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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You know when you get a trolley with a dodgy wheel? The realisation sort of creeps up on you, doesn’t it? First you’re scrabbling for a pound (Is that one? No, it’s a franc or a token for the Belarus metro).  Then it won’t fit in the slot unless you press down, applying your full body weight. Then you try to pull the trolley out but it’s stuck so you have to heave, bruising your own leg and that of the old lady behind you. Finally, having apologised to everyone in the queue including someone who might be your boss – you’re flushed and studying the ground at this point- and a librarian who you once shouted at, you limp away with your trolley and immediately veer off into a stack of paddling pools. You have a sudden urge to stab somebody.

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This happened to me the other day.  I finally managed, with great huffing and puffing and pumping of arms, to manoeuvre my trolley into the fruit and veg aisle. Gasping into the lettuces, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that cheered me immensely. I wasn’t the only one with a dodgy wheel. Two lads were having the same problem. Aged about 8 and 12, they had been consulting a list, all serious and responsible. Should we get a big one? No, she said a small one. They lifted lettuces, smelled herbs. Is this parsley? Dunno. Smells like grass to me. Oh look, it says…

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Then the wheel jammed. The older one pushed a few times. Then they both leant on it before trying to turn it manually with their fingers. Finally the younger one put his foot on the bar and climbed up, leaning his body forwards while the other one pushed. The trolley whirled round. The boys let out a shout of pleasure. The trolley went faster, this time in a straight line. A few shoppers leapt out of the way. Others looked disapprovingly round, mainly at me since I was the nearest adult and possibly in charge. I, typically, was just fascinated at their absorption in this new game. As the list drifted, forgotten, to the floor, the boys began to play, pushing each other, calling, seeing if they could do wheelies. Of course it was only a matter of time before a supervisor, face like a spatula, came to break it up. He was not happy.

“Excuse me Madam!” I’m picking over carrots at this point and don’t realise he’s addressing me, “Ex-CUSE me Madam!”

“Yes?”

“I’m afraid we can’t allow this sort of behaviour in fruit and veg…” He had glasses and a nasal voice. I looked down at a misshapen carrot I was about to reject and wondered if he meant that.

“It’s simply not safe,” he continued, “People could get hurt. Just saying…” He motioned towards the boys. A man in shorts was giving them a wide berth.

“They’re not mine,” I said, replacing the carrot. He appeared to ignore me.

“Well, it’s an issue of health and safety,” he said, “Just saying…”

“I understand!” I said more loudly, “But they’re nothing to do with me. I’m just doing my shopping!” He stared at me for a second as though he didn’t believe me.

“I don’t know them!” I repeated as forcefully as I could without actually appearing rude. He eyed me severely.

“Just saying,” he repeated enunciating each syllable as to a child. Then he spun on his heel and marched off.

When they saw the supervisor, the boys suddenly came to their senses. Shame-faced, they listened to him meekly, then slunk out of the store, leaving their unbought purchases for the staff to sort. They even left their list. I nearly ran after them, but I didn’t like to leave my trolley with its carefully chosen cache of fruit and vegetables. Despite its dodgy wheel, I felt unable to leave it. We were in a relationship now.

And the moral of this story is – when life gets stressful, maybe we should be more like children, and learn how to play…

So next time you go into a West London supermarket and see the backside of a “middle aged” woman, whisking past you and hooting loudly, pursued by a supervisor, well, it might be me.

Just saying…

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Bruises


How do you gauge your stress levels? Some people get neck tension, others drink. I count bruises. This week was a 2-bruise week. Last week was a 5-bruiser. When I have too much to do, I race around and bump into things – doors, tables, chairs (mostly empty ones). I have been known to walk into parked cars .Once I walked into a skip (It was at night. They really shouldn’t put those things on pavements. It’s asking for trouble).

I’m crossing the playground at speed with a box of polystyrene balls when I notice, in the mishmash of noise and chaos, a tiny child dancing. Her friends are playing stilt-walking, stiff legged on those upside down flowerpot things.. Nearby there’s a skipping game and a football match. She’s flitting about, weaving between them, her arms up, her face a curve of pleasure. She’s in a world of her own.

I stop, nearly dropping my balls. “Hello!” She looks at me, but carries on dancing.

“Hello Mithith Jenkinths!” Her voice is carried away by the skipping and an indignant ref.

“You’re a wonderful dancer!” I say admiringly. She nods in agreement. As she spins past, I ask her if she ever gets tired.

“Not really,” she says, stopping. I crouch down.

“Why do you think that is?”

She lowers her arms, considering. Huge eyes, gap teeth, a scatter of freckles. (But it’s their eyelids that really fascinate me. They’re so smooth. Did I ever have eyelids like that?)

“I dancth becauth I’m happy!” she says and wrinkles her nose in a smile. She raises her arms and whirls away.  When the Infant Bell goes I pick her out, balancing on one leg, bright eyed as a bird. Then slowly she topples forward and runs to her line.

According to the Stress Management Society, stress is caused by two things: whether you think a situation is worthy of anxiety and how your body reacts to your thoughts. My body reacts by walking around really fast, convinced that if I just move more quickly I’ll get everything done. But things get in my way and slow me down – the shelf unit, the whiteboard, the bin. It’s as if the entire inanimate world is lying in wait for me. (“Ha! We’ll get her with the swing door, arms full of Art balls!”) And I come home covered in bruises, thinking of things I didn’t do.

“My Dad says, “Slow down! You’ll just get to the end of your life quicker.”

Gandhi said, “Man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”

Jesus said, “Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message)

I should maybe stop counting bruises.

I stroll out of school, careful to avoid the bins with my trolley. A bird lifts off the field. A dog barks. There’s the rumble of traffic. The world dances on, spinning, I trust, above huge, cupped hands. It makes no difference if I run or walk. The moment comes but once.

I turn the corner by the toilets and look back towards school. Quiet light. Trees. Yawning windows like tired eyes.  A good day today: Sun on the playground.  Little girl dancing.

No one’s looking. Shyly, stiffly, like those girls on flowerpot stilts…I do a little gambol.

Demonstrating the new Trolley Dance

Demonstrating the  Trolley Dance