Happiness is a trickle of little happinesses

Locusts swarming. So do our happy little moments.

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(Reprinted from 2015) In which I struggle against an urge to catalogue and dissect the little happinesses of everyday life.


Is happiness a warm puppy, in the immortal words of Charles M. Schulz in Peanuts? Or does a warm puppy bring a happy moment to brighten our day?

Any science of happiness must include a definition of happiness. There is a certain amount of consensus among researchers, as far as I can tell.

  • Happiness is a composite of life satisfaction, coping resources, and positive emotions
  • Happiness does not mean a sustained state of ecstasy, 24/7, unrelated to what’s happening in your life and the world. (That’s more likely to be mania or drug addiction or gross insensitivity.)
  • Happiness includes a kind of general satisfaction with your life. Even in times of sadness or stress, do you still feel OK about your life, deep down? Then hey, get this, I think you might be happy!
  • Happiness is sustained by lots of little episodes that give you positive emotions. Positive emotions include a big range — for example, joy, pleasure, amusement, pride, interest, satisfaction, affection, gratitude, admiration, awe.

Today’s catalogue of happy moments

I decided that today I would take note of these happy moments in my life, as an exercise. I would pick on three things that gave me those positive emotions.

  1. Gratitude. Woke a little late after a deep and satisfying sleep.
  2. Aesthetic appreciation. Enjoyed the reflection of pittosporum leaves on the windshield of a parked car.
  3. Excitement. Saw a shiny new orange garbage truck parked around the corner, instead of a yucky old green one.
  4. Gratitude. For our fully functional city with regular garbage collection.
  5. Physical enjoyment. Noticed pleasant feelings in my thighs as I gently jogged to the pool.
  6. Human connection. I liked the look of a skinny long-haired lad in a singlet running ahead of me, so casual and messy.
  7. Surprise. Back view of a beautifully posed man in a new navy pinstriped suit, talking on his cell phone, framed symmetrically by a lamppost, cafe, and sign.

Lordy, that’s seven already and they just kept coming, faster than I could register or analyse them.

The downside of over-analysis

Walking home from my swim, I analysed my analysis of happy moments and decided never to do such a ridiculous exercise again.

The usual trickle of small pleasures had become an onslaught, a flood, each pleasure obliterating a previous pleasure, each overtaken by new pleasures streaming past in a blur.

  • Because I noticed the truck, I failed to savour the pittosporum.
  • Because I noticed the pinstriped poser, I lost a delightful image of the skinny lad.

Na. That’s the opposite of mindfulness. That’s more like ADHD.

The self-conscious pursuit of happiness is counter-productive

The exercise confirmed what I suspected: life is crammed full to the brim of little happinesses. Life is a freeBay of little happinesses. They are there by the thousand, the million, all the time, right under your nose. They knock on your consciousness when you need them. They take their time. They pace themselves. They take turns. They play nicely with each other.

If you aggregate them, if you notice them all, they swarm and attack you, one at a time. Then each little pleasure jets past, lasting a split second. No time to savour a single one!

So up to a point, I’m attempting to disagree with Socrates when he said:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Instead, today I’ll side with John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography:

Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.

What do you think?

Image: Locusts swarming. No known copyright restrictions.

Developing characters: lift your eyes from the keyboard

Man in a cap typing on a tiny, very old typewriter
Writer John by Onomatomedia, cc by-sa 3.0

“I am always criticised for my unrealistic characters,” said a writer nonchalantly. We were chatting in a cafe. “People say they’re not interesting.” I moved my eyes and saw seven other people, making coffee, drinking coffee, reading, working at tablets and laptops.

“Do you ever look at strangers, and wonder about them?” I asked.

“No. I’m more interested in ideas.”

I hadn’t noticed that. I’d noticed something else, though. “I climbed Everest last Tuesday,” I said.

“I did a lot of climbing in Wales when I was young,” he said.

“I climbed Everest solo without oxygen,” I said.

“I climbed with a top team, and three of them had climbed Everest multiple times,” he said.

“I climbed Everest solo last Tuesday wearing nothing but a tutu,” I said.

“I sometimes think about climbing Everest, but my arthritis is a problem,” he said.

“Oh, that’s enough about me!” I said. “Let’s talk about you as a writer who is unable to create realistic characters. Do you ever eavesdrop?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, start,” I said. “Do you ever listen to what other people are saying?”

“I’m more interested in ideas,” he said.


How can we maintain our identity as we grow old?

Child contemplates two women turned to stone
Is this my future? A child contemplates two women turned to stone.

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In which, despite a disheartening deterioration of the ageing body and some ill-judged wardrobe choices, I discover a salutary harmony between the front I present to the world and my subjective experience of a dislocated identity.

“Be who you are”

That’s the eleventh challenge in my boot camp for old age, in which I work on improving my chances in the brain-gain lottery that lies ahead. This particular task is to figure out my changing identity — I’m changing into an old person — and starting to live with it instead of fight it.

Another way of putting this: I would prefer my outside to match my inside, for people to look at me and get an accurate idea of who I am and what I feel like inside. I’ve been searching for an inherent personal coherence, consonance, or harmony.

But this is not straightforward, because right now life is rapidly changing my outside. Grey hair, wrinkles and all that cranky stuff that shrieks “Old lady! Old lady!” — when inside, I’m still a bit confused. Like you (I presume) I have moments of feeling like a 6- or 26- or 36- or 56-year-old, which are all a big mis-match with my chronological age.

OK, I’ve had 12 months to complete the boot camp. Plenty of time, huh? You’d think so. But over the summer I got lazy, wallowing in late mornings and a dormant business and sweet sunshine, socialising and sea-swims.

The fruit of procrastination: a list

  1. Right now I sort of match how I feel: a vigorous 76 and I look like a vigorous … 70, perhaps? Not bad consonance.
  2. I’ve always enjoyed choosing what to wear and I still do, it’s fun. But nowadays I make more mistakes than previously. I never look like an old fuddy duddy (not in my own eyes, anyway) but I do sometimes look slightly ridiculous. I think that’s fine, that’s definitely a pass. Because this combination of sartorial qualities is a good match for how I perceive myself: not young but youthful; vibrant (colours); original to the point of seeming a bit “off” at times. I’m just me.
  3. A few people “get me”, people to whom I never have to explain my jokes or my serious opinions. That’s enough. I only need a few people to see right into my real self.
  4. Just as I’m scrutinising my own external appearance and inner self, I’m also scrutinising others. I’m discovering a new delight in seeing friends and strangers with new eyes. Far from thinking, “Why do you always wear that boring old cardigan/jeans/fleece/sneakers?” I find myself thinking, “Look at you! I see you: you are yourself through and through, and you are like nobody else in the entire world — how wonderful is that!”

We are who we are. Was there any need for this challenge at all? For you, probably not. For me, maybe.

Image by W Heath Robinson in ‘Old Time Stories’ 1921

Inventing characters for that novel

Sketches of Beryl, Katherine, Susan, Lilian and Tessa: 5 characters in Fixing Mrs Philpott, a novel
Sketching some of the 27 characters in “Fixing Mrs Philpott”

I faced a crazy challenge with my latest novel, Fixing Mrs Philpott: 27 characters! How to even imagine them all, let about writing them with conviction!

I tried a new trick, which helped enormously — I drew them all.

I’m no artist, so I couldn’t very well draw people from real life. (They won’t sit still.) Instead I would record TV shows like Country Calendar or Antiques Roadshow and pause the flow whenever I found a character who might suit my purpose. Then I would draw that person.

Quite often, though, I drew my people from imagination alone. The five in the illustration above are probably imaginary — but watching TV with a pencil in my hand really sharpened my observational skills, if not my drawing!

I know, I’m terrible at drawing, but who cares? Sketches like these are more than sufficient for my purpose. They are draft characters for me to colour in.

Later I might change many details but at least I had a starting point. I highly recommend this strategy for face-blind writers with aphantasia, like me. Plus it’s so much fun.


Starter kit for a happy life at any age

Magic tricks for happiness in the bonus years

bootcamp2015-small 2(Reprinted from 2015) In which a skeptic succumbs to sheer weight of modern evidence about the foundation of happiness.


Here’s the nitty gritty message taught by the Science of Happiness MOOC from UC Berkeley. A surprising proportion of our happiness is under our own control. If you score a person’s happiness out of a possible 100, maybe 30% is a result of our own actions. Actions we can choose. Actions of mind as well as body.

These statistics (whaddya mean, 30%?) do my head in and arouse skepticism if not paranoia — so don’t ask me to explain them. All the same, I take it on trust that we can learn to behave and think in certain ways that increase our general satisfaction with life.

Here are four undisputed biggies which pop up consistently across many studies, trivial and massive, short and very long. According to the great They (as in They Say), most people who do these four things are more likely to be happy. I know that was an unreferenced comparative and a philosophically and scientifically meaningless statement. Still, you get the gist.

4 magic tricks to make yourself happier, provided you happen to be the mythical average person

  1. Exercise enough. That’s possible, yes it is. (Exercise, as a universal aid for aging bodies and brains, takes high priority in my personal boot camp.)
  2. Sleep well. That’s easy … for some. (I’m rather good at sleeping. I practise every night.)
  3. Have enough money — sufficient for the necessities of life. When that’s a problem, it’s obviously not an easy one to fix. But for many of us, “enough” is a matter of perception. Minimalism and decluttering your life overlap good old-fashioned thrift, and gives you a nice feeling.
  4. And here’s the easiest trick of the lot: just hang in there. Grow older. After hitting 50, the average person’s subjective level of life satisfaction begins to rise. Physical health declines with age but happiness increases, huh? Who knew? Actually, rather a lot of people by now. The latest research to confirm this counter-intuitive trend comes from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research.
    The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 12

The big four are well proven happiness predictors. Do we really need any more picky proof? Why not just do what we’re told? There’s more to it, naturally — this is just a starter kit.

Image in the public domain, from Internet Archive Book Images

My parents’ rules still work — do yours?


bootcamp2015-small 2Posted in 2015: In which I discover that younger people are also interested in the process of aging, and give a speech to DARE 2014 conference called Life is Long: Find happiness now.


In a sense, my boot camp for old age really began last year. Last year I learned new things about myself as a result of preparing a speech for the DARE 2014 conference in London. This was a special event from me as for once, two of my worlds converged.

The slogan of DARE 2014 was “People skills for digital workers,” and apparently I was the one who coined it.  The audience works at programming, web design, content management, systems design, digital strategy and so forth. Likewise, my own daily work is in the digital sphere, where my age is totally irrelevant. At the same time, I was becoming fascinated by all the illogical, contradictory, bizarre attitudes to aging that surrounded me.

What interested a younger audience about aging

I found to my surprise that younger digital workers were also concerned about the process of growing older. Many told me that they found it helpful just to see their current worries in a long term perspective. I was living proof that life is long and careers have many surprising twists and turns and that 74, in my experience, was proving to be a sweet spot.

The folk at DARE know exactly what their audience wants and provide strong guidelines for the content and form of presentations. So the process of preparing our talks was rigorous, involving a set structure and several rehearsals with other speakers. This was heaps of fun, as well as a mighty hard challenge. I found that writing about my life story brought me some surprising new insights. (Funny, that.)

What I learned when I spoke about aging

  1. Your life story, past and future, is fluid. It is not cast in concrete.
  2. Your parents embed certain mantras in your head. If they’re good, you can refer to them forever. (In our family David said, “Be kind” and Celia said, “Go on, have an adventure!” Perfect.)
  3. We already know how to grow old happily, thanks to science, experience, and common sense. It’s a good idea to start being happy right this minute, regardless of circumstances and regardless of your age.

You can watch my 25-minute speech without a Tardis

Life is short: find happiness now

Studying happiness for no good reason


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(Republished from 2016) In which I enrol in a Massive Open Online Course on the Science of Happiness even though I am not unhappy.


OK, here’s one boot camp task that I haven’t peered into yet. It is rather weirdly worded: “Align happiness factors.”

Why did I write it that way, so prissy and non-committal? Why didn’t I write “Start being happy” or “Do 40 happiness exercises per week”?  Because I’m not unhappy. I’m generally satisfied with my life, which is (it turns out) a pretty good definition of happiness. (More about that later.)

Happiness as a topic not a goal

Very well then, we’ve established that I’m not unhappy. So if being happy isn’t a struggle for me, why include it in the boot camp? (Oh God, Smugilla is coming through loud and clear today.) I might as well set myself as a goal “carry on breathing” … although, come to think of it, to carry on breathing is … hey let’s not go there.

What’s more, I’ve always thought pursuing happiness was a daft idea. Chasing it? Running after it? Haven’t you got better things to do? What will you do if you catch it — trap it? Bottle it? Domesticate it? Anyway, isn’t happiness right under your nose?

Let’s be serious here

My reasoning was that old age may bring  new pain and sadness and confusion. How can a person continue to be “happy” when friends die, when we ourselves are terminally ill? What do we know about happiness, scientifically, that will make a difference when the chips are down? What habits of body and mind increase our chances of being happy late in life?

Think of the very old people you know. Some are funny. Some serene. Some contented. Some are grumpy. Some are desperately unhappy. And the difference in their outlook may be out of all proportion to their circumstances.

Just planning ahead here

So I figured, why not get my ducks in a row, well in advance of any bonus troubles? I’ve already read a pile of books on happiness, and they swim around my mind in a vortex, sucking me in to contradictions and inconsistencies. (Which I quite enjoy.).

Order, order! says the sergeant major. So I enrolled in a MOOC on the Science of Happiness, a Massive Open Online Course from the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre. That’ll sort me out, I thought.

By gum, now I’m gonna be happy happy happy. Bring it on.

 Image from “El Angel, el molino, el caracol del faro, estampas rurales y de cuentos, estampas de un Leon y una Leona, estampas del Faro;” (1921) by Mira, Gabriel. Public domain