How to be happier on purpose

Julie Batty, January 2019

‘We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on that experience.’ 

John Dewey, philosopher and psychologist

So we’ve been through the longest night of the year and the days are beginning to lengthen again.  We’ve made it through the mixed joys and challenges of the festive season – the wonderful/aggravating closeness of family, the delightful/disappointing Christmas presents, the delicious meals/burnt offerings – and we turn towards the New Year variously optimistic, uncertain, tentative and expectant.  A new beginning presents itself as the calendar turns another page.

There are many ways to usher in the turn of the year. When I was a girl we had the tradition of the ‘First Footer’.  The First Footer is the person who steps across the threshold at midnight bringing the luck for the coming year with them.  They bring a piece of coal for warmth, a coin for prosperity, some bread for food, salt for flavour and a drink for good cheer. 

Variations of this ritual are found all over the world and it’s a great starting point for considering what matters to us in our lives. The cargo of the First Footer is a simple representation of what we each need to be happy and fulfilled in our lives. Our basic needs are simple; warmth and shelter, nourishment and nurture, hope and something in the bank.

The influential psychologist Abraham Maslow codified these requirements in his famous Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.  Food, water, sleep and shelter plus physical, emotional and financial security, friendships and family, respect and recognition and finally recognising and attaining our potential.

Like the gifts of the First Footer, it gives us a general and simple map to personal fulfilment or, as Maslow calls it, self-actualisation. 

It’s just one model.  But I like it because it kind of shows us how to build happiness from the ground up. 

The great writer, Virginia Woolf put it rather more grandly:

‘One cannot think well, love well, and sleep well if one has not dined well.’

Maslow might have added, ‘And one cannot self-actualise well without the other four!’

Be a Human Being, not a Human Doing

So as 2018 cross fades into 2019 we have a wonderful opportunity to take stock of how much of these fundamentals we already have, and how we can build more of what we need into the next 12 months. 

The first thing we need is a little time to reflect.  Deep winter is an invitation to take a step back from our constant doing and a nice slow step down into being. The circumstances invite it.  The darkness, the indoor warmth, the extra hour in bed over the holidays…  So before you rush helter-skelter into the doing mode and get yourself sweaty with your new gym membership, take a little pause to stay with yourself for a while.  Consider.  Reflect. Be.

Try This.

The following are all recommended by Professor Richard Wiseman, Britain’s only Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology, and all have studies behind them to prove their efficacy.  They’re also fun to do.

Count your blessings.

Everyone has blessings in their lives: a loving partner, good health, a satisfying job, an absorbing hobby, close friends, clean water to drink…you get the idea.  Trouble is, we quickly get used to our good fortune and take it for granted. 

It’s like when we first walk into a room that smells wonderful – of freshly baked bread, say – a first it’s very pleasurable, but after a few minutes we can’t smell it any more.  We have to leave the room and come back later to get the good feeling again.

It’s the same with our lives.  To recall and appreciate what is good in our lives is the equivalent of leaving the bread-smelling room and coming back again. 

In a psychology study, people who were asked to write down five things that they were grateful for or five things that annoyed them or five ordinary events that had happened in the previous week.  The results were startling.  The grateful people were happier, more optimistic, physically healthier and even exercised significantly more.

So write down a list of things that made you happy in 2018. Science says it’ll make you happier, healthier and fitter in 2019!

Consider what really matters to you.

If you’re unclear about what you’re doing with your life, imagine what a good friend might say about you if they were speaking at your funeral, or a special party to honour you on your 81st birthday.  Imagining what they might say about your personal and professional legacy can really help to identify your long-term goals and assess how far you’re progressing to making those goals a reality.

Visualise your ideal future.

Only instead of fantasising just about your dreams becoming reality, imagine you’re looking at yourself from the perspective of a third person and watching yourself doing the practical things that will bring your goal nearer.  People who did this were 20% more successful in achieving their goals than those who adopted a first-person view.

If you’re really curious about getting a new perspective on your life, and want to make 2019 the year you start to blossom, join us for much more inspiration and fresh perspective on our New Year, New You weekend in London Bridge on the 2nd and 3rd of February.

Happy New Year.  Happy New You.