Thursday, January 01, 2009

Wishing you a happy and meaningful New Year

You read it here first two years ago (New Years Resolutions - you must be nuts) , but the BBC now agrees that New Years Resolutions are Bad for your Health. According to Mind chief executive Paul Farmer,

"We chastise ourselves for our perceived shortcomings and set unrealistic goals to change our behaviour, so it's not surprising that when we fail to keep resolutions, we end up feeling worse than when we started. In 2009, instead of making a New Year's resolution, think positively about the year to come and what you can achieve."

Sound advice, but how can you best think about what you can achieve?

A very simple yet very useful and profound distinction is in thinking about both what can make you happy and what will be meaningful.

If you focus just on happiness, you may be setting yourself up for a mid-life meaning crisis - and such a crisis can occur well before middle-age. So think about where you can create more meaning in 2009 - in intimate relationships, friendships, with children, parents, work, hobbies or altruistic activities, for example. These don't have to be big things - just things that mean that when you tot up what your life adds up to, it adds up to something that feels meaningful to you, and provides you with a purpose.

Yet focussing just on meaning and purpose isn't such a good idea either. Research suggests that the happier people are, the more altruistic they are, the healthier they are, the longer they live - the positive spin-offs from happiness are many. What's more, if you imagine a life which is very meaningful but isn't enjoyable, or one that is both meaningful and enjoyable, which would you choose?

Sometimes there's a clear choice between the meaningful and the enjoyable - but that needn't always be the case. One answer is to find activities that you find both meaningful and enjoyable.What would that be for you? Another is devote a certain amount of time to purely meaningful activities, another portion to enjoyable activities.

If you are reading this on or near New Year's Day, how about writing down a list of activities and goals for 2009 under two headings

1) Goals that will lead to me finding 2009 meaningful

2) Goals that will lead to me enjoying 2009

Then go about fulfilling them, and have a truely happy and meaningful 2009

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Top Ten personal development classics

Whilst there are plenty of flakey self-help books out there, the very best personal development books contain wisdom delivered in language we can all understand. They can both be inspiring and insightful.

What is needed is a way to sort the wheat from the chaff. I've been a fan of the genre and been using them as part of my therapy and coaching work for quite some time. So which books have I and my clients found most helpful? Each year I update my personal top ten self-books - which books have I found most helpful in the last year.

The best self-help/personal development classics

My annual personal top ten (in brackets is position last year)

1. The Seven Habits of Highly effective People Stephen Covey (1)

2. Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl (2)

3. The Feeling Good Handbook David Burns (8)

4. Overcoming Low Self-Esteem Melanie Fennell (5)

5. The Conquest of Happiness Bertrand Russell (4)

6. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff -and it's all small stuff Richard Carlson (3)

7. Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman (7)

8. The Art of Happiness Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama (-)

9. How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie (6)

10. The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton (9)

What are your favourite self-help books?

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Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness - a personal development classic

Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell’s books were described by Time magazine as a modern substitute for the Bible. If this is so, the The Conquest of Happiness must be at the very centre of his works.

Make no mistake, this is no abstract philosophical treatise – it is a recipe for good living, written for the likes of you and me. Russell’s work is based on two assumptions. First, happiness needs to be conquered. You can’t expect to waltz through life reaping happiness without putting in some thought and effort. But – and this is why The Conquest of Happiness is essentially an optimistic book– if you do make this effort, you can, given average fortune, attain happiness.

The conquest of happiness comes in three stages: first you need to learn about the principles that lead to happiness, next internalise them and, finally, put them into practice. Unless you had unusually wise parents, you must forget what you learnt on your parents’ knee; you must also put aside what teachers, friends and, especially, priests have told us. You must replace these ideas with ones that really will make you happy. One way to do this is to read The Conquest of Happiness, for what Russell has done here is describe fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. This is the essential first stage, but it’s important to realise that Russell does not think that it is sufficient. Next, you have to really internalise these principles – it’s not enough to repeat them parrot fashion, you have to really feel them as you do your feeling of wanting to protect your own children. A superficial reading of the book might not pick up the point, yet Russell emphasises it several times.

“Let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon your unconscious and be strong enough to cope with the impressions made by your nurse or your mother when you were an infant.”.

The third stage – the transformation of your life - will happen automatically if the first two steps are carried out. For example, take a theme close to Russell’s heart – that you shouldn’t feel shameful about sex. The first step involves realising at a conscious level that, whatever the priest said, consensual sex is part of a happy life, not a sin. The second step is to fully internalise this belief, to feel it, not just to recite it; if you’ve really done this, then the pay-off will be that a sense of shame will no longer stop you leading a sexually fulfilling life.

If you can follow these three steps for each of the fourteen characteristics described by Russell you will give yourself the best chance of achieving not just happiness but also freedom from what the Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza called ‘human bondage’. You will no longer be flotsam and jetsam, acted on by the forces of society and the commands of your parents, but a self-determining human being. You will be happy and free.

This framework is given flesh by Russell’s analysis of the fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. Each chapter consists of a justification of why the chosen characteristic is good or bad, nice distinctions between its various senses and a discussion of other writers’ views and Russell’s practical advice for attaining happiness. Sometimes Russell digresses to make some rather tangential remarks about society and education and other personal concerns. Since our concern is with how to be happy, rather than Russell’s other preoccupations – such as the difficulty of obtaining good housemaids in the 1920s – this will be our focus.

The Conquest of Happiness in a page


1. Don’t be taken in by melancholy

Melancholy is only a passing mood; don’t mistake it for wisdom.

2. Don’t get caught in the competitive treadmill

Feeling happy is the only true success.

3. Develop the right attitude to boredom and excitement

Excitement is best sought in small doses and in the right places.

A certain amount of boredom is to be expected.

4. Make your worries concrete, don’t suppress them

Get a sense of perspective; Ask yourself ‘what is the worst thing that could possibly happen?’

5. Don’t envy, admire!

Enjoy what you have for its own sake, don’t compare yourself with others

6. Fight back against guilt & shame

Look out for the superstitious voice of your early influences; reason with it and defeat it.

7. Don’t suffer from an exaggerated sense of injustice

Exaggerate neither your own good nor others’ interest in you!

8. Don’t care too much what others think

Respect public opinion only to avoid starvation and stay out of jail.


1. Cultivate zest

Get into the habit of taking a lively and friendly interest in everything

2. Be affectionate

Reach out to other people and give affection; accept, but never demand it, in return.

3. Be a good parent

Give your child time & user your parental your child’s good

4. Do interesting, varied and constructive work

Find work that is varied, builds on a skill and creates something.

5. Cultivate plenty of relaxing minor interests

Enjoy as many diversifying hobbies and pursuits as you can; make sure these provide variety from your day job.

6. Find the right balance between effort and resignation

Do your best and when you have done all you can leave the issue to fate

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Why the good life question?

I sometimes use the "What is the good life?" as the focal point of a whole course. "What's so important about the good life question?", I hear you ask. After all, it's not a question you hear discussed on TV everyday, or in the pub, or - anywhere at all, actually. So here are my three good reasons to give the pub or TV a miss for once and think about this question

1. It can give you a direction is life. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested,

"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable”.
Once you formulate your answer to the question, you will be better able to resist the winds of chance and peer pressure face dragging you off course.

2. It's the big question
Once you know what the good life is, other questions - such as "should I be in a relationship?" , "should I work more or enjoy myself more?" and "Should I have children" fall into place. As management guru Stephen Covey said,
"Many people climb the ladder of success only to find the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall."

3. You can improve your answer
In week 1 on my course I ask people to come up with a provisional answer to the question "What is the good life". Over 10 weeks, they then learn both philosophical methods and ideas of philosophers about the good life and refine their definition. The improvement in definitions is often startling.

I hope that's reason enough to think about the good life question. What would your answer be?

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

New Year's Rules for Happiness

Regular readers may recall that in general I am not in favour of New Years Resolutions
(See last year's article New Years Resolutions? You must be nuts ...)
However, today's Times features a really interesting piece by none other than the Chief Rabbi,
Jonathan Sacks, entitled Count your blessings and begin to change your life
The apparent contradiction is resolved because Sacks isnt so much recommending unrealistic
resolutions as pretty
wise-looking rules for living well. You can read Sacks's whole article online, but here's a list of his 10 recommendations.(the bits in brackets are my gloss on what he says)

1. Give thank (be grateful, count your blessings)
2. Praise (other people)
3. Spend time with your family. (quality time)
4. Discover meaning. (purposes and main goals)
5. Live your values. (by developing habits, using rituals)
6. Forgive. (good for those who have upset you , better still for you)
7. Keep learning. (not just for the young)
8. Learn to listen. (really listen)
9. Create moments of silence in the soul. (if only for five minutes, prayer and meditation are two possible sources)
10. Transform suffering. (don't let yourself be a victim, look for what you can now do you wouldnt have done before

I can't say how many of these ideas are inspired by Sacks's religion.
Sacks attempts to make the connection with religion in the final paragraph of his article, where he says that "the great religions are our richest treasuries of wisdom when it comes to the question of how best to live a life." I can say that many of them are endorsed by recent positive psychology research on happiness. It looks like a good list of wise rules for living to me. I wouldn't argue with any of them, but here are 5 more wise rules for living I would add.
11. Socialise, and make friends a priority (a few good friends may be better than many not so good friends)
12. Find and enjoy meaningful work (a portfolio career may be the answer for some)
13. Look after your body - diet with regards to health as well as weight and exercise in whatever way you enjoy.
14. Use your strengths and manage your weaknesses (positive psychology tends to emphasize the first bit more)
15. Be aware of negative emotions rather than avoid them, and either use CBT-type techniques to reduce them or discover the existential messages in them and take appropriate action.

I'd be interested if other readers would like to suggest other wise rules for a happy and meaningful life, or comment on the link between religion and wisdom suggested by the Chief Rabbi.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Happiness and its Causes, London Conference report

This was a great conference for three reasons.

First, it brought together some leading thinkers on happiness. Second, it was eclectic and inclusive and had a light touch - happy in spirit as well as subject matter. Thirdly, it was inspiring - I went away thinking and feeling that this was a vibrant area, and that this was only the first step.

Make no mistake, there were some serious thinkers on show here, including authors of three recent books on happiness.

But this conference was a meeting of East and west, for we also had several Buddhist monks and nuns, which was very fitting since science is beginning to show a link between meditation and both happiness and improved health. As positive psychology expert Felicia Huppert wrote in her paper in the conference proceedings (Learning about Happiness)

By bringing together the Eastern spiritual enlightenment and the Western intellectual enlightenment I believe we can do much to increase our individual and collective happiness

It brought together science and religion, academics and monks, as well as those involved in developing happiness programmes in organisations in one large, well-organised two-day conference in London.

I won't attempt to give a full report here - just some personal highlights and some thoughts about the next steps that might follow from such an inspirational event.

  • Walking in to see actress Goldie Hawn eulogising about how a few minutes mindfulness each day lights up childrens brains in the programme she has founded
  • Hearing the different perspectives of psychologist Daniel Nettle and philosopher Richard Schoch on happiness
  • Hearing the Venerable Sangye Khadro , author of How to Meditate (as Kathleen McDonald) talk about Buddhism
  • Hearing the group from Wellington school talk about their well-being classes
  • Some contributions from the floor, including an impassioned rendering of Amazing Grace

I'm not sure what impression the above list gives - probably sounds like a cross between an academic conference and Woodstock. Which is probably not so far off the mark. Except the drug being consumed was happiness and the variety particularly Buddhism.

The conference felt like it was the start of something more - perhaps even a new movement, bigger than positive psychology, different from Buddhism, aimed at the development of happiness and well-being -a multi-disciplinary movement with real impact. I hope it is.

(Happiness and its Causes took place on 13-14 October, 2007, at Savoy Place, London, UK).

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