Friends for Life

Initially idly, and then increasingly avidly watching Crufts last night, I was delighted to see a whippet from Scotland win the Best Hound group.

Of course she’s not a patch on our handsome hound (who another whippet owner kindly described a few weeks back as having ‘Supermodel looks’) but hey.

Still the most wonderful part of last night’s viewing wasn’t the pedigrees or the agility – or even the fabulous ‘Warrington Wizards’ in the ‘Flyball’…

It was the wonderful Assistance Dogs helping people with dementia:

And with disability:

There are committed people running amazing projects like Dogs for Good’s heart-warming Dementia Dog Project which has Scottish prisoners training dogs to help people with Alzheimer’s.

I was chatting to a friend on the street (returning muddily from this morning’s walk with a very mucky pup) and we talked happily about the joy of dogs.

And on reflection of course, I wouldn’t even have been there if we didn’t have a hound.

For all the mud, mess, commitment, time, food, poop and getting rained on; dogs make life better – and for some people they quite simply make their lives worth living.

I’m glad we have a dog again.

Dog tired

He’s a lovely little fella, but phew! As predicted; a puppy is a whole lot of work.

Still it’s a joyful business. And despite finding myself breathing mist: in a bobble hat, an old coat and a pair of crocs; chucking a stuffed squeaky toy for him at 6am this morning (for the tenth day running) it’s nice to have a dog about the house.

Life’s all about choices in the end. The house is a tip; the brief idealistic moment (after we moved two houses) of thinking we might get the place sorted and tidy is almost forgotten.

But a tidy house and a tidy life is a shrinking life – a puppy creates mess and disorder. That’s no bad thing.

A bit more sleep wouldn’t go amiss though!

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.

Joy

 

I’m not big on joy – more steady progress, appreciation, a bit of peace… Joy is one of those ‘hot’ emotions, which can feel like it’ll just cause me bother or be too much like hard work.

So imagine my surprise (having been dreading it for weeks) to be utterly joyful last evening, at a work event. 

We had a ceilidh which involved 90 minutes of lung-busting jigging around bumping into each other; swinging folk you hardly know around, ‘stripping the willow’ and prancing like the ‘gay Gordons’. 

I had a spill and hit the deck, as we sought to spin our foursome fast enough, for the two ladies to take off and fly with centrifugal force. I then nearly re-enacted the Large Hadron Collider with a Greek particle physicist in some poorly-coordinated galloping. What a laugh. Everyone finished hot, flushed, sweating and beaming. 

The last time I remember everyone beaming like this at my work, was at an awards night when the staff choir brought the room to life. And this has set me thinking…

I’ve been listening to Bach’s passions this week – and perhaps there’s something to be said for a bit more joy. Singing, dancing, music, performance; they’re as old as the hills. But they still make life feel worth living. Here’s to joy.

Carol Singing

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School Christmas carols
Parents wedged in
Younger siblings
Making a din
Silence falls
Like a blanket of snow
Then many small voices
Sing tunes we all know
All upstanding
The grow-ups join in
All in good voice
The joy of a hymn
Our spirits all lifted
By seasonal cheer
The annual sing song
Gets better each year.

The annual Christmas carol service, at my daughter’s new school, is a step up from the childish plays of recent years.

Opened with an expert trumpet solo, studded with eloquent readings and conducted with vim and vigour throughout, this was a classy – and very traditional – Christmas performance.

She, smartly dressed in red shirt and blue skirt, never spotted us – lost in the crowd. But I could see her, through gaps in many heads, singing her little heart out. It lifted mine as I stood to sing too. You can’t beat a proper Christmas hymn.

Broadband

Our home broadband has been on the blink this week. You really miss it when it’s not there. Perhaps worse is when it comes and goes – one minute you’re surfing gaily, the next you’re beached with a ‘no network’ message.

Csikszentmihalyi points out that, although impressive by electronic standards, the amount of data our minds can process simultaneously is surprisingly small. More punched tape than broadband. Two people talking to us at once or, say, riding a bike and whistling a song, just about exhausts our real time mental processing capacity. Any more and we lose attention and get distracted, flustered or confused.

I noticed it one day this week in the office. One minute I was churning out flowing prose, the next someone started talking in my earshot and I was distracted. I slowed to trickle – like someone was hogging my wifi. The talker left, bandwidth returned, and so did flowing prose. It was like flipping a switch.

Things, events, people and basic navigation are all basically different data and signals crowding in or cluttering up our cognitive bandwidth. This makes directing our consciousness and limited mental energy hard.

And it’s especially hard because life can easily just happen to us. Events and other people can readily soak up all the bandwidth we have. And if we do decide to use that precious resource on directed thought and action, we do so against a background of almost overwhelming distraction and diversions.

All life is, is the continual stream of sensory data, words, pictures, thoughts and ideas streaming through that narrow mental bandwidth. All we are, is the accumulated store of that data in the limited hard drives of our brains and to some extent those of others. It makes you think – until someone starts talking in your earshot and the mental connection is interrupted.

But given mental broadband is always there I’ve discovered I can redirect it when I catch myself wasting or underusing it. At work this week while being gently bored by a presenter on pan-European data collection standards, I contemplated the extraordinary beauty of a large tree – spare broadband successfully redeployed into joyful contemplation.

More experimental was testing optimising ‘flow’ by doing two different things simultaneously, and well. Combining loudly whistling the Marseillaise with cycling to work smoothly and safely through London traffic perfectly occupied my mental broadband. And in a heartily enjoyable way. Vive la France.

Our mental broadband has surprisingly limited peak capacity. But the compensation is it is ‘always on’. You can waste it or have it used for you, but you can also use it well. I found this week being more careful in how I deploy my personal ‘punched tape’ makes a big difference. Focusing its use on doing one or two things at a time really well – and exploiting every minute of it – whether I’m on my own, or with others, has removed a good deal of routine boredom and irritation from my week. Replacing that with moments of joy, satisfaction and genuine happiness is broadband well spent.

Waste not, want not.

Immersion

Concentrating on boiling a ham on the hob yesterday, I was reminded of a key aspect of ‘flow’ – immersion. ‘Flow’ is ceasing to be self-conscious or unduly conscious of others and becoming thoroughly immersed in the task or activity.

When you look at it this way, a number of things we usually consider important in enjoyable achievement turn out not to be – notably the immediate judgement and appreciation of others. Also, a variety of things we consider dull can suddenly become a joy.

Take hoovering the house. Usually a chore, and one I resent. I enter into it – if at all – with little a priori enthusiasm. I have, however, discovered it passes more easily with an iPod, headphones and music.

Surprising then to discover last weekend during a particularly energetic and virtuoso vacuum – as I removed the ‘T head’ to more precisely target the skirting boards in the kitchen – I was in full ‘flow’. It was an absorbing task, in which my goal was evident, feedback clear (disappearing crumbs and detritus) and my mental energy was fully absorbed (in music and coordinated physical effort). Stone me, it’s that simple I realised.

I was talking to another parent yesterday about how this applies to kids, sports and music. The art is perhaps in helping a child to become completely immersed in the ‘process’ of playing football or the piano to the point they cease to be self-conscious or unduly conscious of you and your anxiety/impatience/projection of your own hopes and fears (delete as applicable).

A lot of what we do with children and activities is the opposite. We make them concentrate on us, keep pushing them on – before they’ve had time to master or enjoy developing skills – and most of all we distract them with incentives and threats. The art of ‘flow’ is to let them lose themselves in what they are doing and forget we’re there – not focus them on extrinsic rewards or punishments.

More immersion perhaps means less coercion. And letting go a bit and getting lost in what they’re doing makes parenting ‘flow’ more easily too.

Kisses

As my other half left the house for work one morning this week, my daughter was a bit sad.

My daughter and son were perched with me on the back of the sofa. My partner waved to us through the bay window – in the nice way she often does. She waved through the first pane coming out of the door. She waved through the roses as she passed in front of the central sash. Finally, she turned back for a final wave through the third pane, as she disappeared out of view down the hill. But my daughter still looked sad.

I said to her ‘Your kisses will have reached her’. She shook her head and held her hands apart like my Grandad sized a fish and said ‘They can only travel this far’. I said ‘Much further if you blow them’. She still looked sad. ‘Only about as far as the bookcase to the wall’ she said.

And then my four year old son chimed in with his piping voice – and winning smile – and said confidently ‘A kiss can go all the way round the world’. We all smiled and felt better.

The Daffodil

The Daffodil, or more classically and correctly the Narcissus, perfectly captures my week. 

First my daughter. Three years ago when she started school, I sometimes thought of her as a little snowdrop, a tiny beautiful flower, but gently bowed and diffident. She cried all the way through her first school play, reached out to me with beseeching arms in her second, slightly self-consciously danced a solo in the third; and belted out a song, whilst whipping others into line, in this year’s Christmas special. 

Caring teachers and a lovely little school have straightened her stem, burst open her petals and encouraged a more confident little trumpet in the middle. In recognition, and ending months of parental anxiety, this week she won a place at a super new school. Like the picture above she now has more of the ‘Narcissus Geranium’ about her than the original snowdrop. It’s lovely to see.

The second set of flowers came at work. I found myself talking to a roomful of our people from Alexandria and Cairo (despite the unrest at home), Abuja, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Lahore, Recife and the UK about our Prime Minister’s recent speech on Multiculturalism. I said I think it’s all about how petals and centre – or stigma – relate in the national flower. I drew three flowers. One with petals and no centre, one with a huge centre and ‘teddy bear’s ears’ petals and the last with daffodil-like proportions.

I said, in my view, if there is no shared centre, just independent and separate ‘petals’ of separate cultures who never mix, a society will have tensions. Similarly if the centre is so large that the central culture dominates and excludes ‘outsider’ cultures, beleaguered, excluded groups will live unhappily. What’s needed – and substantially what I believe we have in the UK – is a good balance of centre and petals; things in common and things on which we live with and benefit from difference. 

What was interesting for me was when the woman from Brazil stood up and said, for her, there was a fourth option. Her picture was petals within a circle. That’s how she feels about Brazil, their culture is the sum of their petals. I guess a lot depends on the balance of ‘new’ and ‘old’, ‘migrant’ and ‘indigenous’, ‘history’ and ‘present’. A daffodil culture works for me.

My final Narcissus blossomed in a rich conversation over fish, chips and peas on the balance of Kierkegaardian ‘ethical roles’ and the central self. My interlocutor has impressively re-asserted her central self, to rebalance her life and lessen the competing and narcissistic demands of all those making a claim on her.

This set me thinking, and, as I said, once again the daffodil strikes me as the ideal flower. The ‘daffodil life’ wins over everyone with its ramrod straight ethical stalk, a healthy petal spread of life roles. But, it’s the vivid central trumpet of the self that ‘makes’ the flower – just like my little girl. 

Passing a florist today, me and my boy bought our first daffodils of the year after his Birthday lunch. They are a joyous symbol of spring. A wonderful thing the daffodil.