Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Happiness is...

As I was driving to meet a friend for coffee yesterday, I caught a snatch of a Radio 4 programme on Stacey Jackson. It was one of those surreal moments when the outside world seems to chime with your own thoughts. Stacey, a Canadian mother of four who became a pop sensation at the age of 40, was talking about her restless ambition to set up a new business selling fitness clothes:
"A lot of people say but she should be so happy, she has four great kids and she's got a great husband... I can't just settle with one source of happiness. I'm so happy when I am up on stage performing in front of thousands of people. I'm so happy when somebody says, 'Oh my God, I love your top! Where can I buy one?' I am so happy when somebody says your son is amazing, he just got into a great university..."

A child laughing in a sunny park
The art of being happy
Don't panic - I am not about to launch my new career as a pop star - but I could see sense in what Stacey was saying. Like many people mired in a midlife patch, I am often trying to analyse what makes me happy and how I should manage my life going forward. 

As a mother I not prepared to live vicariously through my children, delighted though I am when they do well at school. It appears I am not alone - all around me, mums are setting themselves up in business, joining the gym, volunteering or embarking on further study. The early days of parenthood - an intensive period of child-rearing - are over and my friends are devoting more energy to the pursuit of self-fulfilment. Mid-lifers like us are still young enough to demand more from life, but old enough to appreciate that the clock is ticking.


At the bottom of the graph


A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to listen to (Lord) Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College London, talking about what makes us happy. One of his slides was a U-shaped graph showing how our happiness declines from the age of 42 (my age) to 50 years old. I fear dark days ahead! After that, thankfully, the line on the graph climbs steeply, suggesting that contentment is the companion of old(er) age.

According to the estimable Professor Winston, happiness is influenced by multiple factors, ranging from our fertility to our imagination and the evolution of our big brains. In particular, our wellbeing is bound up with good health - happy people heal faster and even feel less symptoms when they are ill (laughter also releases endorphins that boost our immune system). 

The arrival of children and grandchildren contributes to our happiness, as does earning more money than our neighbours according to scientific studies! Comparative experience forms another piece of the puzzle: bad experiences help us to value our periods of happiness. (The exception to this is an unhappy childhood which can create problems later on.) 

In our increasingly secular society, happiness has become the holy grail. There are endless articles in the media devoted to improving mental health, taking the pressure off school-age children or discovering the best place to live in the UK. Learning the art of happiness, however, is a subjective business. Theories and therapies abound, but sometimes feeling happy can be a random event: you wake up, the stars are aligned and you go forth with a smile on your face. 

So if our levels of happiness fluctuate throughout the course of our lifetime, such buoyancy, when it comes, is to be prized. We can try to analyse what makes us content, but really the most practical course of action is to diversify our sources of happiness. Not all of us will share Stacey Jackson's frenetic energy levels, but her philosophy still stands. In the meantime, keep laughing and look forward to the grandchildren!



FURTHER READING

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Boost your immune system by reading this quirky and humorous novel about a genetics professor's statistical approach to finding a wife. Guaranteed to make you laugh out loud!