Ways to achieve happiness begin with thank you

January 28, 2012
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 28th January 2012

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Last month I made some suggestions for finding happiness in hard times. Here are some more for 2012.

First, thank. Don’t just thank God: thank people. There is almost nothing you can do to bring warmth into someone else’s life than simple, honest recognition for something they have done, especially if it’s the kind of thing most people take for granted. Do it for your children’s teachers, your work colleagues, the person at the checkout counter, anyone who does the kind of work we often call “thankless.”

If you have a spare moment – you’re waiting in a queue somewhere – think back to someone who, many years ago, made a positive difference to your life and whom you didn’t thank at the time: a teacher who inspired you, perhaps, or a friend who gave you good advice or lifted you when you were low. Write to them and tell them so. This one act can transform a life, and giving a satisfaction to others is the best way of finding it yourself. Remember Paul McCartney’s words in Abbey Road: The love you take is equal to the love you make. Ditto for happiness.

Second, resolve to be active not passive. Be a doer, not a complainer. Light a candle, don’t curse the darkness. Don’t criticise leaders: lead. Don’t wait for something to happen: help bring it about. Life is too short to be a spectator rather than a player. So, sit less, exercise more. Drive less, walk more. Neuroscientists have made the heartening discovery that physical exertion renews our brain cells. It actually keeps us mentally as well as physically young. It also produces the endorphins that fight depression and produce exhilaration. Moses Maimonides, the twelfth century rabbi who was also one of the leading physicians of his day, held that keeping fit was a religious duty. God gave us life and we honour Him by using it to the full.

Third, be part of a community. There is something transformative about being part of a group who pray, celebrate, remember and hope together. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a community to reach a full flowering of happiness. Virtual communities linked by smart-phones are no substitute for real face-to-face encounter. Community is where our grief is halved and our joy doubled by being shared with others.

Fourth, make a thorough clear-out of negative emotions. Apologise to those you’ve wronged, and forgive those who have wronged you. Emotional energy is too precious to waste it on guilt on the one hand, resentment on the other.

We find it hard to apologise because we are our own best counsel for the defence. We rationalise, justify, make excuses, and are generally willing to blame anyone but ourselves. It wasn’t me, or if it was, I couldn’t help it or I didn’t mean it. Yet although we think we can persuade the jury, deep down we know we can’t convince ourselves. Self-deception always carries too high a price.

One of the odd things about the Hebrew Bible is its devastating honesty. The Israelites blame no one but themselves. We sinned, they said. We drifted, worshipped strange gods, we were ungrateful, disloyal, we dishonoured God. The prophets never blamed other nations, other people or God. They were the polar opposite of the culture of victimhood that has become so popular in recent years. They absorbed all the guilt and turned it into the positive energy of repentance and renewal.

They were able to be honest because they knew that God forgives. In a wholly secular culture, forgiveness is either absent or at best some vague indifference to morality altogether. Forgiveness is not indifference. Apologising is not making excuses. The power of simply being able to say, “I was wrong, I hurt you, I am truly sorry, forgive me,” is that it allows honesty to purge our lives of self-righteousness, the most toxic of all emotions.

All these are ways of saying that happiness is not something we find but something we make. You can tell the people who know this. They radiate positive energy. They give you a sense of worth and acceptance. When you speak, they listen. When you make an effort, they notice. In their presence you feel enlarged.

When love of God leads you to a love of life and a life of love, you will find happiness even in hard times.