Want to be Happier? Join a Happiness Group!

Being Happiness

One way to ensure more happiness is to find a group of people that are committed to making their lives happier, calmer, better.

I don’t think it matters if the group is Christian, Buddhist, Secular or Hare Krishna (even a local group of photographers or painters!) – there are a thousand paths to happiness, and we have to be our own best judge as to which one is right for us.

Over the past few years I’ve been attending meditation groups in the tradition of  Thich Nhat Hanh, because years ago I read his book, Peace is Every Step, which struck a deep chord in me, and so it happens that it is the path I most closely follow at the moment.

His book led to going to family retreats at his Plum Village center in France (where on my first visit the head nun said “don’t worry, you don’t leave here as buddhists”, and I was relieved to find it wasn’t a crazy sect bent on converting me to some drastic dogmatic religion or taking all my money!), and from there to local meditation meetings with others that also appreciate his teachings on mindfulness and the ‘art of mindful living’.

Tonight I went along to check out the local Wake Up group – for 18 to 35 year olds, an age range I just pass, but no one seemed to mind. We met in a big park, did a guided meditation to calm us down and come back to the present moment, a walking mediation around the park, sang a song, did another guided meditation on gratitude, then shared stories from our experiences of becoming calmer and happier.

Finally, one of the girls in the group read a meditation she’d devised on joy, then pulled out paper and coloured pens, and had us all draw our interpretation of joy. 16 adults sat under the trees in the park with big smiles on their faces looking like a bunch of happy kids.

I came home calm and extremely happy. Much happier than I’d been earlier that day. And I found a decidedly unhappy wife waiting for me!

She’d had a hard day, and was exhausted. Half an hour later, after I told her all about the meeting, she was smiling again. The happiness group had cheered me up to such an extent that I could pass on that good energy to her too. Happiness, it seems, is more easily generated in a group of people with happiness as a clear intention, and once you’ve had a good dose of it, it is clearly contagious.

The shy, retiring, protestant-upbringing, ‘our family doesn’t do that sort of thing’ part of me cringes at the idea that I should be encouraging people to go and join groups of happy people, let alone groups based around eastern philosophies and mediation. But the fact is that as a supporting presence it’s done me an awful lot of good.

For me the key to the Plum Village/Thich Nhat Hanh path has been the focus on mindfulness, cultivating an awareness of what is going on around us, and crucially, inside us – keeping an eye on our internal landscape of emotions, thoughts, feelings, consciousness – a careful appreciation of our own personal inner weather report. We learn to transform our suffering, stresses and problems first, and then are better able to be happy and present for others.

(By the way, these are two good questions to ask yourself regularly – How’s my internal landscape today? What’s my internal weather report? Stormy? Catch it early, get some space, and hold off the hurricane!)

If buddhism-based practices put you off, try a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, or check out other secular initiatives like Action for Happiness groups. Try a few until you find one you like. If you want to find a Plum Village/Thich Nhat Hanh group, then there is an international directory here, and for the Wake Up intiative, “Young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society, .. a world-wide network of young people practising the living art of mindfulness” – see http://www.wkup.org/

In the end joining any group of nice people based around a healthy activity can lead to more happiness – it’s about finding community with similar aspirations to you. I always thought that this group of sketchers in Singapore look like they have the best fun in the world!

Despite all my original ingrained British reticence, scepticism and, at the bottom of it all, fear, hanging out with a group of other people that are firmly stepping along a path of happiness helps more than I could possibly have imagined.

The Bloom Of The Present Moment

Grasses in Plum Village, France

Visiting friends Ian and Luis this week, in their oasis of peace between the mountains and sea in Asturias, northern Spain, we sat in their garden discussing doing nothing.

Luis observed that after about 15 minutes of sitting still with his cats in the garden, things started to happen. Nature would become happy with his calm presence, and birds that usually  fled from human presence would return to the garden, he would get a keen sense of the weather from watching the sky. Ian mentioned how with time to stop and look at the mountain ridges towering in the distance, you might see the cloud flowing slowly and magnificently off the ridges like water.

All you need is time to stop, not turn on the iPod or iPad, not even reach for a book, just to stop and look. I tried it later that night when I got back to our accommodation in a quiet Asturian village. Sitting outside the front door of our house, with nothing to do, after a few minutes I noticed plants I’d never seen, the red in the leaves on a nearby wall, I saw how a vine had climbed quite amazingly almost to the very top of a pine tree that was twice as high as the house beneath it.

I felt quite delighted by all the things I’d never noticed before.

All this reminded me of a quote from the wonderous Walden, by Henry David Thoreau:

“I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest. My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.” From Chapter 4 – Sounds, in Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

Don’t Make Happiness a Goal – Be Happy Now!

North Cornwall Coastal Path, Morwenstow

It appears my holiday blogging-break has lasted … 2 days – Happiness is the freedom to change my mind! I thought this was worth writing about.

“…becoming free of the ego cannot be made into a goal to be attained at some point in the future. Only presence can free you of the ego, and you can only be present Now, not yesterday, or tomorrow.” Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

I realised yesterday (during one of yesterday’s present moments, while staring into the bathroom mirror to be precise!) that this quote applies equally to happiness. There is no point in making happiness a goal, because that implies that it is something we hope to achieve in the future. Seeing as we only have the present moment to live in, it makes much more sense just to be happy right now.

Realising this made me smile and feel happier right then and there. Happiness isn’t my goal any more, it’s just a way to be right now, already, in the present moment. Why wait?



Starting to Stop

Plum Village Monk Relaxing in the Park

When the monks were in town, I noticed that whenever they had the opportunity, they stopped. Usually by lying down on the floor. If they had 5 minutes, it was 5 minutes, if they had an hour, then an hour. No matter what time of day it was, if they had the chance or need for a rest, they took it, practicing a little deep relaxation.

I’m a doer. I’m doing things all day long. Stopping is often difficult for me. Always something to read, something to write, email to check, something to do … I have a lot to learn still from the monks, but I’m discovering a few things that work:

Sometimes I go out onto the roof terrace and watch the starlings in the morning or evening sky – they worry about nothing but gliding around and catching flies – there is a lot to be learned from them!

Sometimes I sit on a bench in the park and watch joggers go by, or listen to the sounds of the park, look at the leaves of the trees in the breeze, or notice how odd it is that people can walk upright and not fall over!

Even just a few moments on the sofa with no book, no TV, no plans, can be a miracle of peace! Especially if I remember to just follow my breathing, or see how my body is feeling.

This week we are off on our summer holidays and I intend to stop quite a lot. Should I leave the laptop at home? Can I stop blogging here at beinghappiness.com for a few weeks? We’ll see! Getting obsessed about stopping everything doesn’t lead me to more happiness either!

I think I’ll just be peaceful, and let the holidays unfold, one day at a time.

3 Things…

1. A favourite video on stopping, from Plum Village:

2. A favourite blog: adventures in altruism from my friends Ian and Luis, full of wise words on living a more fulfilled and happier life.

3. Thank you! Happy Summer Holidays to you all. Thank you very much for reading this blog so far.

Back sooner or later (depending on how the stopping goes!) with more…


3 Year Old Zen Masters

Being Happiness

The other day my wife, my 3 year old son and I, went on a couple of car-related errands. First we had to pick the car up from a workshop, where our son gazed in amazement at the cars up on hydraulic lifts, and the mechanics asked him if he wanted to come and work with them for a few days.

Then we headed to the MOT/annual car check station, where we drove through a a huge warehouse having our headlights, indicators, brakes and so on checked, the highlight for our son being when one of the inspectors went down under the car and started rattling around the suspension and drive shaft.

All in all it was a pretty exciting day for a car-mad 3 year old boy.

Later I asked him, “which workshop did you like best, the first one with the cars up on the lifts or the second one where they did all the tests on the car?”

To which he answered, “Both!”

Aha! I remembered! For 3 year olds, where agreeable things are concerned, there is no “better” or “worse”. There is just good and good!

Along we come as adults and start introducing ideas about what is better, and therefore what is less good. Sooner or later we all end up with marked preferences, which means there are things we like more than other things, and when we get the ones we like less… we are less happy.

Sometimes I ask my son, “which is your favourite colour?”

To which he usually replies, “Yellow! …And blue, and green, and red!”

Everything is favourite! Everything is great, everything is fine! No dichotomy, no duality, everything is just perfect. How can you not be happier living like that? There is so much to learn from 3 year olds!

I’m going to see if I can remember not to ask him questions about what he likes better any more. Long may he enjoy life where nothing is better than anything else, but all is agreeable and fine. There is much happiness there.

Can We Change?

Pool, Andalusia

This weekend we were visiting friends in Jaen, in the south of Spain. It was about 42ºC (108ºF), but luckily the house we were having lunch at had a pool. Which is great, except in general I don’t like swimming pools. I’m more of a sea person… or at least that’s what I tell myself and everyone else.

So while the others were having the time of their life splashing about with the kids in the pool, I sat nearby in the shade, convincing myself that I was perfectly happy. Except that I was dying of heat and beginning to wonder if maybe I ought to be a swimming pool person after all.

Finally my son swung things for me. “Dad! Come swimming with me, please!”

And I realised I didn’t want my son to think his dad was the weird one who never went swimming, who ‘doesn’t like pools’, and I quickly asked our hosts to borrow some trunks, jumped in with my son, and had the time of my life too!

This fits in with a new ‘yes instead of no’ approach to life I’ve been cultivating over recent months.

Recently, my friend Tom’s girlfriend wrote to me in secret, asking if I would come to his 40th birthday party in Barcelona as a surprise. My initial reaction was, “No, it’s mid-week, it’ll upset the family routine, I don’t feel like it…”, which after brief reflection I quickly changed to, “What fun! Why not! Yes of course!” – and once again, I had the time of my life during my overnight surprise trip to Barcelona.

After finally enjoying the pool with my son this weekend, our hosts suggested a game of ping pong. Again, my first thought (and typical life-long reaction) was, “Hmmm, no, I’m rubbish at that, I think I’ll just watch,” which I quickly changed to, “Why not!” – and it turned out that a) I wasn’t that rubbish and b) it was some of the best fun I’ve had in years!

So I’m really starting to appreciate the benefits of changing “I don’t do that” to “That should be interesting”, of changing “Definitely not” to “Why not?”

I’m keeping an eye out for the negative response and changing it to the positive one, and life is improving immensely as a result. Every ‘yes’, especially at the level of “I’m not a pool person” to “Lend me some trunks!” is a small victory on the path to change.

‘Everything is impermanent,’ says buddhist philosophy, and people think that’s all about accepting the end of good things in life, or accepting the fact that we all die one day. But it’s also about the impermanence of bad habits or negative attitudes, and how they can change for the better, quickly bringing us more happiness in the process.

So, can we change? If I can become a swimming pool person, then of course we can!

“We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence our sadness and suffering will pass.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Corn field, Costa del Luz, Andalusia

The “5 Things To Be Happy About” Trick

I sometimes forget to do this for myself if I have an off day, but I’m annoyingly quick with it on the rare occasions I notice my wife frowning, or looking a little less than her usual happy self.

“Quick!” I say, “Tell me 5 things you are happy about! I’ll do it too!”

And I make her give me a list of 5 things she can still be happy about right now, no matter how bad life is looking, or whatever terrible things might be going on.

When she’s come up with her list of 5, I come up with 5 of my own, and before you know it, we are both much happier!

There are always 5 things to be happy about – we are going out to lunch tomorrow, it’s lovely weather, I’m really enjoying the book I’m reading, I’m fit and healthy, I’m seeing some great friends this weekend – it doesn’t have to be more complicated than any of that!

Next time you feel down, depressed, grumpy… try the “5 Things To Be Happy About Trick” – it works wonders.

(And you can even use it when you are already happy too, to feel even happier! Try it now!)

Too Many Cows – A Favourite Tale

Cows in New South WalesMy favourite tale from the buddhist tradition goes like this:

Buddha is sitting in a forest one day with some of his monks, when a farmer appears, looking very unhappy. Asking him what the matter is, the farmer replies, “I have lost my 12 cows, I am so unhappy, have you seen them?”

They reply that they have not, and the farmer runs on, distressed, in search of the cows.

“Friends,” says Buddha to his monks when the farmer has gone, “you are lucky, you don’t own any cows”.

The idea is that the more things we have to look after, and the more things we have to worry about, and the more projects we have on the go, then the less space we have in our life to just relax and be happy.

Every now and again I do an exercise I call “how many cows have I got at the moment?”

At the moment, my ‘cows’ list looks like this:

1. Being a good dad and husband

2. Work/the business

3. Writing beinghappiness.com

4. Looking after 2 other blogs that I’m not updating right now

5. Art class on tuesday evenings

6. Sorting out the car problems before the MOT (ITV here in Spain) runs out

7. Finishing minimalising my stuff

This is at least 2 more cows than I want to cope with! In fact if I ditched all but the first 3, I’d be a lot more relaxed, and do a much better job at them!

But I see that I can release cows 4 to 7 by the end of the month – then I’ll have to watch out I don’t immediately invite 5 more cows onto the ranch!

Have you got (too) many ‘cows’ on the go right now?

Have you got a favourite fable or life-sorting exercise?

Curing Title-itis: Design Your Own Private Masters Degree


There is a contagious disease in Spain (though I think it’s fairly global these days), which the Spanish have given the wonderful name of ‘titulitis’ – in English it would be title-itis I suppose, and it goes like this:

You get a degree (a typical titulo), then you realise you need a Masters degree in something, because everyone else has got a degree too, and then you feel an urge to do some important and well-recognised language exam, because everyone else is getting one… and so it goes on, the accumulation of ‘titulos’.

Examination boards flourish, our inner striver feels wonderfully nourished, and we keep taking exams and putting ourselves through hellishly exhausting courses, when we are often only interested in a tiny percentage of their actual content.

I have a degree, and a good qualification in a well-recognised Spanish language exam system, so I have not been immune to this affliction, but I have found a cure.

I call it “My own Private Masters Degree in Whatever I Feel Like!”

A few years ago I wanted to learn more about setting up, running, and making a success of an online business. We were doing OK with Notes in Spanish, and had the creativity side of things sorted out, but no idea about how to grow this into something that would really pay my wife and my wages, securely, for some time to come.

So I set about looking for a program that would teach me what I wanted to learn, and found there were exactly none.

I knew just want I needed – some self-confidence boosting, a pinch of ‘personal development’, lots of entrepreneurial skills, a great deal of (internet) marketing know-how… so I set about designing my own Do-It-Yourself masters degree in, well, all that stuff.

After spending a lot of time researching online, reading blogs, forums, and talking to friends that had some know-how in any of these areas, I came up with a list of books to read or listen to, and small-scale self-taught courses to work on. Soon I was happily studying and, crucially, putting into practice, my own fully-tailored, totally interesting, 100% useful, private masters degree.

And the results were amazing… our company grew, I grew, and I was really happy doing things my way instead of worrying about whether I ought to do an MBA or something equally exhausting instead.

Nowadays I’ve got two long-term, hands-on private masters degrees on the go: one on happiness, the other on parenting. I’m much more relaxed about these. I read a book or two about happiness, follow a blog for a while, listen to a talk by a Zen master, occasionally go on a retreat, go to talks about being a better dad at my son’s school… and again take care to put it all into practice.

There’s no title at the end of these courses, no certificates, no governing bodies or exam boards – just the happiness of knowing I’m learning exactly what I need, just when I want to.

If you think an MBA will make you happy or help you follow your dreams, go for it, but if you worry you’ve just got a classic case of titulitis, there is a cure: have fun learning exactly what motivates you, on your own terms, and in your own time.

There’s no university course or masters degree on the planet as good as the one you invent for yourself.

The Art of Life


Being Happiness

Last night I was at an art class, diligently painting away at a field of flowers, when suddenly I lost my way and had no idea how the picture was going to turn out. The background was too strong, the flowers a bit generic, and why on earth was I painting flowers anyway?

Catching myself on the verge of a moment of artistic despondency, I made a decision: Smile, keep painting, keep smiling, keep painting, see what happens!

Half an hour later the background was under control, the flowers looked great, and I was really happy with the picture. Wow, I thought, life is probably as simple as that too! Keep smiling, keep going, keep smiling, see how it turns out!

Apart from smiling, there are all sorts of other artists’ tools at our disposal. Kindness, calm, generosity, patience, peace, just Being… all playing their part in creating a real work of art of our life, every day that we are alive.

“I know artists whose medium is Life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel, or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased Life. They SEE and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.” Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing. Seeing/Drawing as Meditation

“If we just act in each moment with composure and mindfulness, each minute of our life is a work of art. Even when we are not painting of writing, we are still creating. We are pregnant with beauty, joy, and peace, and we are making life more beautiful for many people.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step