TOMBOY BOOK CLUB- ‘Happier’ by Tal Ben-Shahar

Hello beautiful people!!!! Today’s book was actually an unexpected read for me, as I found it festering amongst neglected leaves of newspaper piling up around the computer at home. At first I was sceptical of how good it could be considering it was just a freebie. But would you give it credence, it did actually turn out to be rather useful and interesting… it is Tal Ben-Shahar’s ‘Happier: Can you learn to be happy?

Happier is all about that: if and how we can learn to be happier people. It emerges pretty quickly in this self-help guide that happiness definitely isn’t a fixed inheritance or finite chemical resource that ebbs effortlessly from seemingly god-blessed beings of perfection, distant icons of inspiration who never worry or struggle to feel beauty or joy. Happiness is an innate prescient energy within us all, but like any muscle or lesson it has to become a consciously chosen habit to make a lasting difference to how you live your life. Ben-Shahar strongly advocates that everybody has a capacity for building up happiness, but that it isn’t as simple as just accomplishing your goals or doing what you’re told and expecting to be rewarded forever after with bliss. Nope, not at all. Happiness cannot be made into an object; is not money, the ‘perfect body’, or thousands of admirers- whatever ‘thing’ you believe would make you content. Those objects are symbols of status and safety in our capitalist world, but in themselves alone are meaningless without a jolly soul to enjoy, appreciate and give them value. Happiness, in this book, must be a sustained and cultivated perspective- of seeing and being- for it to be of any sincere use.

Happiness is defined by Ben-Shahar as synthesis and balance: harmonising present pleasure with long term self-concordant goals of personal significance. At the beginning, he diagnoses three types of people with different methods for survival, and he refers back to these archetypes throughout.

There’s the rat-racer: somebody who works hard for success with little time to enjoy themselves, and whose happiness is only ever ephemeral. Rat-racers mistake the relief they feel when a goal is reached for happiness, but because relief implicitly means there was discomfort before, happiness only ever comes after suffering. This yo-yo between constantly working like a frenzied bitch and then gasping for air evidently is not a nice way to live BUT THANKS CAPITALISM!!!

Next there’s the hedonist: somebody who has given up on the delayed pleasure and incessant slogging of the rat-racer, and instead chooses to only focus on present pleasure with no thought for the future, or what is really meaningful to strive for. They want to relax, but because they have nothing to temper the hours, eventually what once brought pleasure is just a bore. Ennui and despondency sink in, having nothing to make the pleasure meaningful, and so the hedonist becomes the final archetype. The nihilist: Somebody who has given up on finding meaningful work, and given up on the idea that pleasure brings happiness. The nihilist believes life has no purpose or pleasure and there’s nothing to do about it (can relate)…

BUT THAT’S WHERE TAL BEN-SHAHAR STEPS IN! In Happier, there’s different sections for different aspects of life- your work/career, love life, family and aspirations- where Ben-Shahar explains what could currently be wrong with the way we have become accustomed to think, and gives exercises to help us see ourselves better so we know what to do differently. He uses footnotes and real psychology research, so this is bona fide advice for any of the haters out there. And ultimately I think the lesson that the book showed me is perspective, and what you choose to prioritize in your life.

Like, you can’t always control what happens to you or how people you love (or not) treat you, but you can choose how to respond and conduct yourself. You can choose not to let it be a reflection of your worth, and not to let it grind you down or make you behave nasty. I think it is a call to a more authentic dialogue with the self, to really listen and be tough with yourself about whether the current things you think are important, or which get you down, really are important or deserve to have that power of emotions over you. If you listen to what you, ONLY YOU- not what TV or teachers or magazines or priests or singers or celebrities or friends or doctors or enemies or lovers have told you- then there can be no doubt as to what will really make you happy.

It made me think a lot about the commodification of emotion too, the sense that our western culture operates on the idea that obtaining certain things (wealth, beauty, popularity) imbues you with a corresponding emotion. IT IS ALL LIES, because if we are always changing and each one of us different, how can we possibly all need the same objects/goals to be happy?! The book is a reality check: None of us have been explicitly given a list of things that we have to do before we die. The sadness sets in when we feel we’ve lost power over this opportunity of freedom to make our own definitions, and choices of what happiness is and looks like to us. Do not let other people decide your life for you. To me, the good life is a zoot with my friends, a cup of tea and a book, writing poems and thinking of ideas about literature and society and THE UNIVERSE. To my brother it is art, star wars and frankfurters. To my dogs it is good smelling mud, a warm fire, cuddles and chews. We are all so wonderful and none of us live long enough, so don’t let other people think or decide things about you for you, it can never bring happiness, just more of the same: more people all aiming for a small plinth of fabricated grandiose, money and celebrity, and all climbing over and crushing each other to get there.

One of my favourite ideas that Ben-Shahar puts forward is that of the spreading of happiness being like a revolution, BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LIVE FOR REVOLTUION AM I RIGHT LADIES?!? It can’t fail like other revolutions, where people have been forced externally to submit to new habits, because happiness cannot be forced or indoctrinated. It can only come from depths of yourself, and if it really is happiness and not pride or ego, shouldn’t ever bring others down. To Ben-Shahar happiness isn’t a competition, but infinity- you never want the feeling to end, you want a party to make the whole world dance! Helping yourself makes you more able of helping others, and looking at the state of the world right now, we definitely need to be helping and looking out for each other more.

To finish (sorry for this long cheesy post, the book has a lot to say and I have no qualms with being cheesy) I will include a quote as per usual. The book really isn’t long, and is accessible in its language and exercises so I really would recommend it to everybody! Whether you are in serious need of some guidance through murky waters, or just want to strengthen an already jolly soul- Happier might be able to help!!!! XOXOXOXOX

“As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. It is when we liberate ourselves from our fear of happiness that we can help others… ”

GRUMPY OLD WOMEN

If you know me (and if you do- aren’t you blessed!?!) then you’ll know there is one occupation of mine that takes up a rather large chunk of the limited amount of sunlight we get in this United Kingdom of Shitheads: I rant. A lot. Yet, my country (England) is known for being very, painstakingly polite… whilst decimating cultures and livelihoods across the globe. As you may sense, this political cultivation of elegance and grace has not caught on in the skull of M.G.B. I do not understand why we find farting in public so horrifying (remember the doctrine- ‘wherever you may be let your winds blow free’), yet for around 400 years we found the public degradation of a whole continent perfectly respectable?Why- Lord Nelson was so polite and patriotic in his support of slavery that we have given him a fucking 50ft. column to celebrate his militaristic racism! Long live that good old sense of propriety!

We like to believe that Britishness is all cricket whites on a summer green playing tiddlywinks with Annabelle, sipping on Pims for the glory of  ‘democracy’ whilst training our beloved pet dogs to curtsy. In reality, all we have is sun-burnt football hooligans with union jack scarves tied on-top of bald patches whilst they spittle their pints all over the place, belching about THOSE FUCKING (*insert racist/ misogynistic ect… intolerant stereotyping of a group here*). Basically: England and it’s history of (white) people haven’t got a fucking clue. I know I haven’t got a fucking clue either- but at least I don’t pretend to know with a silver spoon up my bottom; and if I do sound cocky in my announcement of ignorance, so be it.

I know that ranting doesn’t change the world (let us see the Suffragette wisdom- ‘deeds not words’), but it’s at least a bloody place to start isn’t it? It strikes me that the white patriarch in his tweed can rant and rave all he wants in the golf club man-cave about whatever new minority is causing his stocks to collapse; or, on the flip side of Britishness, the tired everyman in Wetherspoons who will happily drink German beer, but when faced with the prospect of multiculturalism and difference wants a Tardis trip back to D-Day so he can once again defend our precious cliffs.

It annoys me that people rant about the wrong things, because ranting for a good purpose can be a very cathartic and inspiring action. I begin my tirades, and I see a look of quizzical glee in their eyes: ohhh haha doesn’t she get her knickers in a twist?!? Or even worse, the dead-eyes that say: you’re wasting your breath. You are a small fish in a big pond, give up and join the rest of us in our day-time TV acquiescence towards the suffering of others.

WHY ARE MEN ALLOWED TO COMPLAIN AND NOT BE TOLD THEY ARE NAGGING? WHY AM I MADE TO FEEL SO FUTILE AND POWERLESS WHEN TRYING TO DISCUSS PROBLEMS THAT NEED TO BE CHANGED? WHY IS INJUSTICE ALLOWED TO BE SILENTLY ACCEPTED BY LITERALLY EVERY FACET OF SOCIETY, BUT WHEN SOMEBODY SPEAKS UP- IT IS THEM WHO IS IN THE WRONG?!?!

However, there is one person who saturates themselves with as much verbal ammunition to rain upon the barminess of the world as myself. My grandma. Okay- whilst her specialties include the woes of road potholes and carpet stains, rather than my métier consisting of the structural oppressions and aggressions of our white, abelist, heterosexual, phallogocentric, imperial, fatphobic, nationalistic patriarchy in the west (i’m getting riled up, can you tell?). Together we are the grumpy women of breakfast. Presiding over the Guardian and bowls porridge tutting away and adding our own commentary to the morning news. We listen to each other, and I think that’s the point. Yes, the world incessantly depresses us all as we collectively melt the ice caps and let migrants die with not one government actually giving a damn; but at least being able to say so without fear of being ostracized or labelled the family communist next Christmas dinner makes it all feel a little more manageable.

I don’t wanna be the grim reaper of news when I walk into a room and depress people with my rants, but I do find apathy, or even outright poo-pooing from others is a whole lot less depressing than biting my tongue the whole time and hoping it will all go away. I just hope these words don’t stay words, but that one day they will be a part of the plan for us all to help one another a bit more; without yawning half-way through some-ones dissection of whatever thing it is they’re trying to wrestle with for the better.

BRAIN ENGAGES, LET THE PARTY BEGIN!

Anxiety is a fickle mistress. One moment she can’t give a toss and is out trying to bed every Tom, Dick and Harry in Christendom; the next moment, there she is slap-bang on my doorstep with a bunch of cheap gas station roses and chocolates I don’t like. I could tell her to get lost… but then again, that would be like smashing a mirror, or deleting my own phone number. Useless. I am still here. She is still here.

If you didn’t guess by now- she is still here because she is me.

I keep forgetting that anxiety doesn’t really ‘get better‘- despite the cliched metaphor, I must say it. Anxiety changes like the weather. It is a slow rumbling of a realization to reach the point where you know there is actually a name for the hot-sticky fear gumming up your brain, and unfortunately, at least for me- I see no quick fix miracle for a fully-anxiety free future.

You may have a clue of what will trigger you to start worrying, but without good coping mechanisms and support- that trigger can turn into a full blown shoot-out. Personally, I’ve noticed three things that make me wanna smoke all my fingers like zoots: the prospect of evening/sleep, large crowds and THE FUTURE!!!!

aha I know the last one is quite dramatic, but it is sincere. Yet, I don’t want to unpick and examine all the affecting psychological complexities that perpetuate my anxiety and resulting bad behaviors; but to try to outline how I know when I’m thinking/worrying too much (verging on a panic attack), and just some lil’ tips of how to soothe that troubled lost-child soul, whoever you are.

STAGE ONE- BRAIN ENGAGES, LET THE PARTY BEGIN!: “OH HOLY SHIT WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING WHAT THE FUCK ARE THOSE STRANGERS THINKING WHAT THE FUCK AM I THINKING THE FUCK AM I DOING I DON’T DESERVE TO BE HERE WHAT ARE THESE PEOPLE THINKING WHAT IS THIS WORLD WHERE IS THE NEXT CRUELTY WHY WHY WHY…”

When I say, BRAIN ENGAGES, I am relating a semi-accurate recording of my neurons when they start to get boiled. But all jokes aside, having a panic attack really isn’t fun, and for all those who don’t take them seriously or whatever- SUCK MY TITTIES! 

Normally I feel my body get hotter, it will be harder to concentrate and (especially in crowded places that I don’t know so well) become more disorientating to try and find your way round- which really doesn’t help the incessant throes of inadequacy tossing around in the noggin’s mental soup. But,when I’m at home and feel anxiety coming, I annoy everyone in the vicinity by pacing round and round, wringing my hands and finding it impossible to not tap my feet.

It gets more serious when my breathing gets shallow, the tears flow uncontrollably and my hands cramp up real bad like pins and needles. It starts in the hands, but can travel. Sometimes it gets so intense I won’t be able to walk or move properly at all, I’ll just be a tightening ball of tears and rasping. It is humiliating (especially on public transport).  It is painful- both physically, but more mentally. I feel ashamed and embarrassed of what everyone else must think: “What a wimp”.

But anxiety and I (and yourselves, oh my beloveds) need to stay in my/our lane: you will never know what another person is thinking. It isn’t their heart or emotions or brain or life, so try to be kinder and as my grandma would say: “do attempt to restore some order”.

If your hands are cramping, do all you can to ease them- try pulling the fingers apart or sit on them to stop them seizing up again. Take deep, slow, measured breaths, close your eyes and think of the person/ animal/place that makes you feel the most at ease and sure of yourself. I would recommend trying to call a loved one if it’s possible; if not, and you’re shy and don’t want to ask strangers for help (I try to be trusting, but sometimes you need your own zone) try to find a secluded area that is safe but quite peopleless, and let those waterworks be free from observation whilst you try to get it together.

Keep reassuring yourself if you’re alone that it will all be alright. The truth shifts and changes, reality isn’t forever. You are trying and you are loved. You are not evil and you can love. Be your own cheerleader- but more gentle, sans the irritating valley girl accent and sickening pompoms all rustling like binbags.

 

I am only talking from personal experience, and I’m sure there must be attacks way worse than what I have had to cope with. So if my tips aren’t useful, I am sorry- But if your’e comfortable, please feel free to share your own tips/experiences feelings. (I want to make friends!)

Critical thinking, sky-musing and bad-ass rhetoric are my jam. But if this mental problem-solving is causing you occasional strife, it perhaps doesn’t make you a wimp or uncaring to not see all the atrocities of the world as soon as you awaken, which could possibly put you on edge from the time you finish your coco-pops to when University Challenge comes on (and the team you wanted to win, lose- obviously.) At the end of the day, worrying is just caring too much. There is nothing wrong with caring (goddammit, the world needs more caring people), but if you want to live a life of love and really make a difference to all the people and problems you want to help, you gotta love yourself first. I feel like such a hypocrite typing that as I still routinely hate myself on a daily basis. But I am trying. And that is what matters.

So, to return to you: you gotta do what makes you happy because when you are happy is when you’re truly alive. Shindig to Presley in your knickers. Kiss a snail (maybe not, are they germy?) Call your grandma and talk about what singer she fancied when she was 15. Write out your feelings in haiku or acrostic form and then perform it for your dogs (to clarify- I’ve never read my own poems to my dogs) Hell- watch fucking Dick and Dom in the Bungalow with a zoot and some ovaltine. YOU DO YOU BABES!!!! and your’e not being selfish or lazy or stupid. You are being happy and not self-destructive. This is good. Repeat and repeat (whilst not neglecting ‘adult’ duties or defining fun as exclusively additive substances – haha)

Sending all my love to those who struggle with anxiety, any difficulty or disability that makes life a bit more of a slog. We will be alright. 

xoxosxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxxoxoxoxoxo