Every so often my wife's parents invite us away for an extended family holiday. Not 'extended' as in a really loooong holiday. 'Extended' as in there are lots of people. Of different generations.
Now, I'm going to gloss over the issues that generates, most notably getting 18 people to agree on 'what are we going to do today?' Instead, it gives me a great opportunity to reflect on one particular meal. A table was reserved for 18 people (no mean feat in itself) and we turned up and sat in age layout. The 'oldies' (retired, grandparents) were to my left and the youngies (school or uni) to my right. As one of those 40-somethings (job & responsibilities), I plonked myself somewhere in the middle with the other 'middlies'.
The first question is, where do I belong? To my left the conversation immediately went negative. Driven by the news, they were talking about whatever BBC News 24 was reporting on that particular day. They then drifted towards the current state of education and how there was no discipline in classrooms. It was getting a bit ranty. On such a balmy Portuguese evening, I wasn't keen to go there.
To my right the youngies were laughing uproariously. Ranging in age from 8 to 19, they were all (and I mean all) gawping at their mobiles. Taking selfies, swapping YouTube clips and chatting about pop starts and reality TV. To be honest, I hadn't much of clue so I didn't much fancy joining in there either.
So, what's a 'middlie' to do? Do I lean towards the slightly somber 'back in the day' oldies or am I with the carefree 'today is the day' youngies?
I've been studying the science of happiness for the last 10 years so I guess the answer is 'I learn'. You see, the ageing process is inevitable. You can look after yourself, go to the gym, each healthy food, moisturize and take Centrum, but ultimately, those birthday cards will have bigger numbers on them year by year. The days are relentless. You get about 29,000 of them. Tick, tick, tick...
But what if it isn't about vitamins and Nivea? What is the secret of eternal youth was in our heads - our thinking more specifically. And we could maintain some of that youthful, carefree exuberance that the youngies managed to generate. They're not fussed about the news. And, to be fair, they don't have the same responsibilities of career, money, mortgage, bills, looking after poorly relatives, etc. No wonder they're so happy!
Brace yourself for some big thoughts. As we go through life we accumulate experiences and add layers of who we think we should be. We're striving to be a good parent or a good employee, partner, lover and carer, whilst also keeping on top of our emails. There's certain etiquette about how we think we should behave in certain situations. And, to be frank, life can get a bit serious. We become mummified under layers and layers who we think we're supposed to be.
But what if all those layers means we sometimes forget who we really are? What if we all have that youthful abundance bubbling inside but it gets covered over? And therefore what if the secret to eternal happiness isn't to learn a whole load of new stuff? What if the secret to being our best self is to peel back some of the layers to reveal who you truly are when you're being your best self. It's more than self-improvement. I call it 'self-remembering'.
For example, can you pinpoint the exact time that jumping in puddles became a bad idea? When did getting buried in the sand on Yarmouth beach become tiresome? When did you stop being the youth of today and start being irked by them?
Because, at some point in your life, all were awesome opportunities to be deliriously giddy.
Now, let me be clear, I want this article to be thought-provoking and uplifting, not depressing! But here's another big thought. Whatever age you are now, the chances are that when you look back in twenty years, these are the good old days! So, top tip, rather than waiting twenty years to look back fondly on today, why not try enjoying today - today!
But how, when the morbid obesity of responsibility is sitting squarely on your chest? The science of happiness is fairly straight-forward. I describe it as 'simple, but not easy'. So here are some top tips, in case you need to do some self-remembering:
1. Almost too obvious to mention (but I will!) is the fact that happiness is more closely related to relationships rather than money. I appreciate that a lot of people want to take me to task on this, arguing they'd be happier if they won the lottery. And the short answer is, yes you would, for about 6 months, until the effect wears off. So a better long-term strategy is to create strong relationships. So spend time with people rather than in Westfield
2. Related to the point above - if you don't believe me, write a list of 10 things you appreciate but take for granted. The chances are that your health and 'people' will feature very heavily on your list. Keep your list by your bed and look at it every morning. Be grateful for what you already have!
3. In relationships, make sure you are positive in what you say and do. There's a basic rule that says relationships need at least 3 positives to every negative. If your ratio falls below 3:1 it will struggle. If you have children, it's better to be ultra-positive, so a positive to negative of 6 to 1 is better. That doesn't mean you have to be ridiculously smiley and upbeat (if you start to scare people, that's too far!) but asking your children 'what's been the highlight of your day at school?' is better than 'how was school?'
4. Practice the 4-minute rule. This is a phrase that came from a guru friend of mine, Steve McDermott and I love its simplicity. Basically, your emotions are contagious. They leak out of you and 'infect' those around you. So, when you make the conscious choice to be positive and upbeat, it takes 4 minutes for other people to catch it too. So, top tip, be enthusiastic for 4 minutes and everyone else will feel great too!
5. Stop musterbating (careful how you pronounce that one!). Musterbators are people who seek happiness in 'things' rather than 'moments'. Every advert on the TV is designed to make you unhappy with what you currently own, luring you into the shops to spend money on products that will make you happy. And those products will make you happy, for an hour or two, until the next advert! This 'must have' society is driving us into debt! Here's another list to write... the top 10 happiest moments of your life. I'll wager that most of your top 10 happiest moments are 'experiences' rather than 'products'. So, to squeeze more from your happiness pound, invest in experiences
6. The likelihood is that you have a 'to do' list. This is probably a (very) long tick list of things you need to achieve by the end of today. And your 'to do' list will shape today's activities. I'm more interested in what I call your 'to be' list. And this is much more important because it shapes who you are being while you go about your activities. So, ask yourself what version of 'you' are you being today? Bland, slightly negative and low energy - or full-colour, positive and bursting with life?
7. I've saved the best top tip until last. When you're getting dressed in the morning and you open your underwear draw, there are always some knickers in there that you don't really fancy? I call then your 'last resort pants'. Bin them. Because there are also some knickers in there that are your 'special pants'. Wear them and wear them often. The secret of happiness and successful relationships is to appreciate that life is a short and precious gift so stop waiting for a special occasion. Wear your special pants because life is the ultimate special occasion!
Common sense? Yes. Common practice? No!
I'll leave you with some bad news and good news. Bad news first, it's a lot easier to be negative - which is why most people like to have a bit of a moan and rolling our eyes and tutting is a national past-time. Good news? Happiness and positivity can be learned. Sure, there's a modicum of effort involved in retraining and self-remembering, but once you've nailed it, it becomes normal. Because ultimately, like you, I want to end up sitting at the oldies end of the table, laughing uproariously.