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.