International Day of Happiness – Book Recommendations

So 20th March is International Day of Happiness! It’s OK, I didn’t know about it until this morning either… But it got me thinking. So here’s some thoughts on that, art, and a few book recommendations that have helped me with the whole ‘happiness’ thing.

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What Makes You Happy?

Over the last year I have been doing a lot to try and hold on to that elusive feeling of happiness; it was one of the reasons I turned back to art and started this blog. And yes, art and writing do, on the whole, make me happy. But it is often so much more than the individual component in itself.

Art is a funny thing. While yes, many of the processes do make me happy, spark a feeling of joy, there is also a torturous element. It is an introspective pillaging of the soul that occasionally leaves you in state of emotional crisis – the image of the perpetually tortured artist, anyone? This is a stereotype, it is true, but there is some truth in it. In reality, practising art is a constant flux between these two polarised points. Generally speaking you fall in the middle ground, but there is always the promise or danger of reaching one extreme or the other.

With that said, art and writing have not been my sole refuge in dark and troubled times. Indeed, at low points, when happiness seems little but a distant memory, the last thing I want to do is bare my soul by putting pen to paper. I know this is not true of everyone, and I am a tad jealous of those who can work through their demons through their art. I am getting to that stage, I think.

On my way there, however, I had to navigate other paths to find my way. In this post, then, I wanted to share some of the books that I have relied upon that have helped to facilitate this change and altered my perspective to a more positive outlook.

Derren Brown: Happy

It’s a bit of an obvious title, right? And given the brightly coloured jacket and balloon lettering you’d be forgiven for passing this book over as being way too smug, but that is not Derren Brown’s style. Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine is an intellectual guide to using philosophy to reassess your approach and reactions to everyday issues.

If you are familiar with Brown’s work you will know that despite performing seemingly unbelievable acts of the mind he has a transparent approach. Indeed, he actively seeks to debunk anybody who he deems to be fraudulently claiming such techniques have some divine or otherworldly origin. As such, much of the first part of the book is spent explaining why certain other ‘self-help’ methods to happiness do not work because they ultimately use a self-chastising approach if they do not work.

He also stresses that this is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach – these are the techniques, thought processes, and philosophies that have helped him, but others may not find useful. With acknowledgement that he has an introverted personality perhaps this is who the book will work best for, as I found so much I could relate to.

Brown then examines traditional methods of philosophy relating to happiness and our reactions to the world around us. It is interesting that he laments the way in which we have become so disconnected with philosophy as a practice. What was once a way in which to offer people tools to negotiate life has been elevated to the lofty heights of academia and been made, intentionally or not, inaccessible in most other spheres.

This is a lengthy read, and does not offer any quick fixes (I highly doubt there are any, and if any book, person, or whatever claims otherwise I would be incredibly dubious!). If, like me, however, you prefer to engage with deeper conversations on issues and explore the history and evolution of philosophy, this book is a must. It may not offer all the answers, but it certainly gets you thinking and asking the right questions.


Marie Kondo: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

Ok, so if you had told me last year that I would be engrossed in a book about tidying. Or that a month or so after reading it I would be so inspired that I would have completely overhauled my entire living space, I would have laughed you out of the room.

What the hell does this have to do with happiness, you might ask? Well, as Marie Kondo explains in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever often changing our living space can have a transformative effect upon all aspects of your life. If you have ever walked into a room in your house and just left bereft because of how cluttered it is you will know the feeling of stress this can evoke. Now think about the impact that has upon your daily life.

Part of the KonMari process described in the book asks you to imagine how you want your space to be; what is the function of the room and how will you find the most pleasure interacting with it. Not long ago, as I was half-way through the book I wrote this piece about my frustration with my studio space. Yet, today I am sitting in a perfectly tidy room. I know where everything is – that’s right, no more searching for hours for that pair of scissors that I know I had two days ago but now have miraculously disappeared from the last place I remember having them…

The great thing about the KonMari method is that it provokes a reevaluation of your connection with objects and things. We often seem to wear them like armour. Shopping can become this unequivocal need to fill a void that we cannot quite fathom. What you will be challenged with in this book is how to reassess all of these issues; how to let go of what you do not need and appreciate the things that bring you joy.

I won’t lie, it can veer a little into the unusual when Kondo advocates telling your socks how much you appreciate what they have done for you while wearing them. But, as cynical as I am about these things, I can understand where she is coming from. No, I haven’t verbally thanked any of my belongings so far, but I have learned to treat them with a much deeper care and appreciation.

The result is that once you have transformed your space, your mind will follow. A week after completing my main living and relaxing spaces I can certainly attest to this being the case. If nothing else, applying the KonMari method means you will never wonder where you put anything ever again, because it will be in exactly the space it is meant to be. That alone is enough to reduce your stress levels and engender more happiness!


Ruby Wax: Frazzled

Back at the start of the year I went to see Ruby Wax doing a talk about this book at a local bookshop. She was just as witty and pleasantly acerbic as she comes across in this book. A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled is an examination of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) as well as an honest discussion of her own issues with depression and treatment for it.

Now you may be thinking, what is this, another celebrity cashing in on the ‘mindfulness’ thing. But that is not the case. Wax has put her money where her mouth is and completed a Masters at Oxford University in MBCT before embarking on this book. So she not only speaks with authority as an individual who uses these techniques, but also as an academic who has studied them.

With that said, however, this does not read like an academic text book. Yes, there is a lot of really useful and interesting information about the science behind MBCT, but Wax delivers this in a way that ensures you need no prior knowledge of the subject, let alone a degree in neural biology.

Like with Brown’s book, this is a no-nonsense approach to help the reader identify tangible things that they can do within their lives to alter their thinking towards more positive ends. As Wax explains, negative thinking begets negative thinking; the more we do it, the easier it becomes. That is, negative thinking becomes a habit. A course and tattered safety blanket that we need to relinquish.

As such, MBCT is something that needs to be worked at. A proverbial muscle that needs to be exercised daily. And Wax has provided just the programme to get you started with her 6-week Mindfulness Course (approved by her professors at Oxford). She also talks about how these techniques can be taught from an early age and there are also chapters about MBCT for parents and children, and teenagers. So with all the worrying statistics on mental health issues being identified in children, this could be an invaluable tool for parents as well.

My overall love of this book is grounded in Wax’s  insistence to impart the science behind the process. This is something that always appeals to me, as I have a constant need to know why things work, not just be told that they do. Yet, even if you are not bothered by these questions, there is so much of value here that could help with the mental well-being and happiness of yourself and those around you.

So what makes you happy? Do you have any other book recommendations that have inspired happiness? Let me know in the comments, and have a Happy International Day of Happiness!

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