Life passes rapidly and it is important that every now and again we stop, stand still and reflect on what really matters. For me this was the question ‘what is happiness?’ At the start of the year I resolved to find out through becoming happier – not because I was unhappy, far from it, but because I was curious to see if it is possible to shape and improve your mood through focused self-development. ‘Happiness isn’t permanent – lives change, pleasures fade, bad things happen – but if we choose to pursue happiness, then it can become not so much a condition as a destination. It can inspire journeys’ (A L Kennedy). As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to look back on the ‘journey’ I’ve taken this year and consider what went well; and what didn’t go quite so well.
Before I go any further I want to state quite categorically that my ambitious Happiness Project has to be one of the best things I’ve ever done in terms of life enrichment, resulting in a pretty amazing year – most, if not all, of the biggest events were a direct result of feeling inspired by and committed to seeing my monthly targets right through to the bitter end. On the whole, I have become happier – whether this will be a permanent state of mind is another matter, but in the hustle and bustle of everyday life it has been a revelation to pause regularly and reflect on life in general, my own feelings and those of others around me.
I really cannot recommend the project highly enough. So, if you’re stuck for a New Year’s resolution for 2016 this is all you have to do…
Essentially you must come up with one resolution for each of the 12 months, plus an overarching set of personal mantras (as I type this, I realise I forgot all about the latter by about week six!). Most of the month resolutions were ‘stolen’ from Gretchin Rubin’s book ‘The Happiness Project’, which I picked up in a charity shop for a quid and read over the 2014 Christmas holidays. Each chapter in the book had a monthly theme which gave ideas for how to tackle the objective, plus relevant research to support your understanding – all written in a very accessible way. Just in case you cannot face scrolling back through my year of inane blogging to the very first weeks of January to see how this actually worked in practice, here’s a summary of what I set out to do.
Personal Mantras (the bit I forgot!)
These were meant to ‘sit behind’ everything:
- The days are long but the years are short
- Feel the fear but do it anyway
- Be true to myself
- Act the way I want to feel
- The only person I can change is myself
- Do not give in too much to feelings
Monthly Resolutions (these became the driving force behind 2015)
January: Boost energy
February: Aim higher
March: Remember love
April: Lighten up
May: Be serious about play
June: Make time for friends
July: Buy some happiness
August: Explore the world and the heavens
September: Pursue a passion
October: Pay attention
November: Keep a contented heart
December: Boot Camp perfect
If you’re still reading at this point I will take it as said that you are curious to know why this worked for me – either that, or the Christmas viewing is particularly dire (did anyone else notice that they are repeating ‘Chas and Dave’s Xmas Party’ from 1985? It was totally grim the first time round!). Perversely, I will start with what did not work, which is not to say it won’t work for you.
Even at the beginning I knew, deep down in in my heart, that regular blogging about the project just wasn’t going to happen – if you look back at the frequency of my postings, they start quite efficiently in January, tailing off to once or twice a month by the year end. This means that blogging as an ambition in itself is never going to get me up there with thousands of followers (though it creates a discipline for writing) – but, on the plus side, it does mean that I haven’t bothered so much with Facebook postings, just putting out there the occasional blog link that those who want to click, can. If they haven’t deleted me as a friend in the meantime, that is. Perversely, though, when I entered a competition to write a travel blog I failed to even get shortlisted – but I did get ‘the bug’ for writing online, leading to my two biggest successes of the year. This has taught me that, whilst you might not achieve in life what you initially set out to do, there may be unexpected rewards that you discover by at least getting started and then choosing to change direction.
Somewhere back in the early months I vaguely remember making a commitment to go no more than two days without exercising, with this failing quite spectacularly as early as February when I put my back out picking up my handbag – my first sick leave in seven years (if you don’t include the day I took off due to catching norovirus through manning the sick bay on that residential trip when no one else would – bitter, moi?) £500 plus worth of initial chiropractor treatment, plus a monthly outlay on maintaining the status quo was not quite what I envisaged! But, if I stop and think about it, as part of the process of reducing the risks of it happening again I have devised a five minute ‘first thing in the morning core strength routine’ which I stick to religiously, so maybe I haven’t failed on the exercise bit after all?
Finally, in February my resolution was to ‘Aim Higher’ and I’ve certainly done so career wise throughout the year. However, without revealing too much this remains an aspect to review in 2016, including that fine balance between tackling further professional development on my own versus seeking the support of others. The most frustrating bit about this is that I am not getting any younger!
Looking back at those three paragraphs, in reality the first two are not failures at all – and the third still has time to come good, as not everything sits neatly within a one year timescale. That means my Happiness Project has all been a success! Yay!
The reason ‘why’ is quite simple – it has given me a focus for change.
At the start of each month I disciplined myself to check back on the target set at the beginning of the year and write an introductory post on the blog, updating this during the month if I remembered, and to unfailingly write a conclusion at the month’s close. That way the objective was always tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind and I actively sought ways of achieving it, however tenuously, so that I had something to write about. Out of this very simple plan came the year’s biggest victories:
- My writing skills improved when I wrote about Loch Ard Cemetery for the World Nomad Travel Scholarship, which was spotted by a friend who was following my blog – and whilst I didn’t win or even get shortlisted, I loved the process of revisiting one of my happiest memories from the year before when we travelled to Australia
- I have enjoyed lots of opportunities for increased creativity, including writing this blog and getting to know my ‘new’ camera, adding yet another personal ambition to become the best photographer I can be (this one has run in the background throughout the entire year, plus various stages of my life beforehand, and will continue to do so for ever, I hope – I love taking pictures and messing about with them on the computer)
- These skills, combined with actively seeking online opportunities with a ‘link’ to that month’s Happiness Project aim, then made a direct contribution to two of the year’s biggest successes: I sought other opportunities for travel and let others know I was doing so (and a second friend spotted this one for me) including writing an application to The British Council for a fully funded trip to China which was subsequently awarded – not just once, but twice so that two of us could go; I also engaged with the local community by entering their Arts Festival competition during the halcyon summer holidays, winning first prize for a short story and getting to shake hands with Sir Terry Wogan, no less
- My ego has grown bigger as a consequence!
- The modern ‘vice’ of consumerism was repackaged as a sense of being consumed by the pursuit of happiness – whenever I used that argument to justify spending money, my conscience remained clear! I have always been thrifty, but I have learnt that you really can’t take it with you, so make sure you enjoy spending whilst you can – ideally on ‘experiences’ and not on ‘stuff’
- Relationships have taken centre stage – Tim and I have spent more quality time together than in previous years and family life was enhanced and developed when Joe came home for a couple of weeks; old friendships have been challenged, strengthened and renewed, whilst new friendships have deepened or have begun from empathy, a point of shared interest or a mutual curiosity about the world
- August’s aim of ‘Exploring the Heavens’ somehow ‘morphed’ into attending an Alpha Course at St. Mary’s Church, Hitcham, with life changing implications in terms of faith and spirituality – and serendipity doesn’t come any better than being invited to attend a Catholic Deputy Head Conference about, wait for it, happiness! Interestingly, whilst there the Bishop shared that he had heard of ‘The Happiness Project’, though he didn’t let on whether he had read it or not …
- Feeling impelled to have something to write about has also meant that I have found the courage to travel abroad twice totally on my own (Amsterdam and Paris), and would have gone to China alone had the second place for a colleague not been offered (though I can’t deny I was hugely relieved to have a friend to go with!)
Overriding all of this, though, has been the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing something through to the end and loving (almost) every moment of the journey along the way. Even the personal mantras which I explicitly ‘forgot’ somehow became an implicit part of much of what I achieved.
Have I found true happiness? Well, I have certainly had a great time looking for it! What I do know is that for me ‘happiness’ is quite simple. I believe that if you can learn to appreciate the good things in your life, remain resilient against setbacks, constantly seek adventure and embrace change with confidence, you will be well on the way to contentment. If you need any more inspiration, consider this.
Dr Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic suggests ‘four simple steps that will banish the blues’.
Train your attention – wake up with gratitude, resist judgement, enjoy nature and express kindness
Get emotionally tough – when things go wrong, try to focus on what right within what went wrong
Connect your mind and body: read more, exercise, embrace music, art, prayer, mindfulness
Pick healthy habits: eat sensibly, simplify your life, pick your battles, lighten up
There is definitely something in this – with hindsight, my monthly targets can be interpreted as including one or more of Dr Sood’s suggestions; the successful outcomes have contributed to my sense of happiness and fulfilment at the end of December.
Let me give a final piece of advice to anyone who has read right to the end of this blog. Do consider setting up your own Happiness Project, I genuinely believe you won’t regret doing so. You don’t have to blog, though you will have to create some form of self-discipline to ensure you see it through – and for me, the commitment to write about each month was what kept me going. You can start your project at any time of the year and it would be wise to spend a couple of weeks planning the way forward. I would recommend reading the book first (or at the very least, scrolling back through this blog) for inspiration.
Which brings me to my own New Year’s resolution for 2016 – I’m keeping it short this time.
Just one word.