jackie happiness blogs

Life lesson number nine: It’s not what happens to us that defines us; it’s how we choose to respond

If you haven’t heard the heading before, then you haven’t heard of Viktor Frankl and his utterly moving book called Man’s search for meaning.

Before you rush out to grab a copy, I should start by saying it isn’t easy reading. What it is, is one man’s account of why, when you put a group of strangers into a concentration camp during the Holocaust, only some of those strangers survive. 

It’s not always the strongest that make it through. It’s the ones with hope and a reason to live. 

And, while bad things can – and do – happen, they need not define you. You always have a choice about how you respond. 

Cancer taught me this lesson. But, it was a lady interviewing me about my experiences who showed me that this lesson is one that Viktor tried hard to share with the world. And it’s one I heard again only last week when a man was talking about breaking his neck in an accident many years ago. (I love the fact TED has a clip of Viktor speaking on their site because, I think Viktor, were he alive today, could have taught us a lot about finding meaning in our over-commercialised world.) 

So it was an absolute delight to hear legendary Bob Wilson, co-founder of the brilliant charity Willow, use that phrase to describe me when I was lucky enough to be interviewed on BBC Radio Five in December about my upcoming marathon wedding.

I say that I am the sum of my imperfections. By this, I don’t mean the physical scarring or the rearranged body parts. I mean the bits that life didn’t get right first time. It’s because of those imperfections that I have been forced to look in the mirror and really see whether I like the person looking back. It’s because of those imperfections that I know that while I’m sensitive, I am also strong. It’s because of those imperfections that I try and fill every day with a little bit of meaning.

I didn’t let cancer define me. I chose to make serious illness a force for good. 

I haven't changed my job or my career. I've changed my attitude.

I thought I didn't have time. Now I make time. Sometimes the last thing I feel like after a long day at work is writing a charity blog or drumming up support or cash for a volunteering event, but I can guarantee it's the meaningful and purpose-driven acts that feature most in the gratitude diary I write every night.

In some ways, you could say I am one of the lucky ones. I didn't need to find a cause. My cause crept up behind me and then hit me over the head.

Knowing just how important having a little bit of meaning woven into the fabric of every day is one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned. And it's a lesson I want to share with the world.

I started this year with one clear aim: to make it meaningful. I learned back in 2013 that a life without meaning is no life at all. But, this year, I really want to make it count. And the wedding is a big part of that.

If finding meaning makes your day, tweet me about it (@jackie8 #makeitmeaningful). 

Success isn’t a nice life, it’s a meaningful one. I know Viktor would agree. 

So, let’s go be successful! Starting now…

Happiness hacks #9: Make it easy

January is the month for good intentions. 

Question is, which of those those 'good-idea-at-the-time' presents will make it through? Will your brand new juicer see more than one carrot? Will your new running trainers actually leave the house? Has the wearable you vowed would make you smash your daily steps target made its way out of the packaging? 

I confess, even though my running trainers and wearable are in constant use, I do have a juicer in hibernation from about 2010 (taking 30 mins to dismantle, clean the pulp off its million bits and reassemble was a bit too much for the morning routine).

The juicer haunts me to this day and it is the reason my partner joked with me when I requested a cheap exercise bike this Christmas to help me get to our wedding marathon start line (which you can read all about here in case you missed it) in one piece. 

To show my commitment, I decided that if we are going to get a bike, it would have to be impossible not to use. 

So, it's now a trip hazard in the living room. You basically have to mount it just to get in.

Why so obstructive you ask? If I've learned anything in my 35 years it is that if you want people people to do something, you have to make it easy to do. 

I understand the beauty of order (as you will have read in a previous post). But I also understand the beauty of convenience. I know right now, if I make a nice home for it, or pack it away when it's not in use, it will gather dust in some forgotten corner - and my legs won't get any stronger.

Everything should have its place, but if there is a chance you might find an excuse instead of finding an item, that place has to be visible and, as is the case with the bike, conveniently inconvenient. 

I am certainly not alone in my thinking. I was listening to a Ted Radio Hour (love these) podcast this morning all about nudging. A behavioural economist was discussing the fact that pension contributions have increased significantly just by asking people to opt out rather than in. 

After all, the easy route (the one that doesn't involve excessive form filling), will always win. 

Another was discussing something called 'the last mile'. He talks about breakthrough vaccines that don't saves lives they could because people do not know or choose to use them. 

You don't become the world's ice cream maker by having the world's best maker on your counter. You have to use it. (The getting good part, of course, is entirely in your hands.) 

We none of us want appliances and gadgets clogging up our cupboards and our lives, so I think we owe it to ourselves to find a way to make what we have work for us.

So, liberate those cupboards, get those gadgets on display, make ice cream in your ice cream maker, get in a stew over your slow cooker and wear your wearable to bed.

If there's a will, there really is a way! 

Oh, and never buy a really complicated juicer, even if it claims to core and slice your apple. There is no position in the kitchen that would make this more convenient. 

Let's turn good intentions into brilliant habits that make it through the year! 

Snap happy: Cherish those details

I may have insisted you look up in a recent post. But at the beginning of January, just after the old Christmas trees have been left out for collection, I invite you to look down instead.

Why? Because, chances are, your pavements will be lined with little pine needles.

In a month that is anything but festive, it's like Christmas - and all its warmth - is laying down its protective blanket to see us safely into the new year.

I guess you could see this as the bitter end and a mark it really is over. 

But for me, these trees and these symbols of home and of family - scattered as they are beneath us as we venture out to face the world (and in my case the world of work) - are a reminder that the real spirit of Christmas should be carried with you every day and not reserved for a December day that might not always live up to expectations.

(NB: I did take a snap but pine needles on a drain in the dark don't really quite do the idea justice. You'll have to just believe me.) 

Life lesson number eight: Kind words are always worth sharing

thanks.jpeg

In November, I wrote to a friend who had sadly been taken into a hospice (last stages of breast cancer) and I told her how much she had touched my life – and the lives of those around her.  I wrote that she was, for me, the very definition of inspirational and that to give so much of herself even though she had little time left, was incredible.

Why am I telling you this? 

I’m telling you because her mother replied. My friend had passed away in the night and would never find out just how much I thought of her.

I should have known better really. Three years ago, I had my own lesson in kindness. It was for Christmas 2013 that I decided to make more than 200 handmade gifts for friends and family – an act that took me away from those friends and family for a good three months.

I thought that what I was doing was the ultimate gift of kindness.

Turns out, I didn’t really have a clue. Then cancer came along to make sure I'd really learned my lesson.

The kind words are the words I remember going through breast cancer treatment. And, by kind, I mean everything from shared memories to a paperclip and a message about helping me to hold it all together when times got tough. People told me how I’d helped them, changed them, made them laugh and made them smile. I guess they thought there was a chance I might not be around long enough to hear those words in the future.

Words moved me in the way they have the power to move us all. They forced me to reflect on just how little we tend to say to the people that inspire us or make us smile. 

So, I decided from that moment on, that words would be my currency. I started a pink hearts campaign while on active treatment, which involved writing a thank you and sharing the memories I treasure with the people who have touched my life. To this day I am still delivering them (and the accompanying hearts) to remind me of the pledge I made to myself. 

I don’t always get it right (as the above example demonstrates). But I start each day with a plan to reach out to someone and tell them I care.

So, as you reflect on the year, ask yourself this. When was the last time you turned to a friend and thanked them for just being there? When was the last time you contacted an old acquaintance and told them just how big an impression they have made on your life? When was the last time you thanked someone and meant it from the bottom of your heart? 

People can’t guess you’re your thinking unless you tell them. When the business of life gets in the way, it is hard to step back, reflect and not take all those you love and admire for granted. 

But, I can tell you now, there is so much I want to say to people while they are still around to hear it! 

People come and go in life, tucked away in chapters. But, their kindness will live on through you. I’d love to think that if someone were to cut me open (in a nice, non-cancer-surgery kind of way), I would be made up all of the brilliant people who have touched my life.

Make today the day you thank someone who matters to you. What is it about them that makes you smile? What it is you should have told them years ago, but never thought to mention? How have they helped make you the person you are today? 

I guarantee you’ll feel good saying it – but not as good as the person hearing it (especially if it’s for the first time).

Make today the day you start following your heart. Trust me, there’s no time to lose.

Happiness hacks #7: A habit shared is a habit formed

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that all January’s good intentions are usually just forgotten by February (or by the time you’ve finished your Christmas chocolates).

But, as I have discovered by joining my friend’s healthy eating group (a closed forum on Facebook where we get to declare our healthy eating goals and track our progress - as well as share the moments when the cheese gets the better of us), there is a magic formula:

Resolution + accountability = habit for life (not missed opportunity)

Resolutions aren’t what we all should aspire to make.

It’s habits that change lives.

I admire my friend Rachel hugely for all that she has achieved by turning her love of cooking, decluttering and publishing into something that has brought hope into the lives of those around her – including her own.

Changing the habits of a lifetime is so so hard. I asked Rachel why she started her group, called Tiniest Thai Diet Revolution, and she told me about the fact that putting on three stone over the last decade had made her feel out of control, upset and unhealthy. “I struggled to breathe when I bent over to put on shoes,” admits Rachel. “I felt quite hopeless and I didn’t know what to do about it. All I did know is that I didn’t want to go on a diet. Then, I saw an unflattering (well truthful) photo of myself and decided enough was enough. I put myself on the scales and cried… Then I took control.”

I love Rachel’s honesty and her resolve to change not just her Januarys but her life. 

As the name suggests, Rachel loves Thai food. Having lived in Thailand, she saw at first hand how people eating a natural Thai diet were naturally slim and healthy. So, she started looking back over her old recipes (she’s been cooking since the age of 12) and examined her principles of eating and decided to create a new lifestyle that would enable her to lose weight and live well. It’s a lifestyle she stands by and it’s one that has seen her lose 40 pounds in just nine months. 

Making a conscious decision to change is the first step and it’s one Rachel - who has for years surrounded herself with healthy eating advice – knows well: “I’ve been given lots of advice over the years and I’ve loved reading SO many books on food, healthy eating etc,” adds Rachel. “But, I’ve only ever followed any of it when I’ve made a conscious decision to not just lose weight, but to find a new way of eating not a restrictive diet.” 

Making the decision to change is, however, not the only step. And, that’s where the group and the accountability bit come in. It’s one thing to map your own route and it’s quite another to share that route and encourage others to help you stay on track. 

I am now six weeks in to Rachel’s latest eight-week programme and I have to say, accountability makes everything easier. The emails with simple hacks to help you make more mindful food choices are also great too. 

It’s not the first time Rachel has helped me on a food-based adventure. I will never forget her kindness when she shared a recipe called eggs in purgatory (a Nigella Lawson special) that helped me find my appetite again during chemo. 

Most people I know are not really comfortable in their own skin. Rachel is now and I feel grateful to have shared just a little of her journey. I think before I eat now. I eat more of what my body needs now. And, most importantly, I know that it’s ok to have a treat as long as it’s not a daily ritual. 

While I can’t share all her secrets (you’ll have to join the group for that - next one starts in a week), I will share one of her awesome recipes: Sort of som tam

So, make January the month you make a habit not a resolution. And then, find someone with the same aim to help you make that habit last a lifetime! 

Happy New Year and thanks Rachel for bringing sunshine and som tam into my life.