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Warning: May Cause Happiness

Warning: May Cause Happiness

It’s no coincidence that the first day of spring and the International Day of Happiness fall almost on the same day. (Well for those of us in the Northern hemisphere at least, our antipodean and south-of-the-equator friends are entering their Autumn). There’s something about spring that is inherently optimistic.

Even those who enjoy the hibernation and hunkering down and hygge of the winter, look up and forward in spring. A spring in your step as we spring forward; even our language reflects the feeling this changing of the seasons brings. For those of us who struggle a little in winter, those first green shoots and the lighter evenings bring promise of brighter days – outside and inside.

Although 20th March is the official first day of spring, in my head that should really be the day the clocks confuse everyone and go forward in the UK (Sunday 25th in case you’re wondering)- losing an hour in the morning is a cheap price to pay for lighter evenings in my book. I’ve been counting down to this day since the shortest day at winter solstice – I always feel a sense of relief at having made it to end of the drawing-in nights, knowing that by minutes each day the days are getting longer and spring is now nearer than further away. So this time of year is well and truly tied up with the concept of lightness, brightness and happiness for me. The proximity of a handful of bank holidays helps too.

This equinox though, it’s a little different. It’s strange to be writing this on the last days of winter, with expectations more of spring, but this winter seems to have bitten harder in the last couple of weeks than it has all season. Just two days before official spring and there’s a mad mix of winter/spring confusion everywhere I look.

The daffodil buds in my house opening wide and yellow, crocus bright against the white snow and grey sky, an icy bite of cold on my face, icicles hanging from the gutters, enough snow on the back garden table to make a good few snowballs. Snowflake flurries swirling sideways obscuring the view in a dim, dim sky, where yesterday was bright blue, a murmuration of starlings over my Close as I drive back to my house early evening, an urge to declutter, soup and salad in the fridge for weather-appropriate lunch options.

Last weekend we were teased with a tingling of warm on our skin, big coats left at home, today the gloves and hats are back out and people wouldn’t look out of place in the Alps. The old adage that March ‘comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’ might well be reversed this year. A meme struck a chord: it likened the beast from the east and the mini beast to someone having a really bad day, who stormed out, shouting and slamming the door, only to return a short time later saying, ‘and another thing!’ I hope they calm down and come back in a few days with a sheepish smile offering a cup of tea.

The changing of seasons – and all that it brings in expectation and optimism- is the perfect time to tune into nature and use this as an opportunity to reflect and to plan, much more natural (and likely successful) than the randomised 1st January resolutions that start with the growl of a lion and end in the mewl of a lamb.

How apt then, that the 5th International Day of Happiness is on hand to remind us of the real meaning of success and progress. A celebratory day created by the United Nations to reflect the changing notions that happiness and wellbeing, not just the economy, should be used as a measure of success by their member states. The World Happiness Report regularly cites Nordic countries as the happiest, the new report just released for 2018 awards Finland the coveted title. UK is 19th. Out of 156. Maybe we can learn a thing or two. (Note: Chester has just yesterday been awarded 5th best place to live in the UK, so maybe we can feel a little bit smug Cestrians!)

It’s a trend I’m seeing more and more in every day life – that happiness and the proactive pursuit of it is now an every day theme, in fact you can’t miss it – it’s almost at saturation point. In many ways it’s a positive movement, fuelled by promoting wellbeing and underwritten by positive psychology – a sincere effort to help humans realise their best selves in a disconnected and often tough world that gets busier, faster and more furious every day. In other ways, the hard currency of happiness is a windfall for wily business – what brand doesn’t want to be associated with happiness?

‘Warning: May Cause Happiness’ is printed on the coated-cardboard single use hot toastie carrier from a well known coffee chain (I’m not advertising them!) – at first it made me smile a little (oh, what a fun, quirky marketing team they must have!), so maybe it did its job, but then, looking deeper, I felt manipulated.

Yes it was tasty, yes it was a nice way to fuel my next few hours, but was it happiness? What’s the flip side: ‘Sad? Buy a coffee and a toastie… Sorted!’

It’s this jump-on-the-bandwagon brand activity that bothers me – subtly and slyly tying happiness to purchase, cheerfulness to consumerism, joy to the instant high of spending. Tote bags command us ‘Be Happy’, cheap made-in-China products scream Buddhist doctrine, Instagram memes fill our screens with insta-happy quotes for online likes, celebrities release books called ‘Happy’, to add to those already available: ‘The Happiness Advantage’ (to fuel performance at work as being happy is not enough, obvs), ‘The Happiness Equation’, ‘The Happiness Industry’ and ‘The Happiness Trap’. There are even Happiness recipes you can schedule to cook in your Happiness planners. The Happiness Research Institute based in Copenhagen invites you to take an online masterclass in happiness …for £70. Exhausting! And expensive!

In the spirit of this year’s theme: ‘Share Happiness’ I’ll share the few thoughts that I’ve gleaned from the hijacking of happiness by the media and commerce (at the risk of adding to the overload, I’ll keep it simple, one for every letter of Happiness). Oh and none of it costs a bean. And if you want more, well, you can look pretty much anywhere or just wait awhile and a new idea on happiness will surely come across your path pretty soon.

H– Help others. Serotonin switches on when we help others – do good to feel good.

A – Appreciation. Take a moment to be grateful for what you have – friends, family, a roof over your head, a spot of sunshine on a grey day. The little things matter.

P– People. Being socially connected (in real life wherever possible) is a sure-fire way to increase happiness

P – Purpose. Being intentional and having a purpose in life however small or personal, is a solid base for contentment (note this does not mean short term goals e.g. get that job or that car – research shows that once we get what we want happiness quickly returns to ‘normal’ levels).

I – Interest. In people, in events, be curious, try something new, keep learning and discovering.

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N – Nice. Be nice. Simples.

E – Expectations, like the weather on this spring day, there are things we can’t control. The best way to be happy is to manage what we can control – our reactions. Will it matter in a year? No. Then don’t sweat it.

S – Self care. You all know how we feel when we’re tired – is that how you want to be? No? Then lights out at a reasonable hour, most of the time. And resist the lure of smartphone sleepy scrolling. It’s not selfish to eat right, exercise, tale some ‘me time’, or recharge when energy is low. It’s essential.

S – Spend time outside. Nature. Fresh air. Feet on the ground (real ground, grass or beach). Be near, in, or on the water. Get active. Take a long deep breath and pause.

Wild card – Find your happy. Music, exercise, dancing with abandon in your living room, getting lost in painting or doing a puzzle, wasting time cloud gazing. Whatever works for you.

And if none of that works, well we can always move to Finland. Remember on this day of new beginnings: Happiness is not a toastie, it’s Finland.

Note: this post was brought to you with the first line of Florence & The Machine Dog Days Are Over: ‘Happiness… hit her like a train on a track’ running over and over through my head. Apologies if it’s now in your head.

***As with all celebration days, it can be difficult for those who don’t feel included – please reach out and contact Mind or talk to someone if today or any day is difficult for you.

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