Wellbeing: What's the secret to happiness? Read on
In her latest book, Cambridge crime writer Sophie Hannah sets out to solve one of life's greatest mysteries - how to be happy. Alex Spencer talks to her
Could the question of how to be happy actually be solved if the right detective took up the case? Cambridge author Sophie Hannah believes the most interesting way to look at any problem is to see it as a mystery - and as the writer of Poirot continuation novels for the Agatha Christie estate, she knows a lot about searching for clues. She has now written a self-help book called Happiness, a Mystery: And 66 Attempts to Solve it, setting herself up as the detective in this search.
“What is happiness? Where can we find it and how can we achieve it? Obviously it's a mystery that philosophers from Plato and Aristotle’s day until now have talked about and these days there are probably government departments tasked with finding out how to increase happiness,” says Sophie.
“It’s a very old question and I wanted to approach it as a mystery with an investigative clue-finding method and the suspense and conventions of the mystery genre because I am a crime writer.
“I say in the introduction to the book, instead of assigning this to Poirot I want to be the Poirot and solve this myself.
“In some ways that was just a neat idea but also I am incredibly curious and there is nothing l love more than trying to solve a mystery in real life. It occurred to me that approaching it as a mystery would make it more exciting to me and make me more determined to solve it rather than thinking I will just look into some scholarly articles about it.
“When I first started writing the book I hadn't yet got the solution so it was in some ways a real-time investigation. When I was writing the introduction I didn't know what the solution was or even that I was going to find one but, like Poirot, I just trusted that I would. Because when you are writing a mystery, if you want it to be satisfying, there is no question that there will be a solution.”
The book started out as a text to accompany an exhibition on happiness by the Wellcome Trust. But the pandemic meant that the exhibition had to be postponed. At the same time she was writing the book, Sophie was also launching her online Dream Author Coaching programme for writers and was herself training as a life coach after going through extensive coaching.
Sophie says: “Throughout the process of investigating happiness I come across revelations, ideas and possible theories of happiness from Kant, Schopenhauer, Plato, Aristotle and some of my favourite self-help writers - but I also learnt a lot in my own personal journey through getting coaching myself. The strands all come together, and the book contains my moment of revelation, where I find, by looking somewhere I would never have thought to look, the secret of happiness.
“I wasn't trying to overcome anything by writing the book. I was just really open minded and enjoyed seeing where the investigation took me.
“I’m a naturally very happy person so I don’t have a problem with happiness, and at the start of the book I describe speaking to a life coach and saying to her, 'I think I might be too happy. I'm so happy I don't change the things in my life that I probably should change for my own highest good.'”
The book ended up being a personal search and “comedy memoir” according to the crime writer, taking in lessons from her own life as well as other people’s theories. “I wanted to define happiness because one of the key problems is that most people make themselves unnecessarily unhappy by believing they should be happy all the time or when they are not,” says Sophie.
“I learned through my own coaching that whatever I'm feeling after something happens, the very best approach is to think, ‘This is the perfect thing for me to be feeling right now. Even if it's sadness or rage, bring it on. I’m going to go all in and feel this feeling, however bad it might feel’.
“And when you don’t resist the more uncomfortable feelings you start to feel so much better so much sooner - it's incredible.”
Although Sophie hadn’t actually been unhappy with her life - “I’m a naturally happy and optimistic person” - she was aware of being overwhelmed with work commitments when she signed up to be coached by an expert from The Life Coach School, which is based in Texas. “I discovered coaching and it helped me massively,” says Sophie. “It changed my life in a really positive way and I created my Dream Author Coaching programme to help other writers, and started to see how massively my Dream Authors were using the concepts I taught them to change their lives.”
Although Sophie is not willing to say what final conclusion she came to in her search for happiness, she will share a huge tip that she learnt along the way that has changed how she responds to difficult situations.
“The main lesson I learned from all the coaching I have had is that my feelings and experience of life and the results I get in my life, emotional or practical, all of these things are created by my thoughts, not by external circumstances.
“So if I'm angry or sad it's not because something has happened or someone has done something, it is because of what I am thinking about what they have done.
“It is our thoughts, not the factual circumstances, that create our feelings. Then our feelings create our actions and our actions create the results we get.
“Realising that was a real game changer. Whatever happens in the parts of the world that I can’t control, I can always control how I want to think about it, and it's always my thoughts that create my feelings. All of our thoughts are optional and we can choose what we want to think - on purpose - in order to feel a certain way and create a better result for ourselves.”
Sophie decided to train as a life coach herself during lockdown when her travel plans were cancelled due to the pandemic. With that knowledge, what would she say to someone who wanted to start feeling happier now?
Sophie said: “I would suggest they think of something they are experiencing - a problem in their life. I would say write a paragraph about what you don't like about it, then look at the paragraph and meticulously separate out the facts from the story you're telling yourself about the facts.”
Sophie gives an example from her own life when she had what she believed was too much work to get through in the time she had available. She says: “If you'd asked me what problem I was having I might have said 'There aren't enough hours in the day. I'm so overwhelmed. How am I going to get it all done?'
“As a life coach I would answer that what you have told me is just your thoughts. It is not an objective fact that there's not enough time. The fact in relation to time is there are 24 hours in every day. That there isn't enough time is just my thought. I can choose to believe it and I can easily gather evidence to prove myself right.
“But another option is to think: what if 24 hours in every day is a perfect and sufficient amount of time, and I can choose to use those hours however I want? Once I started thinking like that, it changed how I felt about everything.
“I had 24 hours every day and this number of tasks I had agreed or chosen to do. My thought, which I have chosen on purpose, is: I have plenty of time and I get to choose what I want to do in that time. That creates a feeling of calm and content. I just calmly look at the hours available and the tasks I have said I will do. Will they all fit in? If not, I can choose to cancel some. So I’m thinking about time in a way that doesn't cause a problem.
“So a snappy way to say this is you can feel better immediately if you identify what you think is a problem. Then separate the facts from your thoughts and beliefs about the facts. Then just look at the bare facts, which have to be factually and objectively true. Then consider what I want to think about these facts, on purpose, in order to create a feeling I want to experience. ”
She also does not allow herself to get irritated by domestic happenings any more, such as her teenagers failing to tidy their rooms.“My kids' bedrooms are sometimes messy,” says Sophie.
“I know so many parents of teenagers who make themselves miserable by believing the thought, ‘My teenager should tidy up his own room’.
“I don’t have that thought. If I were to believe that my kids should tidy their rooms when they're not tidying their rooms, I'm going to be really frustrated. Whenever you think a thing that isn't happening should happen, you create unhappiness for yourself.
“I didn't want that as my experience of life. Instead, I chose to think my children should not tidy up their rooms. They are teenagers and their rooms should be a mess unless I tidy them. How do I know this? Because their rooms are a mess unless I tidy them!
“So I go into their rooms once a fortnight, listen to a podcast and do a full maid service on their rooms, which they love. I keep fit while doing it, and listen to self-help podcasts: I actually love it! And I choose on purpose to think the situation is exactly as it should be. I now experience zero frustration about the state of my children's rooms. They're either messy or tidy, and whichever one it is, that's how it should be at that moment in time.
“The other day I heard the parents of a teenager really reading them the riot act about something my kids do all the time. I thought, 'Huh, interesting. That is just a behaviour that all teenagers do. You can either resist that truth and scream at them all day long, or accept it and have a peaceful and happy experience of life with teenagers.
“I’m not saying you shouldn't set certain rules or boundaries for your children. The parent could say, ‘I will inspect your bedroom every Friday and will knock £5 off your allowance if it's not tidy’.
“But that is very different from causing emotional anguish by shouting at your kids to tidy up. When I ask my kids to do something I ask in the full knowledge that they may or may not do it, and I take full responsibility for my feelings. Since my kids became teenagers I have had almost no arguments with them. Parents cause themselves so much unnecessary suffering by deciding they should be able to control their children and that their children should do what they are told. Then when they don't, the parent feels miserable and as if something has gone wrong.”
It seems one of the key elements to being happier, according to Sophie, is trying to look for silver linings in difficult situations, but only as long as they are believable.
Sophie says: “Things happen all the time such as losing a loved one, or losing a job. We tend to have really catastrophizing thoughts when something like that happens. But in a challenging situation, thinking 'My life is ruined' is a thought that will never get you the best possible result. Instead you might think 'This is a shock. I feel sad and angry, and I’m going to allow myself to feel all these feelings...and then I am going to ask myself: 'How might I be able to move forward now in a way that creates future positive results?'
“Let’s say I was a salaried employee and I lost that job, I would allow myself to feel sad and angry. I wouldn't try to be happy before I realistically could. While that was happening, I would think to myself, 'Once I have processed these feelings, I'm going to choose a new thought to think on purpose: one that doesn't make me feel dreadful.
“I would think 'What am I able to do now that I couldn't before? Is there any way I could see this as the start of a new chapter? What do I want that new chapter to contain? What if my life isn't ruined but is going to end up better?”
To see if Sophie solves the case, you can buy her book Happiness, a Mystery: And 66 Attempts to solve it, published by Profile and priced £12.99.
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