
  • Running out of food;
  • Not being allowed out to walk the dog;
  • There never being any jobs of the sort I do ever again
  • My pension disappearing so I can never escape work I hate.

That about captures it! A proper list of worries.

So what to do? Paraphrasing Chris:

But what if the worry really is about something serious? What can you do about that? And the answer is nothing, there IS nothing you can do. Just tell yourself, it’s going to be fine. Keep saying it till you believe it, and finally, put it into context, it’s not the end of the world if it happens.

Unless of course it is… But I was helped today by some useful historical context; reminded of my old friend Michel de Montaigne by an article in Philosophy Now on his great friend Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563).

Montaigne’s Essays talk of French life in the sixteenth century, in a way which is accessible, modern and make it seem much like life today. More letters and fewer screens back then; but the same dramas of human affairs.

Except… they were in the middle of a bloody civil war of all-against-all.

As La Boétie describes it:

The result: “almost universal hate and malevolence between the king’s subjects, which in some places feeds secretly, in others declares itself more openly, but everywhere produces sad results… It divides citizens, neighbours, friends, parents, brothers, fathers and children, husband and wife.”

What followed was a series of massacres starting in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day, spreading to twelve other cities: Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, Orléans, Meaux, Angers, La Charité, Saumur, Gaillac and Troyes; and killing c10,000 people.

François Dubois (1529–1584) Wikipedia

The UK’s WWII ‘Blitz spirit’ and Dunkirk rhetoric is getting more than a bit tired, but I’d rather take Covid-19 than face religious slaughter.

My worries – like everyone’s – are very real; but pretty much every age which precedes us has known worse.

Onwards.

Courage II

Image result for red lightning

I spoke to two different people this week about ‘red energy’ and ‘blue energy’; and I couldn’t remember when I’d first noted the difference. So I had a look back in time… turns out it was in this very month in 2011…

Funny when you look back how themes recur, because in one of those conversations I was talking about Josef Pieper – and the balance between the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Courage and Temperance.

As it was yesterday, so it was in 2011 – sometimes it’s good to look back; but not in anger.

Courage

I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.

🏡 is where the ❤️ is

As I head to my half century this autumn, there is much to celebrate. None of it at work, if I’m honest; but at home my cup runneth over.

A house move hoves into view; thus providing the steady drumbeat of tasks: chucking away, taking stuff to the charity shop, driving to the municipal recycling facility and odd jobs on which (secretly) I thrive.

I have been ‘outed’ as a foodie at work, and “if the shoe fits wear it”… Armed with my constant companion – the InstantPot – and a burgeoning supply of Tupperware, I love my cooking and my homemade work lunches.

Family life is endlessly full. Yesterday, for Father’s Day I was treated to tasty tongue tinglers new and old by my offspring; capped (after the obligatory two trips to the municipal recycling facility) by a family bike ride to foodie heaven and a Venezuelan pork and crackling arepa for lunch.

And then there’s the dog. Such a happy little hound. Endlessly up for catch, wrestling with his stuffed pheasant and balls of all shapes and sizes. He is a constant source of joy in our lives.

Home is where the heart is; and my home and heart are full of happiness right now.

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.”

Sunny

😎

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.