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DOES HAPPINESS WRITE WHITE?

Listen to BBC Radio 4 at 11.30am today to learn more about the fiendishly elusive art of writing happiness, with insights from the excellent authors Ann Patchett and Helen Simpson, poet Don Patterson, and happiness hunter Gretchen Rubin

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SPOILING YOURSELF IS A LUXURY

Never read Salman Rushdie? Then you can’t like cream cakes. Long before the mullahs issued their fatwah against him, Rushdie became the bard of lardy sins when he coined the 1970s Dairy Council slogan, ‘Naughty but nice’. The ad lasted well into the 1980s, not just due to its nice alliteration, but because it encapsulated Thatcherite beliefs that self-seeking is good.

 

Will this austere age make it harder to spoil ourselves? As a cake lover, I hope not, and I’m not alone. The argument for self-indulgence crystallised in the so-called ‘caring 1990s’, when Jennifer Aniston spoke for L’Oreal and womankind in the line ‘Because You’re Worth It’. Cheryl Cole still peddles this philosophy because in our aspirational world, self-indulgence is less a treat than a duty.

 

How so? Admittedly the definition of luxury is it’s something we want not need, its purpose being to attain that idle boon, pleasure. From latin’s ‘luxuria’ (‘sumptuous enjoyment’), the word originally meant lust. Hence a fourteenth-century father cautioned his daughters against ‘leude touchinge and handelyng’ and the ‘orrible synne of luxurie’. Today a luxury is a commodity, bought with surplus wealth. Yet increasingly, serving our wants is regarded not as a sin but a necessity that our morale, our very mental health, cannot do without.

 

Don’t believe me, believe the figures.  Sales of Jaguar cars and LVMH brands, like Louis Vuitton and Moët et Chandon, are soaring. This irrational exuberance isn’t just down to Chinese big spenders. Economists reckon its symptomatic of emotional vulnerability, our need to cheer ourselves up. Likewise they rationalise the boom in littler luxuries, like lipstick and foundation.

 

You could lament this trend, say we’re in denial of our humbled financial state, or under unhealthy pressure to keep up a front. But I welcome it. Latest psychological research confirms it’s not reason but emotion that drives us. And if we made pleasure our top emotional motive – rather than guilt or envy – couldn’t the world be a better place? Better still, we would redefine self-indulgence as giving to others. Wellbeing studies find the most enduring bliss comes from being kind, and Bill Gates certainly seems happier now he’s the world’s second richest man, but number one giver. So whatever your pleasure, go on, spoil yourself. If nothing else, it will do the dratted economy good.

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HOW TO REFORM A MESSY CHARACTER

There are three kinds of person: the happy-messy, the organisers, and the conscience-stricken slatterns who periodically reform, only to resume the slow slide into chaos. Unsure which you are? Then consider Quentin Crisp’s defence of not cleaning: ‘After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.’ Do you cringe? Envy his laissez-faire? Or does this sound like home?

‘Westerners have different standards, we have different standards,’ said an organiser of Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, defending the stray dogs and piles of rubbish in the athletes’ accommodation. He was right, mess and hygiene are relative values, shaped by culture and upbringing.

Many doze oblivious to mugs sprouting cataracts of mould beside their bed. Meanwhile their loved-ones fume at being forced, as they see it, to tidy after them. It feels a power game, and what makes it so upsetting is that mess is more than a question of health, safety or respect. It both  embodies and creates chaos. It not only echoes but shapes our ability to cope with life.

I know because I spent my teens in a stew. My bedroom, worse than anything Tracy Emin’s spewed, symbolised my misery and provided evidence I shouldn’t bother getting better. Today I’m better at being messy in moderation (my husband might disagree), and at life. When I see friends knee-high in debris, it seems all too eloquent of their inability to make choices, to let go of the past.

Okay, I’m smug. You may reject equations of tidiness with goodness, like committed idler Tom Hodgkinson, an author who expends vast energy on informing us he’s happy. But his partner looks tired. And ask yourself why we have metaphors like ‘messing up’ or ‘don’t mess with my mind’. Indeed, social research proves that mess, mental and moral behaviour are intertwined. Ingenious tests found that in squalid environments, people are likelier to act dishonestly.

You may never be as lucky, lucky, lucky as Kylie Minogue, for whom tidying is a choice not a necessity: “I like to clean my cupboards. Hours go by. I get my Marigolds on and have a fantastic frenzy,” she trills. But believe, like her, that cleaning cupboards is therapy, and I guarantee you’ll feel better.


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THE PERILS OF BEING HELPFUL

My cousin is auditioning for a sainthood. She’s both a bravura host and all-weather Samaritan. For this she’s duly punished by two women who imagine they’re her best mates. I call them Poor Me and Me Too. Poor Me visits weekly, bearing vats of oily soup as a form of payment, then parks on the sofa and moans. Me Too lives further afield but monitors my cousin on Facebook, doling out unsolicited advice, looming large at every party, staying for days to ‘help clear up’.

Does your halo hang heavy? Well whose fault is that? Forgive my cynicism but I find compulsively helpful people suspect. ‘Why do you want me in your debt?’ I wonder. This attitude is mean spirited. More worryingly, it could be bad for my health. 

Happiness studies suggest the most rewarding activities, for pleasure and wellbeing, involve kindness and gratitude. Help others and you help yourself. This circular logic perfectly fits the explanation of altruism as ‘enlightened self-interest’ proposed by that least rose-tinted philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Ornithologists agree, seeing help as a weapon among teenage Arabian babbler birds, which compete ferociously to feed their younger siblings. Why? To gain valued social commodities like prestige – just as billionaires pay fortunes for junk at charity auctions. In exchange, recipients can feel overloaded with obligation, deprived of choice, or prey to donors’ whims. Hence insistent helpers, like Me Too, can resemble bullies – because they know best…

This is an etiquette problem, but doesn’t prove we’re ruled by ‘selfish genes’. (As Mary Midgley recently teased Richard Dawkins, the word ‘selfish’ wouldn’t exist if it was a universal condition.) I’m with Epicurus, ancient connoisseur of delight, who held, ‘It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.’ Goodwill doesn’t just boost egos. Much of civilisation’s history makes sense only in light of the mingled benefits and mixed motives of co-operation and patronage.

Being helpful may lose its virtue if you tingle with superiority, or resentment. That doesn’t make it bad so much as human, although probably it also means this is less a friendship of equals than power game. To avoid such pitfalls and aid a friend, let her know you’re there and leave gifts you see a clear need for. But knock on the door. Don’t force it.

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OUT NOW IN AUSTRALIA

THE ART OF MARRIAGE is out now Down Under.  Or up above.  I guess it depends on your centre of gravity.  In Australia, anyway.

I had great fun talking about it on Sunrise Breakfast TV, although I think I looked down throughout the interview — and with my fluffy top and a seven and a half month bump, I also looked like big pink pom. (Or pom-pom.)

Any thoughts about marriage in the Antipodes, gratefully received…

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THE LIMITS OF PERSONAL SPACE

The bigger you are, the greater personal space you need. Sadly, this rule doesn’t apply on budget airlines, or if you’re pregnant. These days I keep bumping into things, like a cat that needs longer whiskers, because my inner compass is out of step with my expanding curves. And while my kicking baby invades my privacy, strange hands assail my belly.  Worse, if I back off, the gropers look hurt, rejected. And annoyingly, they’re right.  How I feel about their unsolicited pats tells me – with unprecedented clarity – exactly how much I like them.  Or not.  

Am I standoffish? Hormonal? Typical Brit? Perhaps. Perhaps other women adore admiring bump hugs.  But my sensitivity to the boundary between intimacy and intrusion isn’t entirely personal.  For a start comfort zones are culturally determined, influenced by habitat.  In populous India, strangers stand closer than on the vast Mongolian steppe. 

Yet social boundaries are as changeable as national borders. An Italian travelling in Tudor England noted in horror that if a visitor doesn’t ‘kiss the mistress [of the house] on the mouth, they think him badly brought up’. And it wasn’t the puritan Oliver Cromwell, but lusty Charles II who deemed kissing an unacceptable English greeting – because he was raised in France, which then considered face-on-face action vulgar! 

It’s impossible to read the words ‘personal space’ without hearing an American accent, but the notion’s no more foreign than our cliché about not stepping on people’s toes. How you measure personal space is the problem. To solve it, 1960s anthropologist Edward T. Hall invented ‘proxemics’, a quasi-science, with diagrams of concentric rings, to divide social from personal space (4 feet and 1.5 feet from the body, respectively).  But his yardstick’s too long for Japan, and totally impractical for the Tube. 

There’s but one universal law of personal space: we perceive it via the psychological nervous system popularly called the emotions.  It’s policed by the amygdala, part of the brain that hosts emotional memories. Hence you’ll experience a Pavlovian flinch when your smelly brother-in-law lunges for his annual New Year’s kiss. Luckily, you needn’t be a dog to retrain your amygdala. Move to Rome, you’ll soon learn to embrace acquaintances.  And if social signposts are unclear, try my preferred marker of personal space: can you smell his breath?  Then smile, step back. I guarantee he won’t be offended.

As seen in ES magazine

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A GOOD ARGUMENT?

As summer sinks into silly season, I miss the World Cup. So the soccer stank. There were still delicious spectacles. Yes, Ronaldo’s torso. Better yet was watching spoilt youths rage at referees (presumably ‘No’ is rarely heard if you’re on £100,000 a week). Likewise, wasn’t Alastair Campbell baiting Sky’s Adam Boulton your General Election highlight? Their barney is a YouTube classic not just because Boulton turns a beguiling puce. When public figures expose their unscripted inner Eltons, it satisfies more than Schadenfreude. 

Connoisseurship of conflict is a national sport. TV is usually blamed for this. Especially the shouty ‘talk’ shows that serve as televisual espresso on daytime, and soaps where little chats routinely end ‘outside – NOW!’ But such stunted debates differ little (barring vocabulary) from  jousts on Newsnight. Broadcasters rig conversations as bouts because disagreement grips audiences as no analysis can – not to mention wakes them for ad breaks. 

Everyone loves a ruckus because conflict’s the DNA of drama. Spats have the entertaining qualities of momentum, passion, and clearly differentiated positions. For participants, however, ‘telling it like it is’ can be the worst way to get across views, unless your aim is simply to use each other as scratching posts. (Anyone with sisters knows fights are fun, a perfectly valid end in itself. Why? Because I said so.) The traditional definition of ‘argument’ is ‘proof’, although in everyday speech ‘argument’ usually refers to the activity of debate, not the logical steps to a good point, well made.  But let’s suppose you want a good argument, one serving a higher purpose, like reaching a decision. What steps to take? 

First, bear in mind that dialogue tends to polarise us so don’t rush; repetition and summaries minimise misunderstanding. Second, note you’re biased to believe arguments confirming your prejudices. As George Bernard Shaw observed: ‘The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.’ Third, remember your tactics may depend on what’s between your legs.

In lovers’ argy-bargy, usually she nags, he stonewalls – largely because men under attack ‘flood’ with stress hormones, taking longer than women cool off. So don’t rely on rows to up your tally of kisses. There are many argument techniques, from breastbeating to changing subject, but two spell relationship death: ignoring and contempt. My advice is listen. You may learn.

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