happiness blog

Happiness hacks #8: Put everything in its place

If there’s is something more exciting than festive ham, mulled wine, carols and great company at Christmas it’s the annual sort. 

By sort, I don’t just mean the light-touch shove-it-in-a-drawer type sort that constitutes cleaning for the other 11 months of the year. 

By sort, I mean the emptying of drawers and the reordering of cupboards that are one jar away from spilling out onto the floor.

I mean that kind of sort that sends a message to the world that you are ready for the new year. 

Sorting is the perfect hack to go with Life lesson number seven: Life is too short to save anything for best. How many times have you tucked something at the back of a cupboard, only to find that when you discover it again years later it is either out of date or the wrong size? 

I used to think I was one of those people who liked cleaning. But, what I have come to learn is that I like order (which will amuse many of my colleagues) and to know that everything I want to use has a home of its own that makes it easy for me to use it. The jam jar at the bottom of a stack of four, won’t get used. But, don’t stack them at all and give them space on the cupboard base and you’ll find your toast has many more flavours to play with. 

So, whatever you’re doing this new year, why not carve out some time to stop those plates balancing precariously, those spices going stale and those jumpers getting forgotten? Who knows? You might actually enjoy it. 

I should add, that doesn’t mean a deep cleanse of every drawer. Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame) has two great tips: 1) have a messy drawer for the bits that don’t have a proper home and 2) keep one shelf empty so you always feel you have room to expand! 

One tip I want to add is to try and develop the habit of taking one thing from a room when you move to another (that is out of place). We even have a stair basket to carry lost items up the stairs and keep the clutter at bay. 


Life lesson number five: There is fun in failure

One of the things I loved most about growing up was gymnastics.

This has nothing to do with skill (I frequently came last in competitions and was a bit clumsy). This has nothing to do with fitness (I remember falling from the asymmetric bars at 8 and breaking my arm so badly I needed two operations).

This has nothing to do with the 80s shell suit (red, white, blue and slippery) or the fact that I once appeared in our local newspaper vaulting in a very ungrateful spread eagled position. (Yes, sadly the photo below is me and not the beautiful lady on the beach.)

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This has everything to do with the fact I could turn up, enjoy the company of friends, get some exercise and never expect too much from myself. People loved it when I entered competitions because they never came last. People cheered when I cleared the vault because I wasn't ever going to make Olympian. To many, I was invisible - and I loved it. Every little bit of success meant so much, because it was so hard won. 

Now, I confess if my life imitated gymnastics I'd probably be less than pleased. But, for a self-confessed perfectionist, not being great - or, more importantly, not needing to be great - was hugely liberating. 

So why not try embracing the things that don't go well? 

Because, when things do go well, you'll appreciate them all the more.

Maybe start with something that doesn't involve a beam, strange hand guards and Lycra though...

Life lesson number four: Success needs a new definition

If I asked you to describe the life of a successful thirty-something, you probably wouldn't include cancer scars alongside the list of society-approved achievements.

With a good career, loving family, nice house and engagement ring on my finger, I thought I understood what it was to be successful. 

Turns out, I didn't have a clue.

The greatest piece of advice about success that I have ever received came not from a high-powered executive but from the nurse who cared for me after my mastectomy. That nurse had, herself, suffered great sadness, and had turned to nursing as a way of giving back to the world. 

As I was reaching for my Blackberry just 24 hours after surgery, she turned to me and said: 'What is it you really want your gravestone to say?' Certainly a sobering statement so soon after life-saving surgery, but the right one. That sentence has stuck with me even years later and greets me each morning. 

Working hard shouldn't really make the shortlist for the final words that are chiselled about you in marble. Question is, what should? 

I have just been reading Arianna Huffington's book Thrive, which focuses on her attempts to redefine success. In it, she talks about the idea of the 'Third metric', a third measure that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of the four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving'. 

I couldn't agree more. 

She goes on to explain that 'the Third Metric is one lived in a way that's mindful of our eventful eulogy... We may not be able to witness our own eulogy, but we're actually writing it all the time, every day. The question is how much we're giving the eulogiser to work with.'

If you asked me now, whether I think I am successful, I would say yes - but not in the way you might think. Success for me now is living every day according to my values. 

I would highly recommend you spend some time identifying and honing your own values. Search online and you will be able to find lists of relevant words to get you started. (The Daily Greatness diary also has an exercise to encourage those values to surface).

The hardest part is narrowing them down.

My values are as follows - set as a daily reminder on my phone to focus my mind each morning:

1) Generosity and purpose: make a difference each day and you'll find that a little bit of kindness can go a very long way

2) Energy and health: only once you have put your oxygen mask on first, are you qualified to look after others

3) Achievement: being able to declare at the end of each day 'I did that'

I genuinely believe I am the sum total of my imperfections - the bits life didn't get right first time. Those imperfections have helped me find my own definition of what it is to be successful.

Let's hope the eulogiser agrees...

Success definitely does need a new definition - yours!

Happiness hacks #2: Nurture a hobby


One of the best things about reading 168 hours, Laura Vanderkam's book about time, is that it is a reminder to us all that we can't do everything. No, really, we can't. 

By the time you've carved up those 168 hours, you very soon realise that when you strip out the compulsory stuff - for me that would be sleep, teeth brushing, eating and work - you have very little time to play with. That's why the material to cover our window bench is still in its packaging and the home admin filing system is full to bursting.

So how, you ask, did I find time to bake a fish and chip supper out of baked products and deliver it to BBC's Extra Slice (the UK's Bake Off spin off show) a few weeks ago? 

I've identified the things I love doing and I do more of them. I have accepted at last that I will no longer be a champion crafter or knitter to rival my mum (and I will never make 200 handmade Christmas gifts in one year). I won't read books like they are going out of fashion. I won't be a world class athlete or a concert pianist. 

Because when you can't do it all, you have to be selective.

Laura talks about narrowing it down to your core interests and competencies and then nurturing yourself by spending more of your precious time on those interests. For me, once I have finished interrogating the content marketing world I love to do the following from my 'Do it today' list: 

1) write

2) cook (mainly bake) 

3) volunteer

4) travel 

5) exercise 

6) contact friends/family 

A day spent doing one or any combination of these things is a good day.

So that brings me back to my sugary fish. Two years so, I got free tickets (you can apply here when it's on) for Extra Slice and spent 15 hours making Danish pastries in the shape of blueberry boobies (you can take a bake). I covered the kitchen in flour in the process, but what I didn't realise is that no amount of effort will secure you a studio seat. In fact, the queue was so long I ended up handing out the pastries to unsuspecting passengers on the tube on my way home. 


One thing it did give me, however, was a priority ticket to a show of my choosing one day in the future.

So, two weeks ago, I was sat in an airport lounge on the way back from our Scottish office wondering whether or not to bake to go along with the ticket in my inbox, or just turn up. It had been a busy week. The house was a tip. I craved a lie in. I was letting the busyness of life get in the way.

I didn't have time - so I made time. I planned my bake on the plane. Batter week did not inspire me so I planned a battered fish and chips out of shortbread and flapjack (covered in peanut butter and dulce de leche), with fondant peas and cream cheese and white chocolate Mayo. I worked put how to make it look like a gastro pub style dinner and I had ordered the ingredients before my head hit the pillow that night. 

I went from tired to inspired. 

Monica wow

I never expected to get on TV. I never expected a WOW from top chef Monica Galetti (above) and a request to taste my cake from both her and Ed Balls. I was just happy I'd nurtured a hobby and brought a cake-loving friend along for the sugary ride. 

I could have had a lovely long lie in - which would have been a lovely short term pleasure. Instead, what I got was a compliment from a top chef and memories I will treasure for a lifetime. If that's not worth the effort, I don't know what is. 

So identify those hobbies and competencies, give them the time they deserve and see where they will take you. 

The path to happiness is not always the easy path. But it certainly is a lot more surprising.