Our island is somewhat preoccupied with the notion of happiness at present.

Britain is not fair this month. She is not even plain. She is a dull soggy pallid wench, who does not feel like doing her hair right now, because Christmas has come and gone, and the wraith of recession still haunts her tradespeople, and the grey skies have hemmed her in for too long and it is only, forpetessakes, the middle of January.

She would like to be happy: but she doesn’t quite know how.

Enter a knight on a white charger. The knight: a new charity called Action for Happiness (AFH), led by eco-inspired management consultant Mark Williamson. And the charger? Why, The British Broadcasting Corporation.

A look at the charity, due to be launched later in the year, engenders mixed feelings in a British temperament. The words which it uses to promote itself seem straightforward and artless.The message is this: we are more affluent than we have ever been, yet we are more stressed and unhappy.

They insist we can learn to be happier.

But we don’t hold with too much change here; we’re not for sentiment and show. They talk of a radical shift in culture, and we huff and puff and say, yes, well, that’s all very well, but who’s going to pay the gas bill and battle with the call centre for me if I’m busy changing the culture of Britain?

This is where the charger comes in.

Because we trust the BBC’s Breakfast programme. We listen to those nice smiling presenters on that lovely scarlet couch while we do our ironing and make the kids’ packed lunches and plan the day ahead. And if they say we might achieve happiness – well, we might just be able to visualise it happening.

So the Breakfast team have dubbed this the week of the Happiness Challenge. They’ve rounded up a set of people from all walks of life and booked a posh hotel in Scarborough. The director of AFH, Mark Williamson, is running workshops for the sample group in happiness techniques and meditation: and each morning, over its cereal and toast, a nation watches, rapt.

Could it really work?

The jury is out, and we’ll see what the guinea pigs say at the end of the week. They are, after all, pondering one of the basic questions of life: How can I be happy?

I wonder if that is the theme of every book that is ever written and the subtext to every play. Do we all quest in our own bumbling way for happiness, or are there some for whom bleak is best?

At home with my seven year old son, Felix, we are reading an abridged version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. As I pondered happiness and unhappiness during the day, its antiheroine, Kathy, came to mind. A woman who could have had every social advantage: who was well provided for; who had the love of a devoted husband; and yet seemed born for tragedy.

The choices she made were often headstrong and thoughtless. She was dominated by a stomach full of emotions, not sentiment: great wild horses which trampled down any chance she could ever have of happiness. Today Felix related the scene where Kathy slaps the faithful maid, Ellen, in front of her young moneyed admirer Edgar Linton.

Her temper does not stop there: when her young nephew cries because his closest carer has been hurt, he chooses to voice the words ‘wicked Aunt Kathy’, and earns himself a thorough shaking. Finally Edgar intervenes and she aims a stinging blow at him.

Such self destructive behaviour in a young woman. Are there just some irredeemable wrong ‘uns in the world?

By total contrast, the late Victorian story of a city clerk who lives in an unassuming terraced house in Holloway shows how some people are predisposed to happiness. Charles Pooter, of Diary Of A Nobody fame, rambles on about everything and nothing in his daily journal. We hear of jokes he has made, the odd puzzling dream, life at the office, a happy relationship with his homely wife Carrie, and arguments with the egg man.

Somehow, though, happiness exudes from the pages of this little masterpiece by Lloyd and Weedon Grossmith. Perhaps because the very act of writing a diary means that Pooter reflects on the small happinesses of his life: a solid relationship with his well-established employers; a son who finally turns out well; good friends and relatives.

Action For Happiness hypothesises that happiness is a choice: something which can be learned, if we know how. Could they have rescued Kathy? More importantly, could Pooter have taught us a thing or two?

Time to answer with a little metaphor.

CS Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles closes with the end of Lewis’s fictional world. Towards the end of The Last Battle, a shed has been put up: a door to something else. It’s just this shed door standing in a clearing, and everyone’s saying the vengeful, terrible god, Tash, is inside. The last hero of Narnia, Tirian, is fighting his enemy: and as a last desperate ploy, he jumps inside the shed and invites his opponent to come and meet Tash.

When he gets inside, the shed is not dark. Indeed, he is in a beautiful green paradise: the new Narnia. A kind of heaven.

Tash comes to claim the baddie and leaves; and all the people who have ever visited Narnia from our world are there to greet Tirian. As is Aslan, the lion who made Narnia in the first place.

But there’s a group of people who are not convinced.

Lewis’s mythical dwarves are stalwart souls: history records some great heroes amongst their ranks. But they know what they like and they like what they know. And the throng of new Narnians come upon them, sitting in a circle. The dwarves insist they are in a dark shed.

They have been thrown in the shed of Tash: and their pragmatic minds will admit no other possibility. They sit there in paradise, doomed to the dark little space which exists only in their mind.

A clever picture. At any moment we can open our minds to see what is there all the time.

But it’s a choice.


31 thoughts on “Choice

  1. Ha, I choose not to be a dwarf today, we have a watery bit of sunshine manfully trying to break through. Perhaps it will not rain.
    Happy day, Kate.

    1. Perhaps not…good choice, Cindy. Today I do not need to resort to the weather for things to be happy about: the plumber, after a month-long wait, is coming to mend our toilet (Big Al popped some peanuts into the macerator). Oh joy unconfined.
      Have a good day at work πŸ™‚

      1. You need to keep an account book so that little Big Al can reimburse you for his mischief when he starts earning his way through life. πŸ™‚

  2. Yesterday I visited an elderly lady who struggled to get to the door to let me in. Superficially she was ‘in a bad mood’ – a ‘crabbit old woman’ – as she walked so slowly back to her chair and hardly said two words to me,

    But after full the ten minutes required to get her breath back and feel better her true personality shone through. A gentle smile, and a witty response.
    We have to guard ourselves against judging those who appear not to be happy, and who display angry reactions to simple things, and look under the surface. for the whys and wherefores. There is a huge pressure on us to be ‘happy’ which is not always appropriate. So I approach the scheme with some caution as well as hope.

    “Crabbit Old Woman”

    What do you see, what do you see?
    Are you thinking, when you look at me-
    A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
    Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
    Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
    When you say in a loud voice,
    I do wish you’d try.
    Who seems not to notice the things that you do
    And forever is loosing a stocking or shoe.
    Who, unresisting or not; lets you do as you will
    With bathing and feeding the long day is fill.
    Is that what you’re thinking,
    Is that what you see?
    Then open your eyes,
    nurse, you’re looking at me.
    I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still!
    As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
    I’m a small child of 10 with a father and mother,
    Brothers and sisters, who loved one another-
    A young girl of 16 with wings on her feet,
    Dreaming that soon now a lover she’ll meet,
    A bride soon at 20- my heart gives a leap,
    Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
    At 25 now I have young of my own
    Who need me to build a secure happy home;
    A woman of 30, my young now grow fast,
    Bound to each other with ties that should last;
    At 40, my young sons have grown and are gone,
    But my man’s beside me to see I don’t mourn;
    At 50 once more babies play around my knee,
    Again we know children, my loved one and me.
    Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead,
    I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
    For my young are all rearing young of their own.
    And I think of the years and the love that I’ve known;
    I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel-
    Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
    The body is crumbled, grace and vigor depart,
    There is now a stone where I once had a heart,
    But inside this old carcass, a young girl still dwells,
    And now and again my battered heart swells,
    I remember the joy, I remember the pain,
    And I’m loving and living life over again.
    I think of the years all too few- gone too fast.
    And accept the stark fact that nothing can last-
    So open your eyes, nurse, open and see,
    Not a crabbit old woman, look closer-
    See Me.

    By: Phyilis McCormack

    1. Beautiful poem, thank you. Your experience is such a valuable one. All the self-help stuff needs to be taken with a healthy dose of common sense, doesn’t it, Pseu?

      You were able to see the true woman beneath the surface when she was more relaxed and able to smile a little. I think this not some crazed get-happy-quick scheme: is all about recognising the small moments when one is happy, much like 1095Things does. Our own lives, even in the darkest moments, have small pools of happiness and you found one with your fellow human.

      1. I agree: “Our own lives, even in the darkest moments, have small pools of happiness and you found one with your fellow human.. ”

        Personally I think happiness is always a transient state and that we should maybe think in terms of contentedness and fulfilment with flashes of blinding joy and happiness splashed through our days. Trying to be happy all the time is creating a false unachievable goal.

      2. Of course, as with most semantics, it depends on the definition of happiness you are using.

        When the Dalai Lama talks about happiness as the “goal behind all goals” . . . he is talking about inner peace and contentment, not the chasing of hedonistic pleasures.

  3. The happiness challenge? In USA we have a meaningless war with no end in sight. Real unemployment at 20%. Since supply is greater than demand wages stay low for current and new workers. The basics take a larger chunk of the income. We have those that refuse to admit the actuality of global warming and 30% believe that silly Adam and Eve thing with that
    7 day creation stuff. People are so very concerned that a civil union must be called a marriage by gays and thousands of plant and animals species continue to become extinct. Inner cities are rife with weapons and drive-by shootings and a million and a half people are incarcerated for drugs charges that had minimal effect on society as a whole. College grads move home because of no job possibilities and the list goes on. So let’s have a happiness challenge contest! Huh? We delusion ourselves with more delusions and have tongue in cheek humor about the bleak future we face? Is that why they call the contest a challenge? Meditation and happiness techniques. “Gee, my house burned down. But I can live in a tent like the Native Americans of the Great Plains did for thousands of years, quite successfully I might add. And it will be a growth opportunity. I am so happy now.”

    1. Whoa! That struck a chord, hey, Carl? My feeling is that you can’t trust get-happy-quick schemes in our complex world, with more than its fair share of anguish.

      But we’re here. And every day a few things happen to make the day better: even at the worst time of my life I would catch sight of a sunset and marvel because of its beauty. We can either rail against the reality we perceive, like that biblical servant who took his master’s talents and buried them because he was a hard, cruel master: or we can take the tiniest blessings and build on them to create something. And if being quiet and contemplative for a while a day helps, well, wheel on the silence.

  4. I find it so interesting that there is a forthcoming national government- funded campaign to measure happiness, and now the birth of a charity to ensure we all know how to find happiness. It seems bizarre that there is an assumption we can’t do that ourselves, or understand what is important to us as individuals. What makes me happy might not do it for you, and vice versa. Sometimes I think the world’s just gone crazy!
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Kate – it certainly does boil down to choice.
    Sunshine xx

  5. Much food for thought along with your nation’s challenge, Kate. A half empty/half full sort of thing. Sometimes, I think, we just have to choose to put on a smile and pretend if we have to. For me, it usually works.

    A friend was telling me about her mom at lunch yesterday afternoon. Her mom is up in year, way up, and now lives at a senior living center. She chose to go and she chooses to keep busy with an active group of new friends and activities. My friend and her sister took their mom out to a nice dinner. Said mom was dressed nicely as her girls came to pick her up. All gussied up, Mom walked to the door. A few of her new friends said something like “well, aren’t we all dressed up for somewhere nice” to which friend’s mom slowly turned her head, smiled and declared “Uhhumm. The good girls get to go out to play.).

  6. I feel that it’s the same everywhere Kate and a good portion of it is that we have made things so complex. Time to weed away the clutter of information and sh*t and concentrate on real connections – to each other and to the earth and then to take time to be grateful for that which we do have. Oh yes, you’ve hit a great topic.

    1. You’re right there. That notion of earthing: it’s not just electricity that needs grounding, is it? Foreground noise in this day and age is deafening. Connection to each other and our habitat is more important than many of us dream. Tammy, your blog is making me start to think in a new way about all of this: thanks once again.

  7. Nova Scotia looks much like Britain today, then. Rainy, dreary, and mushy. It’s not very cheerful. And yet, I am still okay.

    I’m not even really sure what happiness means. I think it must be different for everyone because I am always amazed by the choices some people make. It’s not easy to understand people’s motivations for doing things. Like our anti-heroine Kathy. When I read the book the first time, I think I related to her a lot more than when I re-read it last year. Obviously something has changed. I don’t think it was the book. Although wouldn’t that be interesting?

    1. That is the beginning of a whole new storyline Kristine πŸ™‚ She’s such a complex character and like Edgar and Heathcliff, one is drawn to her despite the flaws. How interesting that you identify with her less than you used to…

  8. You captured my attention with:

    “She is a dull soggy pallid wench, who does not feel like doing her hair right now, because Christmas has come and gone, and the wraith of recession still haunts her tradespeople, and the grey skies have hemmed her in for too long and it is only, forpetessakes, the middle of January.”

    What a talented wordsmith you are, Kate! πŸ™‚

    1. And your ending is perfect: “A clever picture. At any moment we can open our minds to see what is there all the time. But it’s a choice.”

      “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, or a Hell of Heav’n.” ~ John Milton

      It is not what happens to us in life that determines our happiness, but how we view what happens.

      Thanks, Kate!

      1. Gosh, Nancy, these are words of praise indeed: I confess I waited with baited breath to see what you would think of the post. In my mind this is your area of expertise πŸ˜€

        I love the story of the dwarves. But I love Paradise Lost even more: someone quoting a snatch of Milton is like a jewel from Bism. One of my things to be grateful for today. Thank you.

      2. I admit to being tempted to psycho-analyze “wicked Aunt Kathy,” but in the end refrained from wandering amidst her wrath.

        With some, it may not be choice; mental illness takes many forms.

        Glad Milton added a bright spot to your day!

  9. The timing of this happiness initative triggers considerable cynicism in me, I am afraid. Leaving aside the futile debate about happiness vs contentment vs satisfaction vs wellbeing etc etc. how is it that so many people and organisations have been persuaded to promote such a vacuous idea? Are we not experiencing a further example of manipulation and condescension? A case of happiness as the opium of the people? How is it that we are so easily directed towards, and so passionate about, what at best is a pretty marginal issue? Where is the similar passion to reduce inequality in society, improve the lives of the disadvantaged, squeeze the pips out of the bankers? There is a chronic sickness in society when so many people can get so energised that they are prepared to take to the streets to save forests or to shout through a megaphone about Huntingdon Life Sciences. Nothing wrong with either cause I am sure, but I’d like to see equal or greater passion, time and organisation to close the wealth gap in this society, and challenge the vested interests that are so evident at the top of our political parties etc etc etc.

    1. Thanks, Terry. I think a majority of people share your view, Carl above for one. We need our society to be more equal, for the lives of our countrymen to have a quality, to ensure that those who are unfair do not go unchallenged.

      I wonder, though, if change has to come from somewhere. And misery and depression is not always the best motivator. I have always found it enervates.

      We can rail against something which may be a conspiracy to anaesthatise us against today’s unequal world, or we can start somewhere.


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