18 Sep True happiness
The secret to true happiness
By MAEVE HARAN
Why aren’t I happier?’ sometimes seems the anthem of our age. We look for happiness everywhere: through work, success, through our choice of partner and even in our home.
And when we don’t find it we turn to shrinks, to life coaches, even to TV makeover shows.
It’s the great contradiction of our times. We have a better lifestyle, more holidays, newer cars, and more disposable income than any previous generation.
Yet we’re unhappier than ever, with a constant stream of statistics about stress, depression, loneliness and even suicide.
In one survey this year, half of those interviewed said they were more stressed than five years ago, with one in three drinking to relieve their unhappiness.
‘It’s the little things that give the greatest contentment’
Another piece of research found that we have fewer than half the number of friends we had in the Sixties.
Of course there are some good reasons for our anxiety. We live in a world where change is fast and we can’t control it.
Work is pressured. Families, once round the corner, are often either fractured or distant.
Even marriage isn’t the reliable safety net against loneliness it once was.
But my own belief is that we are looking for happiness in the wrong places.
Life has taught me to stand back from money, success and approval and view things with a cooler eye.
And it seems to me that a much more reliable source of satisfaction comes from appreciating the little things in life, the small pleasures that do not depend on relationships, money or marriage.
Women are better at this than men. We tend to see life not as a ladder which must be climbed but as a web which stretches outwards through all the different aspects of our lives – home, work, family and friendships – providing hundreds of small satisfactions.
When she was asked what gave her the greatest pleasure in life, Lady Thatcher replied: “Taking the fluff out of the tumble dryer.” I know exactly what she means.
Some tiny tasks do offer an inordinate amount of satisfaction. Even changing a fuse or tidying an airing cupboard can restore a feeling of being in control when life threatens to run away with you.
Some small pleasures are simply about indulgence – wrapping yourself in a warm towel after a bath, feeling the soft kiss of cashmere against your skin, eating good bread, unwrapping a bar of your favourite chocolate.
But the everyday pleasures that bring most happiness, it seems to me, lie in connectedness.
Modern life has severed the connections that once gave it meaning. We no longer live in the place where we were born.
We travel everywhere by car, shop in anonymous supermarkets and often hardly know our neighbours. No wonder we sometimes feel depressed or isolated.
I had a clear lesson in this a few months ago. A removal van drew up opposite my house and I saw a blonde woman talking to the removal man.
“Are you moving in?” I asked. “No,” she replied. “Moving out, I’ve lived here for four years.”
So now I make a point of talking to people. My mother-in-law from Glasgow always used to chat to complete strangers in the street – much to my embarrassment – but I am beginning to realise she was right.
Making contact with other human beings makes you feel instantly better.
Since starting to talk to people I have discovered all sorts of fascinating facts about my area: the paper boy who has been delivering our newspapers for seven years is now 20 and studying Italian and Spanish at university, our greengrocer is a Spurs fan from Cyprus, the local florist was set up in business (with his boyfriend) by his mum and the local wine shop is run by Parisians.
And all this was happening without my noticing.
Now I know all this I feel far more connected to my community and shopping has become much more fun.
There are lots of other small ways we can restore our sense of connectedness: holding the hand of a small child connects you to future generations, recycling connects you to the future of the planet.
And drinking a glass of champagne in the bath connects you to sensual pleasure.
Once I began thinking about the nature of pleasure I realised it is actually quite complex.
Some small pleasures involve relief: that heady feeling when you think something bad is going to happen and it doesn’t…
You come back to your car ten minutes late and discover you haven’t got a parking ticket; you find an important document you’d lost; your suitcase turns up when you thought the airline had lost it.
In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald described happiness as “the relief after extreme tension”. Absolutely.
Other pleasures involve a small sacrifice: you let another motorist into the traffic and are rewarded by a smile of gratitude; you give blood and feel you’re doing something useful.
At my local Sainsbury’s I always resented having to pay a ê_Ô£1 coin to use a trolley and then crossing a main road to take the trolley back; but now, instead of keeping the refunded ê_Ô£1 coin, I have started giving it to the Big Issue seller, along with another 50p, and I quite enjoy the whole experience.
Which brings me to perhaps a particularly female set of pleasures: multi-tasking. Women just love to do two – or even more – things at once.
Trying to fit too much into a day can be the cause of unhappiness and stress, but multi-tasking gives us a sense of clawing back time from the great hamster-wheel of life.
While waiting to pick up a child I often clean out the car with a dustpan and brush; I combine dog walking with shopping, and always empty the dishwasher while the kettle’s boiling.
A friend who has a very high-powered job went even further, she returned her phone calls while sitting on the loo – until an important client sussed out what she was doing and she had to be more discreet.
Even small rituals can give intense pleasure. I used to laugh at my mother for plumping up the cushions on the sofa before she went to bed. Now I do it myself and feel all’s well with the world.
And there’s the great delight to be found simply in objects that perfectly fulfil their purpose.
I especially love suitcases with wheels, remembering as a student how I lugged mine, pre-wheels, across sweltering Athens.
I own a perfect champagne bottle-opener which makes me smile each time I use it, as does the 20-year-old squidgy plastic spatula that removes the last bit of cake-mix.
The natural world, too, is positively bursting with everyday delights: the first crisp days of autumn; the sight of sun sparkling on a dewy spider’s web; picking blackberries; a woodpecker tapping away in your garden. All these are guaranteed to make your spirits sing.
But the small things I find give the greatest pleasure are those which somehow hold an echo of the past: building a fire and watching it crackle is not only pleasurable in itself but has the added joy of feeling it has been done since the beginning of time.
Folding sheets and towels and putting them into an airing cupboard gives you the buzz of feeling you have a well-run household.
I am not wildly domestic (in fact, just like my mother, who was a fulltime doctor and mother of four, I’m more interested in domestic shortcuts than domestic chores) yet I still take great pleasure in hanging clothes on a line, feeling they will be dried by what my Gran would have called “a good drying wind” – as well as saving the planet’s scarce resources.
In fact, I find a surprising number of small pleasures come from what a previous generation would have called “thrift”.
I’m sure the enthusiasm for recycling strikes a chord with many people – especially women – who hate the level of waste in our society.
I derive great satisfaction from the ten minutes I spend every day sorting out wine bottles (too many) from plastics and paper – ignoring my family’s taunts that it probably all goes in the same big hole.
And every time I find a new use for an ice-cream carton I feel positively ecstatic.
In case life’s small pleasures are beginning to sound too worthy, let me assure you there are plenty which are anything but.
Painting your toenails, having a great haircut, giving and receiving sexy massages, Girls’ Nights Out, drinking champagne, eating the froth on your cappuccino. All these are a constant source of delight.
The thing about small pleasures is they can be quite contradictory – I recycle rubbish, yet have a weakness for expensive lingerie; I let other motorists into the traffic, yet often hate giving up a parking space I don’t really need – but who said human beings are consistent.
Appreciating the small pleasures of life, it seems to me, is so much more useful than turning to self-help books.
I used to be quite a mug for these – Be Your Own Life Coach; Cure Your Depression In Thirty Days etc – but I realised I would get halfway through and resent being talked down to.
I especially hated all the advice about decluttering your life both spiritually and physically, either by throwing away your treasured possessions in favour of some ludicrous minimalist fad or even throwing away your dull old friends because they are apparently a drain on our precious emotional resources.
What utter nonsense! Both possessions and old friends, no matter how occasionally annoying, are part of what gives our life meaning.
For centuries small pleasures have lifted women from the drudgery of housework, the exhaustion of family life, the grief of loss and the loneliness of old age.
Our modern pleasures may be different, but they still have the same effect.
In fact being part of that long continuum of female enjoyment of small things is a pleasure in itself.
While I was researching a novel set in the 17th century I came across an entry from the diary of Mary Rich, Countess of Warwick.
She took particular delight, she recorded, in “walking in autumn among dead leaves”, in watching a silk-worm spin and – my particular favourite – in the hen belonging to her cousin, Lady Essex Rich, which always laid her eggs inside the house. And that was the year 1651.
Noticing small pleasures is an attitude of mind – you can look at life and see all the annoyances and disasters – or you can appreciate the little things that are always there for you.
Men may come and go, money has a nasty habit of disappearing, success can prove illusory. But there will always be warm towels, crisp mornings, good bread and Girls’ (or perhaps Old Ladies’) Nights Out to get you through.