Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Pursuit of Happiness

At my mum's wedding in April my cousin Katie used my favourite sentence of the year. She looked across at the table beside us and said:

"My ultimate aim in life is always to be as happy as Auntie Nick's happy friend Joy." 

We all laughed out loud. My mum's friend Joy and her husband Dug have always been the happiest people I know. For as long as I can remember they have filled every room with their joy- their smiles genuinely lighting up every occasion and their laughter always heard. This occasion was no different- it was their table that was laughing the loudest- and it both tickled and warmed me that my cousin had noticed their happiness throughout her life as well. 

I don't get to see Joy and Dug very often now that I'm an adult, but a lot of the things that they said around me when I was little have stayed with me, and I spent the rest of the wedding observing and chatting to them with interest. 

My cousin's aim to be as happy as them was an excellent one, I thought, and I was suddenly fascinated by all that they said. 

I was recently on a training course with work which involved looking at the life mission statements of famously successful people. They ranged from Richard Branson and Oprah to a successful American Headteacher and the founder of a soup company. The idea was that we looked at their ultimate aims in life and completed a series of activities in order to eventually be able to write our own. 

I had a fortunate head start here, as I had been on a different training course when I worked for a different company, which involved selecting one of many, many pictures to reflect what we wanted from life. 

I had selected the 'contentment' picture. That was in 2011 and it's stayed with me ever since.

So I wrote my mission statement and I won't go into too much detail but, as you can imagine, it involves lots about happiness. 

The conversations I had at my mum's wedding and over the next few days have stayed with me, internalised themselves along with those magical comments that Joy and Dug made around me as a child, and between those observations and observations of others around me during and since that training, I've come up with a few theories that may well be completely wrong as far as Joy and Dug are concerned, but that I have decided I think might be useful in the pursuit of happiness. 

The main thing is- and I truly do hate to sound like a preacher and/or cliche- you have to take responsibility for your own happiness...

1) Let the little annoying things go.

There seems to be a real culture of blaming everybody else for everything- as though every single move that every other person makes should be with your happiness in mind. 

Now I am- as I hope those who know me will already know- such an advocate of spreading the joy and taking action to bring happiness to those around you.

But I am also very much an advocate of making your own happiness. 

I'm not sure if this is the way the world has always been or whether it's a recent thing- I actually think the internet has a lot to do with the totally unjustified sense of entitlement everyone seems to have but perhaps that's a point to make another time. 

I recently heard a lady genuinely complaining to Sainsbury's customer service because the man who was filling the fruit crates up 'wasn't smiling.' 

Yes he was at work and perhaps that lady would have appreciated a grin flashed her way. But for goodness sake. Even when people are at work they are human beings. Perhaps he'd had bad news. Perhaps he had a tummy ache. Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps he was thinking about what he was going to have for lunch and was so deep in thought he forgot to smile at every single one of the hundreds of shoppers that would have passed by him that day. Perhaps his job is not to bring you joy on your Thursday morning shop, but to make sure the fruit crates are full. 

A few days later I popped to the bank on Chelmsford City High Street at 11am on a Saturday. 

Guess what? 

It was busy. 

Do you know whose fault it was? 


It's just the way of the world. Banks are busy on a Saturday morning because it's when the working folk of Chelmsford do their banking. 

Despite that, there was a man who stood behind me for no more than ten minutes before he was served, complaining. Loudly. For the first seven minutes he was moaning noisily to his wife- in front of his daughter who is learning how to behave from her parents, which is reassuring- that it was 'a bloody joke', 'absolutely ridiculous', he was going to 'move banks after this wait.' I'll let you pop in some particularly foul language wherever you think it might make sense. In fact, to imagine exactly what he was saying, pop some foul language in places it doesn't make sense, then you'll have a clear idea of what we were all listening to. 

For the final three minutes he stood in the middle of the bank declaring- so that absolutely everybody could hear- that he was leaving Natwest because it was such a joke and taking his banking business elsewhere. 

Firstly- if he thought that was anything but a relief for those members of staff who had to deal with him then he's even more naive than he originally seemed, and secondly- I wish him lots of luck finding a bank in a city centre without a ten minute wait on a Saturday morning. 

I'm not saying I'm immune to this, by the way. Just that I've noticed it's a concerning trait in society and something I'm working on not being a part of. A few weeks ago I went for a blood test at 7am (yes, it was just as fun as it sounds) and the lady who took my blood was grumpy to say the least. She said a maximum of four words to me in the time that I was there, just giving one word commands and raising her eyebrows at me. 

I started to voice this to Dale and then heard myself back and rolled my eyes. "I suppose it's not exactly her job to bring me happiness is it? Her job was to take my blood and she did that brilliantly. Barely a mark there now." 

"Yep," Dale nodded, "she's at work taking people's blood at seven am. I think we can forgive her for being less than cheerful." 

He's right. We can. 

There are parts of life and of people that can be frustrating but I don't think the answer is always to solve it. Sometimes the answer might be to just let it go.

2) Try to understand another point of view. If you can't see it, have faith that it's there.

I could probably write a novel on this topic alone: Being Offended. 

Honestly, you can barely order a coffee without offending someone. It's a minefield! But I think that the truth is that in the real world- i.e. not on the internet where people actually choose to spend their time offending people on purpose- very few people set out intending to upset anyone. I think that what people say tends to be a reflection of their own experiences/thoughts/that moment and very little to do with you. 

How often have you walked away and thought 'why did I say that? What an idiot!' Chances are others do that a lot as well. 

I've been keeping track of the ridiculous things that people have said to me in pregnancy. I am going to write a blog post on them at some point. I tell them to Dale, and to Jiminy Cricket and my mum. 

Then the other day I saw a video that another pregnant woman had made about the comments you get during pregnancy, and people were commenting funny things that have been said to them. Then somebody commented 'oh stop taking offence at everything, people have good intentions when they say these things.'

At which point I was mortified. 

Of course they have good intentions. With one genuinely nasty exception I haven't taken offence at any of the comments I've had! They're funny. It's fun to laugh at human nature. Humans are fascinating creatures and great joy can be derived from observing and commenting on them. The majority of successful stand up comedians are commenting on human nature. They're not offended by it, but they've observed it and are discussing it and it's funny. 

All of the comments that I've had I imagine are either a) the things that they wanted to be said when they were pregnant/imagine they would want to be said if they were pregnant or b) nonsense that comes out because they feel that they should probably make some comment about the fact that I'm pregnant but aren't really sure what to say. 

I can't imagine that any of them thought 'what can I say to upset Rebecca?' or 'I'm going to tell Rebecca what I truly think of her size today, she needs to know'. Of course not, they're humans with their own lives to think about and their comments to me are just fillers. It just so happens that my days are filled with fillers now because everyone feels they need to say something about the bump, and so I have a little collection of hilarious comments that have been made. 

In the same way that people have different opinions from me have those different opinions because they have led different lives, have different view points and different priorities. 

The day after mum's wedding I found myself speaking to Dug about a bird sanctuary. He was explaining that one person had been tirelessly fighting for the birds to be fed more expensive, organic food. It would stop them from pecking each other so much, and calm them down throughout the day so that they would have a better quality of life. 

When he explained it like that I totally agreed with him. That's exactly how it should be, I said. 

But then he said that the other person involved had been tirelessly fighting back because this food is so much more expensive that if they were to provide that they would have to house fewer birds. They'd have to get rid of some of the birds, and not be able to save any more. And so the balance was that they were fed this food that provided them with what they absolutely needed but was affordable enough, and were thus able to save more wildlife. 

This is a genuine story he was telling me, but what an excellent fable to remind us that the people who disagree with us have their own reasons, and that there might be an excellent reason that we can't see behind somebody's seemingly wrong or even evil decision. 

I spoke to Dug about a few similar scenarios- he also told me stories about people being angry, upset and offended by him (primarily at work). Between these conversations I came to the conclusion that he and Joy remain happy through their ability to understand and remember that everybody has their own reasons for their decisions, and also to remember that just because somebody is angry, upset or offended doesn't make them right. Plenty of people are angry, upset and offended when they really shouldn't be, and the person who has angered, upset or offended them shouldn't necessarily feel any sense of responsibility at all.

That's the part I'm working on now.

3) Turning the little things into big, heartwarming things.

Observe people. Take great joy in eating. Find the silly. Appreciate everything that everyone does for you that is kind. I am blown away by one kind thing that I witness every day, whether it's my friends offering to drive all the way home behind me so that they can empty my car and save me heavy lifting when I get home, or a seven year old girl bringing me a Maoam in the office and telling me it's because I've 'been working so hard.' I hold onto those moments and won't forget them for a long time. 

And so I will continue to strive to make my own happiness- by letting the little negative things go (car parked too close to mine, man not smiling putting his fruit out, receptionists being grumpy), turning the little positive things into big, heartwarming things (a kid saying he didn't go abroad, he just went to America, having a Dairy Milk with lunch, getting a video of my best friend's baby saying cheese cake) and, of course, by both spreading the joy to others and forgiving myself and others for not being a perfect human in every situation. 

And I'm good at being happy, I like to think. I'm definitely able to turn the little positive things into big heart warming things (I am particularly talented at taking pure happiness from my lunch), I'm improving at letting the little annoying things go, and am very much working on not automatically blaming myself and tearing myself apart over every second of everybody else's happiness. 

And I'm happy. Of course I am. 

I just hope I can take all of these observations and be as happy as Auntie Nick's friend Joy. And, of course, my cousin Katie. 

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