- The Guardian,
- Thursday October 23 2008
Don't worry. You can be happy. All you have to do, according to government thinktank Foresight, is follow its five-a-day programme of social and personal activities, and mental health and wellbeing shall be yours. Just as you should aim for a quintet of fruit and vegetables daily, you should now be aiming every day to connect with others, take some exercise, learn something new, take notice of your surroundings and get involved with your neighbours and local community. Manage all this and you will emerge - or so the theory goes - with a psyche as sleek and healthy as your bowels.
My own theory is that nothing is more likely to add to the sum of human misery than excessive interaction with others, enforced exercise and a daily stare round the bleak and desolate environs in which most of us live, but perhaps that just goes to show that I need to sign up to the government plan and sluice my psyche free of the cynicism, antipathy and scepticism currently gunging up its works. So for one day only, I gave it a shot:
1. Connecting with friends, family, colleagues and neighbours
This is a lot harder than it looks. I work from home, so have no colleagues immediately to hand. My sister lives in Bristol and hates me. I've been trying to connect with my father for 34 years and he's still not interested, while if I become any more closely connected to my mother there is every chance that we will become one indivisible being, to - I assure you - absolutely no one's mental benefit.
I ring round my friends but they are all very thoughtlessly in full-time employment and quite firmly resistant to the idea of interrupting their working lives to improve mine.
This is the trouble with Pollyanna-style advice, of course. It generally presupposes a level of disposable income and leisure time that most people find laughable. Still, God and thinktanks love a tryer, so I head out to see if I can find some neighbours.
I find 72-year-old Shirley Barry sitting on a bench in the sun, reading a book and minding her own business. Odd as it feels, I approach her. Is she willing to chat to, if not strictly a neighbour, a fellow local inhabitant of Beckenham? She is. "I wasn't expecting an encounter," she says. "I've lived here for 35 years and the Beckenhamians don't normally speak unless introduced." I'm from Catford, originally, I explain. She moved here from Hampstead and we are soon deep in conversation about the strange north-south London divide. "I think it's because they used to keep all the unpleasant industries below the river," she muses. "Gluemaking, bonemashing - the great stinks. I think it's lingered in the consciousness. But," she grins, "I'm Welsh. We'll talk to everyone in all directions."
Talking to Shirley doesn't just make me feel good. She makes me feel there is hope for humanity. I might start disturbing people on benches on a regular basis. Score one to Foresight.
2. Learn something new
I've never understood this hardy perennial in the advisory border. Most of human unhappiness occurs during the school years when you are forced to learn new skills, facts and subjects all day with only occasional success.
I could try, I suppose, at last to discover how to work out the area under a graph, if not precisely why, but Foresight suggests mending a bike, learning a musical instrument or trying new recipes. I have a bike but it is in full working order and it seems counterproductive to break it on purpose. I check the house for forgotten grand pianos and abandoned oboes, but find none. Cooking it is.
Don't judge me, but I've always wanted to spatchcock a chicken. I print what seem like very clear instructions off the internet, but soon have to enlist the help of a husband.
"'Place chicken on a flat surface breast-side down.' Is the breast the top bit?"
"Do you mean, when it's running about or when it's packed in its thingy?" he says.
"When it's how you buy it from the supermarket."
"Because when it's running about, its breast is at the front."
"Yes. I understand that. Most breasts are at the front. It's almost the definition of the word. But is a supermarket chicken upside-down or back-to-front or what?"
"Pull all its legs out from the body and we'll see how it must have walked when it was alive. Before it became this poor, plucked, pallid affront to humanity."
"OK. I still don't get it. Go and look on the internet."
"There's a video on YouTube. You're doing it all wrong. Turn it the other way. Cut down its backbone. No, its backbone. From its neck - no, its neck - to its bum."
"Now turn it over. And flatten it out."
I have learned something new. I feel good. But bad for the chicken.
3. Be active
A healthy mind in a healthy body is a dictum that has rung down the ages and it is time I tried putting it into practice, so as soon as my recently retired mother returns from a hard morning's research for her thesis on Reasonably Priced Filter Coffees and Scones in London and the South East, I drag her out to the local tennis courts. I loathe exercise more than I can possibly say, so the sheer pleasure I get from our game takes me entirely by surprise. Exercising outdoors is an entirely different experience from running on the treadmill at the gym or flinging yourself about in a fuggy hall as an aerobicised automaton shouts incomprehensible instructions. The air! The space! The freedom! I cannot lie. It really is uplifting. And it has the further inestimable benefit of allowing me to smash a ball at my mother's head and pretend it was an accident. Truly, a giant step to happiness.
4. Take notice
"What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare?" William Henry Davies, writer of these famous lines, was a one-legged vagabond, so if he could stand, stare and find beauty in the world, it behoves us all to have a go.
Foresight recommends noting the beauty of the quotidian as well as the exotic and savouring the present, so on the way to the tennis courts in the local park, I try to discern the artless beauty in the skipful of rubbish outside an abandoned shop, the bell-like clarity of the children's voices in the school playground (which survives, by the way, even when they are shouting "Throw the ball, dickhead!" at a tiny, hapless figure clearly destined for a lifetime of panic attacks and bad life choices) and, in keeping with seasonal tradition, kick a pile of bronzed leaves in the park. A host of ageing dog turds underneath adhere firmly to my foot for the rest of the way.
In the park, things become easier. Even in the middle of the urban sprawl, even in the middle of this unspeakably rotten modern age, find a few trees together with a stretch of grass and suddenly, despite all mankind's best efforts, you have beauty. And, just as we are about to leave, we see a flock of the parakeets that have inexplicably established themselves over the last few years in this corner of said urban sprawl settle in the largest oak tree - the quotidian and exotic in one charming prospect.
And because I am savouring the present, I do not think about how they are driving out native species and how soon we will have to begin a serious programme of culling the lime-green interlopers. Nor do I dwell on the fact that this portion of Foresight's advice seems to amount to "Be happy - stop thinking." They would be very proud of me, and my shit-covered shoes.
5. Helping friends and strangers
I can't find any strangers to help. The only ones I see are walking musclebound dogs that they are clearly itching to set on people. I go back to see if Shirley needs her shopping carried or something, but she is gone. I hit the phone again.
Eventually, I get through to a friend who is in need of comfort. She is sitting in a Herfortshire A&E with her toddler son who greeted the new dawn by climbing out of his cot and bouncing off the radiator below. "He looked like he's been stabbed in the head," she wails. "There was blood everywhere!"
"But head wounds always bleed a lot, don't they?" I say. "Unless you can see brain, he'll probably be all right. And there are all sorts of carpet cleaners available nowadays. The room will be as good as new if you get scrubbing as soon as you're home." It feels good to help.
So how do I feel at the end of the day? I feel better. If I - and almost more importantly, all my friends and family - could find the time and inclination to do it all every day I'm sure I would feel better still. But it remains for all but a fortunate few - whom I suspect are quite happy enough already - essentially unworkable advice. You might as well instruct the nation to live in the 1950s: surely the last time there was any hope of living this way en masse. As long as you were north of the river, of course.