There’s always a bigger boat

31 07 2013

It is a truth universally held that money doesn’t buy happiness but lots of people are making lots of money by persuading the unhappy to part with their cash in the pursuit of happiness. There are, so I’m told, more councillors in the UK than there are GP’s and with the creeping privatisation of the NHS the imbalance isn’t likely to get any less profound anytime soon. And life-coaches outnumber all other mammals on the planet by 3:1.

OK, I made that last bit up but there are thousands of them as everyone who isn’t a life-coach, and most of those who are, is searching for happiness. And they want it quickly. How about, “Change your Life in 7 days”, one of a myriad of similarly named self-help books, this one from ex-TV personality Paul McKenna.

At least the books are cheap, a day course with a self-styled life-coach can, and often does, cost hundreds of pounds.  And who are these life-changers? The field is unregulated and includes those with no qualifications. But what qualification would be appropriate for someone who claims to coach you to happiness in a week? Does anyone really believe that they can change another persons life in a course lasting a day, a weekend, a week?

I mean REALLY change that person’s life in a real and permanent way? Not just that sugar-rush of having spent time in a room with someone telling you how wonderful you are and how much you deserve to be happy.

If such instant transformation was tangible and lasting then why do so many people go back for a second course, and a third and so on? And why do coaches boast of their regular clients? Surely if the life-coach could do what they claim to do then they would only ever have one-off clients.

It’s like chiropractor. You go along with a problem, they snap something back into place, you feel better – for a while. But since they have treated the symptoms rather than the cause you’ll be back again a few weeks later. I have a friend who has a bad back and swears blind that her chiropractor is fabulous. She is happy to go along every few weeks to be fixed, at great expense, and happily ignores the fact that very soon after she is broken again.

I don’t doubt that some people, maybe lots of people, are unhappy but is sitting in a smart hotel room with other people who can afford the almost £300 these courses typically cost the right way to find happiness.  I don’t think so.

So what makes people happy? Nobel prizewinner Danial Kahneman showed in his research that we are actually pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy.  Certain things, like being poor, do make you miserable but finding things guaranteed to bring happiness is not as clear-cut.  We adapt to pleasure and will choose things that give us a short feel-good burst: chocolate, buying things, spending a day in a room with a life coach.  But the feeling of happiness quickly wears off. It’s a sugar rush.

So how about this for an idea? And you can have it for free – though it’s OK for you to send £300 if that makes you feel better, after all we are talking about happiness here – caring about other people makes you happier.

To rephrase, to make sure you are getting your moneys worth as you are not getting this message in the comfort of some expensive hotel room from the lips of an expensive presenter and so might doubt its veracity, stop trying to find something to fix inside yourself and look outwards.

One thing that research has shown is that we judge our lives against other people. I remember being in Monte Carlo when I was much younger and more easily impressed by stuff than I am now. There was always a bigger boat. That is, all the boats lined up in the harbour were massive and would have dwarfed those in any other marina in the world. Here these boats were all ranged next to each other and were much less impressive because of it.  And none of the boat owners seemed happy. While their yacht may have turned heads in their home marina here they had just another boat.

So, knowing that we judge ourselves in comparison to others, stop pottering round in your middle-class world feeling that life isn’t as good as it could be, that you are not as happy as you should be, and visit a soup kitchen. You will feel better to have helped someone else and you will have saved £300.

And the biggest impact on happiness is having good relationships, good friends. So rather than spending £300 to sit in a room full of dissatisfied strangers deepen the relationships you have with your friends. Use the money you just saved on a mini-break to the seaside with your pals.

And if you ever feel the need of a life-coach go for a coffee with a mate and send me the remaining £297. I’ll donate it to a really good cause. You’ll feel better, your pal will feel better, I’ll feel better, the good cause will feel better. The only person not feeling so good is the life-coach who has just missed out on £300. But if the life-coach is as good as they say, they can fix themselves.

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Shiny Happy People

28 01 2010

Pretending that everyone can get what they want so long as they believe in it enough is not only nonsense but potentially damaging.

It absolves us all from tackling the injustice, inequality and unfairness that still exist in our societies.

It places the responsibility for failure entirely with the failed individual and fails to acknowledge the part others may have played in individual success.

Surely there is a debate to be had about how much individuals are responsible for creating the good life and how much is down to us all. Or as Margeret Thatcher would have had us believe, is there no such thing as society?

There is a balance to be had between, for example, providing uplifting articles about how to find time to build a businees from home while juggling the conflicting demand of business/hom,e/family and obliging us all to lobby for decent maternity/paternity leave and payments.

Please don’t misunderstand, I think that we should celebrate success, after all the3rdi magazine which I co-founded and edit, is full of inspirational stories from magnificent women, but my concerns are threefold

1) that because obstacles have been overcome by one individual in order to achieve success we as a society are tacitly given permission to ignore the persistence and even the very existence of those obstacles. For example a black man is now president of the United States of America and rather than this being an opportunity to look more closely at the obstacles that have kept black people away from high office for so long it has allowed America to continue to turn a blind eye to inequality…if Obama can do it any black man can and, more worryingly, anyone who can’t must be stupid or lazy or both. In this way predudice is reinforced.

And as President Obama, the YES WE CAN president is himself finding out, at least in Minn??, No you can’t or at least not all of the time.

2) We undervalue the success for real stars. If all that is needed to succeed is to offer up your desires to the universe and the universe will deliver the positive attributes also needed to succeed, such as hard work and perseverance are undermined.

At the risk of offending the hundreds of self-styled patriots that have sprung up recently, our soldiers are not all heroes. Most of them are just young men whose job it is to be part of the army. Some of them behave appallingly and there are many cases of torture by British troops of the citizens of Iraq under investigation. Most do the job that they are paid for without incident and some do something heroic. They undertake an act of selfless bravery above that which is required or expected as part of that job. To call all soldiers heroes is inaccurate but worse it undervalues the actions of the real heroes amongst them.

3) It assigns those in society who are not at the very top, who are not shiny, happy people to the eternal role as second class citizens and makes it their own fault. Surely this cannot be right.

And so much of the tyranny of the positive soundbite socity is that it smacks of the celebrity obsession that pervades our whole society. I dream a dream is all well and good and it is fantastic to see the success of Susan Brown, but it also spawns Jedward, where fame and fortune are entirely uncoupled from talent.

Neither am I advocating a Victor Meldrew style pessimism and curmudgeonism that holds sway in a some parts of British society. What I am proposing is a return to reason.

A positive attitude may be a better starting point from which to change your life for the better than determined defeatism but it should not be used as an excuse not to tackle the basic inequalities that do still exist in our society.

You cannot reverse the effects of climate change, for example, simply by thinking positively about the problem. A positive attitude may allow you to believe that it is worth the effort of trying to make a difference but it is the action that we take that will actually make the difference.

And finally, it is all relative. I might look at any of the fine yachts in Inverkip harbour and think that it is big. Roman Abramovich would look at the same yacht and, in all likelihood, think it small. It is only when we get out a tape measure and see just how big it is that the yacht is removed from the subjective to the actual. We have restored some reason. And it is only when we look at the job we need that yacht to do, sail the high seas or manoeuvre through the twist and turns of the Crinan Canal that the value of each yacht is revealed!