Habits of Delight and the Myth of Joyful Parenting?


The international happiness expert (yes, there is one), Paul Dolan, was on Radio 4 this morning. He says true happiness is finding the balance between things we find pleasurable and things we find purposeful. He cited having children as an example, saying that according to all the happiness data, we shouldn’t bother. At best they come out as neutral. But he admitted that what he hadn’t appreciated was the sense of purpose associated with the experiences of having children, and of the pleasure gained from seeing the world through their eyes. There is a difference, he claims, between this and the stories that we tell ourselves about how happy children make us. According to his findings most of spend our lives living out such stories via the things we think should make us feel good, without paying enough attention to what actually does.

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I, filling my face with chocolate croissants and coffee in bed, along with the paper and a pack of Oreos (for back-up), decide I don’t have a problem with this. I work hard all week teaching the nation’s children column subtraction and kindness (“So stamping on spiders is okay is it? How do you think that spider’s mummy feels?” “Um…sad?”), so I feel this purposeful, and frankly exhausting, vocation justifies a bit of sloth at weekends.

I know what he means about the stories we tell ourselves (and others). Though I think as you get older, you tire of them and find it easier to admit the truth – that gardening’s more fulfilling than shopping, small houses hold as much joy as big ones, and that your favourite holiday was in the New Forest when a pony lunged your tent and scoffed a packet of Frosties. It might not have been pleasurable at the time but you’ve had endless laughs reliving the memory at Christmas. And it’s become the stuff of legend, pleasantly embellished each time to the point where you’d trade your mini-break in a hotel in Venice for it any day. Who’d want you to talk about that?

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There’s so much around reminding us that happy people enjoy small pleasures, live in the present, pay attention to the moment. Mindfulness is the new “You’re worth it!” so I’m grateful to it on that score, if on no other. Is happiness just positive thinking then, invading your emotions? Or is it something that can’t be quantified on a scale, whatever the experts say? Someone living with daily physical pain, would be happy for a day without it. A person of limited means would be happy with one holiday. Someone used to three annual holidays abroad wouldn’t. The small pleasures associated with a cottage on a farm in Devon would probably pass them by.

Is happiness more like a habit, a lens through which you view your life? This, I think, is where children are experts.

“Mrs Jenkins! There’s a man on that roof!”

“Mrs Jenkins! I’m going to the park after school!”

Some adults are good at this too – there are at least two of them in my family and being with them always gives me a lift. The word I would ascribe to their way of looking at life is “delight”. Everything excites them – from a cup of tea to the prospect of snow. And neither of them are children. You don’t need children to teach you how to be happy. There’s a child inside you, with a delight habit. You’ve just forgotten how to listen…

So what would be your perfectly happy day?

Mine would be breakfast in bed with the paper, a walk with my husband somewhere beautiful, then an afternoon’s writing. I’d spend the evening wandering narrow streets, lined with shops for browsing, towards a restaurant with a view. And I’d do this with the people I like most in the world, who are all still children where it counts…

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9 thoughts on “Habits of Delight and the Myth of Joyful Parenting?

  1. Nicely put, Deborah. I’d agree with you on at least some of the ingredients of a happy day. Perhaps not the walk with your husband (though I’m sure he’s a wonderful person) but certainly a walk with my wife somewhere beautiful, and the restaurant with a view. And some time for writing, definitely!

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    • Paul, Your comment really made me laugh 🙂 Actually I think you’d get on really well with my husband. You have a similar sense of humour and a liking for science fiction, though he reads it rather than writes it. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment 🙂

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  2. Reading your blog posts is always both pleasurable and purposeful, so you’ve helped with my happiness quotient today! My favourite kind of day? A house by the sea …. a morning in a cafe writing …. fish and chips in the open air …. an afternoon snoozing and listening to the radio … a drink with a newspaper and crossword in the pub before dinner …. a wander along a beach …. a meal in a restaurant in which I eat something I’d never normally cook. Either that day, or a day on a writers’ holiday such as Arvon – those days are some of my best memories – workshops in the morning, the afternoon to yourself writing, then a meal and wine with a group of people who aren’t bored by your talking about metaphor.

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    • Yes that all sounds pretty good to me too. Am I allowed to change mine?? Well, let’s say we’re allowed two days. I’ll have mine, then yours. I’ve never actually done those things for a perfect day. Have you? Trying to work out which day my birthday is on next year to see if I could do it then…Or maybe one doesn’t need to wait until a birthday?

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  3. I liked this too. Always good to count our blessings in the simple things. I like the sound of your friends who see delight in all things. I have friends who are like that too – love them 🙂

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  4. I’ve often played with the idea of what would spark the child within. Perhaps buying some long forgotten favorite sweets? For me, that innocent delight is relived in seeing a field of lambs playing or cows chewing cud.

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    • Hence Mad Lamb? I think we need to watch the world more. There’s so much to exult in despite the imperfections. We ve just forgotten how. Will think of you at lambing time! X

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  5. Oh, how lovely! You’ve really got me thinking.
    My perfect day… Being allowed to sleep until I wake up, then coffee and those delicious little brioche rolls in bed without any rush to get going. A quiet morning at home on my own reading, writing, napping, gardening as the mood takes me. A swim in a sunlit pool with my two girls, fish and chips by the seaside (thanks, Fran!) and a walk on the beach with my husband enjoying a glorious sunset. Then a good film, an open fire and a nice red wine, just the two of us. Maybe some chocolate.
    That’ll do me. 🙂

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    • It sounds perfect! You know, I think we should all try and arrange these perfect days for ourselves. Surely that’s not too much to ask once or twice in a lifetime? Of course God sometimes surprises us with “perfect days” we’d never even thought to ask for. Perhaps they are the best kind…Thanks for reading and commenting Helen 🙂 x

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