Tomorrow is International Day of Happiness and I am doing some preparatory work. I wouldn’t go into a piano exam without practicing, would I? So I think it best to get ahead of myself by rehearsing some of the tricks one might employ to bolster an attack of low spirits. A. says, “skip to keep your spirits up”, and that’s fine, in certain circumstances. I might skip down a country lane, or along a beach with my nephew, but – individual as I like to think I am – skipping alone around the streets of Edinburgh makes me feel like an eejit, drains my happiness and shakes my knee joints. I often catch myself either whistling or singing as I walk the city streets, though. Like the governess, Anna, from ‘The King and I’ I follow the urge to whistle a happy tune as I walk down the street. I can also be found finishing the song that has been playing on the car radio long after I’ve parked it and walked away. Singing: yes, that’s a tried and tested happiness technique. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of forced singing to get you through the hard times and lift one’s mood. Wasn’t that what Vera Lynn was all about? “There’ll be love and laughter, and peace ever after, tomorrow, just you wait and see.” Her songs were harbingers of hope – and with hope, comes a measure of happiness. When I ran a singing group the ‘happy’ songs were amongst the most popular. Bums on seats would start wriggling and shoulders would shake like maracas to the strains of ‘When you’re smiling’, ‘Bring me sunshine’, and ‘Sing Hallelujah come on get happy’.
In a week when we’ve learned that the Finnish are the happiest people on earth, how do we emulate their smile? I suspect that one way to start is to ditch the pressure to feel happy all the time. No need for constant belly laughs, wearing big smiles and always having something to look forward to. One cannot be happy without giving attention to the sadness. I think that allowing oneself a good cry is a great foundation for happiness. It might seem counter-intuitive, but one of the best things we can do for our happiness and well-being is to feel the unhappiness when it comes, dive in and let it smooth us like the waves do to the pebble on the beach filing the sharp edges. It’s a bit like painting your home, the best paint job in the world won’t hold unless the walls have been well prepared: dusted, washed, gently rubbed with a rough pad, flaking paint scraped, cracks filled and smoothed, and primer applied. It sounds like a shocking palaver, work that no one relishes doing, but you’ll end up with a much better finish and paint that is less inclined to peel. Doesn’t a good cry can have the same effect? Cleans one’s heart and mind leaving it open for happiness that’s more likely to stick around.
Singing, skipping, whistling, coffee from the café where they shape a thistle into the froth – we all have our methods to shake the gloom, so why the need for an international day of happiness at all? Are we just adding to a ridiculous and meaningless roll call of labels randomly attached to every day of the year? ‘Hug an Australian Day’, ‘World Compliment Day’ and ‘Weed Appreciation Day’ all fall in March. Don’t tell me you’ve missed them? World Naked Gardening Day lands on 5th May, so there! I’ve given you plenty of notice; let’s hope the sun is shining. A day to consider one’s happiness – how to achieve or maintain it, to remember that it is elusive, it comes and goes – is a day well spent. If you wish, you may choose judiciously from a letter from Sydney Smith, essayist and clergyman, to Lady Georgiana of Morpeth, written 16th February 1820. I cannot say I hold with all his instructions, although I do find the very reading of it cheering.
“Advice Concerning Low Spirits”
“Dear Lady Georgiana,– Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1. Live as well as you dare. 2. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3. Amusing books. 4. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5. Be as busy as you can. 6. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18. Keep good blazing fires. 19. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,
Very truly yours, Sydney Smith”