How To Measure Happiness

Tom Toro for The New Yorker

Are we happy? And if so, why does it feel like we’re all going to hell in a handcart? I look around me and all I see are people who are disenfranchised, angry and struggling. But everything should be great though, right? We’ve never had it so good, or is that just how it looks on paper?

Image result for david pilling the growth delusionI’ve just finished reading The Growth Delusion: The Wealth and Well-being of Nations by David Pilling, an economic journalist, who speaks to people like me that tend to glaze over whenever they hear anything to do with figures.  I was instantly drawn by the title, especially after my last post all about decluttering and the adverse affects of consumerism on our health and our environment. It just feels like it’s all getting out of hand.

For our economies to keep moving forward, we must be insatiable. The basis of modern economics is that our desire for stuff is limitless’


A growing economy has long been the way to define success, or how well we are doing as a country. Finance ministers can’t wait to tell us how great our GDP is, but what does it mean and does it really reflect our lived experience?  Essentially, Gross Domestic Product measures the economic activity of a country –  the value of all goods and services produced in a given time. Now that’s all well and good, but what it doesn’t tell you is how well we are doing as a society when it comes to things like equality, the environment or most importantly, well-being. It also assumes that limitless growth is a good thing.

Only in economics is endless expansion seen as a virtue. In biology it is called cancer.

It feels like there is a change coming, a revolution perhaps, that will seek to overthrow this idea that everything should be sacrificed in the name of GDP. Whether it is the new generation of protesters inspired by Greta Thunberg and her calls for action on the environment, or people like historian Rutger Bregman who gave that now infamous speech on taxes in Davos. (Here’s a link if you’ve missed it, which also includes the Executive Director of Oxfam, Winnie Byanyima talking about developping countries and the effects of globalisation.)

Pilling is calling for a move beyond GDP and new ways of measuring our progress, as much of what we care about as human beings is left out of our economic calculations. The length of time we spend commuting, healthcare, volunteer work, pollution and unpaid housework just don’t feature in this magical number. However it is GDP that drives government policy and ultimately shapes our society, and maybe that’s why there is such a sense of inequality when it comes to the distribution of wealth. When the measurements the experts use to measure it do not reflect our economic reality, there will always be a discrepancy.

And it’s this gulf that might explain the discord among ‘the working poor’,who are constantly being told that things are great, and yet they cannot afford to buy a home or access the healthcare they need.

If your country’s economy is growing solely because the rich are getting richer and if you are working harder and harder just to maintain your living standard, then you are entitled to ask what, precisely, is all this growth for?

All of this disillusionment might go some way towards explaining why people voted for Trump and why people voted for Brexit. We all know the money is going somewhere, but we don’t know where, and that whole idea of ‘trickle down economics’ is clearly not working. So we try to use our democratic vote to change things, only to discover we might have gone from the frying pan into the fire. Pilling’s book also talks about ‘deaths of despair’ and the rising rate of suicide. If it’s all about the economy stupid (as Bill Clinton once said) then why do people feel so hopeless at a time when things have never been better?

The expanding economy has not benefited workers who produced that growth, but rather the owners of capital.

But speaking of Britain, I came across this article in the Guardian recently which could give cause for hope:  ‘Wellbeing should replace growth as ‘main aim of UK spending’

Personal well-being rather than economic growth should be the primary aim of government spending, according to a report by the former head of the civil service and politicians.

This is so heartening to read and reinforces the need for change. Of course it’s difficult to get people on board with the happiness factor when dealing in dollars, pounds and euros, and anyone suggesting more holistic alternatives are labelled as leftie snowflakes (or whatever derogatory term is now en vogue for people who genuinely care for the well-being of society.) But if we’re not working for the betterment of society and our fellow woman, then what are we doing all of this for? To make the rich richer, some might say. The government’s job is to do what is best for the majority of its citizens. I’m not sure that’s what happened here during the banking crisis, when the government decided to bail out the banks – saddling Irish citizens with years of debt. As Pilling puts it:

Banking is socialism for the wealthy and capitalism for everyone else.

As you can tell, this book got me all fired up! It’s a really eye-opening read and looks past all of the jargon that tends to put people off economics (which is probably what those in charge are counting on!). We need to be informed so we can make better choices and demand more from our governments. Whether it’s an overhaul of our welfare system (and where would the creative arts sector be without that) and introducing a basic income like Finland (which – surprise,surprise – made people happier!) or introducing a four day work week, we need to make changes that will lead to a greater sense of fulfillment, dignity and happiness. This is only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a good place to start.

Be More You


“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

Dolly Parton.

I saw this quote on Twitter the other day from the movie Dumplin’ and simply had to ‘borrow’ it immediately! We don’t get this message enough – Be More You! This time of year is always associated with being a better you – a better version of yourself. Gyms have made a fortune out of our annual guilt and the rush to become someone else. But where did all of this start?

New Year’s resolutions have been around for quite a long time (according to Wikipedia!). The Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. So for all you book lenders, now’s the time to turn the screws on all those friends/neighbours/relations who haven’t returned them yet. The Romans made promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. And in the Medieval era, the knights took the ‘peacock vow’ at the end of Christmas to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry.

However, the whole idea of self-sacrifice or self-improvement has really jarred with me over the last few years. I’ve hopped on a bandwagon that’s headed in the other direction, the one that asks – ‘What can I do more of this year? What do I love doing? What will make me happier?’ In a world where we are constantly being told to be our best beautiful, or whatever, we are seldom (if ever) taught to value who we really are. Or how to cultivate a life that honours our true self.

One good thing about getting older is that we get a better sense of ourselves and are a little less influenced by others and their opinions of us. Just as in my writing, I’m aiming for the kind of authenticity that comes when you stop trying to be something you’re not and begin to embrace who you are. As David Bowie once said:

Aging is an extraordinary process ... ~ David Bowie                                                                                                                                                     More

I think the knights had it right – New Year is a wonderful opportunity to re-affirm your commitment to be yourself. You don’t need to change, or improve (not unless it’s what you want) and besides, as Arnold Beisser once said in his paradoxical theory of change:

Why Affirmations Don't Work | Gestalt psychotherapy proposes the “Paradoxical Theory of Change.” According to the theory, “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.“

So my wish for you all and for myself in the New Year, is to be more of who we really are. It’s our diversity that makes us interesting, our fallibility that makes us endearing and human. There is enough conformity in the world – so break out and be you with bells on! As Dr. Seuss said, there is no-one alive who is youer than you 🙂

Happy New Year!


Why The ‘Hygge’ Are We So Stressed?!


I’ve noticed a growing trend in advertising over the last few years (you know advertising; those people who tell us what sort of lifestyle we should have in order to be happy? Yep, them.)  Last night I watched a new car ad, whose marketing department decided they needed to target women.  So they told the story of a young, successful woman who began her day by deep-sea diving (as you do), then drove to work where she spent a ‘hectic’ day at the office making extremely important decisions and telling mostly men what to do, followed by a night out at some pretentious venue where she picks up a total randomer (shags him, we assume) and arrives home at sleepy o’clock in her shiny new car.  After a jam-packed day that left me feeling exhausted just watching her, she assures us in a breathy voice that she wouldn’t have it any other way – ominously implying that she will do the same thing again tomorrow.

This was swiftly followed by an ad for mascara, where an angry-looking young woman is out-running some male secret agents while looking FLAWLESS.  The voice over artist tells us that her mascara is UNSTOPPABLE, while the pristine model runs away in impossibly high heels.  This is followed by an ad for make-up that is INFALLIBLE!!  And I’m sitting on my couch thinking, what?  What’s the message here?  Expect more, don’t relax, be busy, seek perfection, ACHIEVE, keep moving, life is a battle and we need to fight it head on, whilst remaining impeccably groomed and loving every f&*king minute of it!!!

And these were the ads for women without kids.  I can only imagine that the car ad for mothers would involve her literally juggling three kids in the air whilst steering the car with her foot and preparing an eco-friendly meal in the glove compartment.  Because as well all know ladies, you can have it all.  But do you really want it?

Conversely, we are all lurching from one ‘get relaxed quick’ scheme to another.  The publishing industry enjoyed an unexpected boom last year from sales of adult colouring books – the hangover from the previous year’s attempt to introduce us all to mindfulness (which nobody really understood).  ‘Just be in the moment!’  it proclaimed.  Something that easy shouldn’t require any effort, and we all sat there in the lotus position wondering how long it would take to be mindful.  Is it happening yet?  Am I relaxed??  This year it’s Hygge.  As if we need the Danes to tell us how to light a few candles and chill the f@%k out (sorry for all the expletives!)  Don’t we know how to do this without having to buy a bloody book about it?  Clearly not.  We have lost our ability to just BE.  And every marketing department the world over is taking advantage of it.  They’re selling us the cause and the cure.

I recently had a chat with my sister about something I saw on Twitter (which she hadn’t read) and she went on to explain that there just wasn’t time for all of the information that kept coming at her.  By the time you’ve followed the link and flicked through 800 different opinions about the thing and eventually tried to form your own, the world has moved on to the next thing, with more information and it’s just never ending!!  Social media has us worked up into a frenzy over issues that we really have no control over, so our rage and sense of injustice has nowhere to go.  There is no practical outlet for us to affect change on the world around us, so we just tweet our frustrations away.  I don’t really know when all of this change happened.  I suppose every generation bemoans the next, but wasn’t it better when we had more time to just flop about and naval gaze for a while, without feeling guilty about it?  Is reaching for our phones every two seconds a way of distracting ourselves or deluding ourselves into believing that we’re doing something.. anything?  I was starting to wonder if this was just the general malaise of being a grown up, but then I read a great post by Misha Kahn’s  called ‘When are you going to be enough for yourself?’  I think she really hits the nail on the head of our ‘be busy’ culture with this thought:

I started to believe that if I wasn’t being productive, I was failing.

Is this how ‘they’ want us to feel?  Are we somehow being programmed to work harder, better, faster, stronger, with the only watchman being our own guilty conscience?  I’m no conspiracy theorist (am I?) yet I can’t help but wonder if this ideal of being an over-achiever is eroding our natural state of being?  After all, we are human beings, not human doings.  Yet the first thing people ask when they meet you is ‘What do you do?’  An author friend of mind just published a book and I was alarmed to see how many people barked the words, ‘Have you written the next one  yet?’  I mean, back off people, just enjoy the moment.  Like the annoying kid at school who scribbled furiously on their test paper while you sat there doodling, some people can’t wait to make you feel unproductive (the horror!), or worse, rub their productivity in your face.  Ewwww!

It’s a long time since I first read Tom Hodgkinson’s book How To Be Free  and while he may not have all the answers, his suggestion of painting murals on the ceiling so we can spend more time looking at it, isn’t the worst I’ve heard!  His mission is to bring back the days of merriment and self-sufficiency and really, who can argue with that?

‘Tom shows that consumer society has led not to a widening of freedoms but to the opposite and that the key to a free life is to stop consuming and start producing.’

It’s true, modern life has turned us into willing slaves of our screens so we are constantly switched on.  Even during our recreation time, we are still consuming because that’s what we’re told to do through these types of aspirational lifestyle marketing campaigns.  Check out Tom’s website ‘The Idler’ where you can connect with people who aren’t shackled by this notion of ‘performance guilt’ for want of a better term.  Life isn’t all about working hard and partying hard, which again, sounds like more work!  I’ve always felt that statement implies that you don’t deserve to have fun unless you’ve slogged your guts out working.  We could all use a little anarchy, especially when we are being brainwashed into finding happiness at the shopping mall or salvation in over-achievement.  Maybe, just maybe, our achievements do not define us and happiness is really about finding pleasure in the simple, everyday things that cannot be measured, bought or sold.


Great Expectations -vs- Simple Things

copyGreat Expectations has to be my favourite Dickens novel – probably because I studied it at school and found an instant affinity with Pip.  He started out quite happy with his lot (which wasn’t much) but he had a fierce ally in Joe, his older sister’s husband, and aspired to become a blacksmith just like him.  But when he is anonymously bequeathed an inheritance by a wealthy benefactor, things change for Pip.  Suddenly, he is expected to become a ‘Gentleman’ and is thus taught that everything he once held dear is twee and without value.

Expectations can be a double edged sword.  On the one hand, it’s good to have ambition, but you have to be aware of the cost (and there is always a cost) of what you are trying to achieve.  We are the generation who expects more and from whom more is expected.  The feminist movement brought about greater equality and opportunities, but also greater pressure to fulfill them.  All of the opportunities.  All at the same time!  Social media creates even more pressure for generation Y because every day they’re bombarded with friends climbing the Andes for charity or completing a triathlon while getting married.  Not to mention, how to achieve the perfect brow… because that is VITALLY important and key to your success as an individual.  Nothing seems to hold any value today unless there is some achievable goal at the end of it.  Something we can take a picture of and laud over all our online friends.  It’s all too much and you start to wonder if maybe you would have been happier back in the forge with Joe.

Choice is a great thing, but too much choice can be overwhelming and the race to make the most of everything leads to a life full of vapid experiences to be checked off the list.  We are here to enjoy life, not squeeze the living daylights out of it, and yet you are made to feel unambitious if you just want to ‘settle’ for a contented life.  We shouldn’t abandon the things in life that once brought us joy, just because their value cannot be monetised.  Perhaps, putting away childish things is a mistake.

A recent article on Six simple ways to be happy, extols the benefits of ordinary, everyday activities that can create more happiness than climbing the career ladder or deepening your relationship with your screen (or even blogging!).  Things like gardening, singing, listening to music and being in nature can enhance one’s sense of well-being.  Things that were commonplace a few  years ago have been pushed to the side as a ‘luxury’ in our time-poor generation.  For me, it’s painting.  When I tear the plastic off a new blank canvas and unscrew the lid on my paints, I lose myself in a world that does not measure time by minutes and hours, but by brushstrokes and layers of paint.  Who needs to do a course on mindfulness meditation when all you have to do is get into the garden and plant some flowers, or go for a walk by the sea collecting shells.  As someone recently told me, ‘Achievements are overrated’, and do you know, I think he’s right.  It’s time to question whether or not our great expectations are making us happy.  It’s time to step away from the screen and the addictive need for validation.  It’s time to find pleasure in the simple things.

Meadow This painting in no way resembles my garden!


Can Reading Make You Happier? Probably!

book_of_rose_flower_pink_soft_nature_hd-wallpaper-1562660 Read a book for what ails you…

We’ve all had that experience – when the exact book we need just happens to come along at the right time.  Maybe it’s a break-up, or a health issue, or just feeling ‘stuck’ in  your life, when a book that seems to speak to you and your life situation directly, magically finds its way to your lap.  Perhaps it was a friend who insisted, ‘Oh you have to read this book, it really helped me through x, y or z’, or it could have been a chance discovery in a library or a review you read in a magazine.  But for all this glorious happenstance, what if there was someone who could prescribe the perfect book for you?  Say hello to the bibliotherapist!  For some time now, bibliotherapy has been used by the health service to recommend various self-help books as a means of providing psychological therapy for people experiencing emotional difficulties.  However, is it possible that fiction can hold similarly helpful insights, while telling a story and reaching our subconscious in a more subtle and entertaining way?

Ceridwen Dovey’s article in The New Yorker, is written around her experience with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence.  Following her session with the bibliotherapist, she was ‘prescribed’ certain books that were relevant to her life situation.  After a year of working her way through the reading list, she commented:

‘In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence…’

What’s more, reading has been shown to be very good for our health and well-being.  According to the article, studies have shown that readers of fiction tend to be better at empathising with others and that reading can ‘improve social abilities and move us emotionally – prompting changes of self-hood’.   Ceridwen concludes:

‘Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm’.

So, if you ever needed a reason to read more and carefully consider your reading choices, bibliotherapy is it!  Reading fiction offers us the greatest escape; where we can literally lose ourselves (or our ego at least) in another world of possibility and untold futures.  Characters who lodge in our hearts with their feisty attitudes, or their ability to turn a terrible situation into something beauty, can in turn help us to re-frame our own attitudes to a particular situation.  Just the very act of taking time out of life to drift away on the prose of a well-crafted book, is a gift to ourselves and an oasis from the demands of modern life.

For those of us who can’t make it to a bibliotherapist, there are plenty of resources online where you can find reading lists and recommendations for every kind of challenge life can throw at  you.  Here is a list of bibliotherapy books on Goodreads and a mood-boosting list from the Reading Agency and if you have any recommendations of fiction books that helped you through a challenging time, please add them in the comments below.