A newspaper headline caught my eye the other day. It wasn’t dramatic or anything, but I liked what it had to say: “Banish those midlife blues – the secret to happiness starts with the little things in life.”
This story was in the Observer, which remains one of the little things in my own life. It’s there most Sundays and has been since the mid-1980s when I used to do Saturday shifts at the newspaper. Afterwards I’d meet my girlfriend/now wife for a meal and a film, then later I’d buy a first edition of the paper at Charing Cross and point out my contributions as we caught the rattle train home. My efforts on that newspaper’s behalf were small but perfectly formed, as used to be said of a long-ago editor of the Observer.
Anyway I like the idea of finding happiness in the little things. The story quoted Paul Dolan, author of a book called Happiness By Design and professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics.
Professor Dolan had been called on to comment about the recent survey which concluded that we are at our most miserable between the ages of 50 and 54, and have to wait until we are 65 for things to perk up again.
Too much was made of the so-called U-shape dip of our 40s and 50s when misery is said to collect, said the professor, adding: “It’s more about actually changing what you do to do more of the things we like – listen to music, go outdoors, meet friends and new people. If everybody did that every day, we’d be a lot happier.”
Listen to music, go for a walk or spend time with friends – well I do all of those and reckon they make me happy; or less unhappy than I might otherwise be. Maybe there are music-hating hermits with no friends who always have a smile on their face, but it seems unlikely; and besides no one is there to say for sure.
Small things make us happy because big things make us nervous – even good big things cast a shadow of expectation. Also happiness prefers to surprise us rather than being sought out; happiness can slip away when it sees its name in the diary.
Professor Dolan has been a well-being adviser to the government, but don’t hold that against him. One piece of advice he offers is never to read self-help books, as they “don’t work but merely encourage people to go and buy another self-help book”.
Well I’ve helped myself by never reading one of those and I don’t intend to start now; never been on a diet either, and I plan stay off those for as long as possible too (or for as long as the buttons on my Levi’s will do up).
Yes, little things can make us happy. Music, walks and friends. And snubbing the prime minister. Just a moment ago a party political broadcast for the Conservative Party popped up on the television screen when I was least expecting it. Before David Cameron’s faux-matey posh tones had finished saying: “This country is full of hard-working people…” I’d turned the TV off. And I felt much better for it. Cheered me up no end to escape whatever Mr Cameron had been about to say.
Now it’s time for a coffee. That mug of obliterated, brewed and plunged coffee beans will make me happy, unless it keeps me awake and then it won’t. This happiness lark is complicated.