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How To Be Happy: writer’s superb self-help guide for baffled gentlefolk – Belfast News Letter

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A former features editor for this newspaper and erstwhile volleyball coach, Geoff, 65, begins by rejecting the negative appraisals of living by philosophers such as Bertrand Rusell and Ludwig Wittengenstein, both of whom believed that in order to be happy one had to come to terms with the essentially dark nature of reality.
Asked by a taxi driver what ‘it’, as in life itself, was all about, Hill recalls that the Welsh philosopher Bertrand said: “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that life is horrible, horrible, horrible.”
Although John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham stuck their heads above the parapet in the 19th century to declare that the goal of personal and political life should be happiness, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a soulmate of Russell’s also took a distinctly pessimistic view. He, as Hill recalls in the book’s witty prologue, once muttered: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”
Geoff is resolute: “Stuff that, I say. No one wants to know that life is miserable. What they want to know is how to be happy.”
First of all, Hill’s guide to happiness involves keeping it simple. We need to admit that happiness and love are the goals we most deeply yearn for.
Geoff said: “Hands up who wants to be happy? Hands up who wants to love and be loved?
“Ah yes, all but one as usual. There’s always a masochist down the back whose idea of happiness is a cold shower and a damned good thrashing. Just to remind them of public school.
“For the rest of us, happiness and love are what we all want, but the ironic thing is that the more we desperately strive for both, the less likely we are to find them.”
And he adds, happiness should not be about following a complex set of criteria, but should rather flow from a simple appreciation of the beauty and promise contained within the here and now.
This is something the author came to appreciate after a serious battle with depression in 1994 which was occasioned by the death of his sister Shirley from cancer, the death of his grandmother from old age, an eight year romantic relationship ending, and home renovations going seriously over budget. Hill plunged headlong into depression, had to temporarily quit work as a journalist, struggled with suicidal ideation, insomnia and panic attacks and was admitted to Windsor House psychiatric unit at Belfast City Hospital for treatment. Ironically he feels that this devastating encounter with the Black Dog was ultimately an experience that lead him finally to a path of ironclad optimistic appraisal of life, because he came to appreciate the simple joy of being unbothered by such profoundly negative emotions; it gave him a new appreciation for the beauty and pleasure of psychological equilibrium.
“Back then I was convinced that my life was over and that I would never work, love, enjoy anything or have any sort of normal life again. Suicide seemed the only answer.
“When I recovered, mostly thanks to the love of family and friends, I knew three things. That life would never be that bad again. That every day is a blessing.
“And from talking to people about my experience and finding out that many of them had been through the same thing, or knew someone who had, that we are all the same, and have the same hopes, fears and dreams.
“That in itself is an antidote to the unhappiness of feeling alone in the world, and thinking that no one else is going through what we are.”
The next thing that helped him on the road to happiness was acquiring some perspective, something he acquired most profoundly after a visit to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz where so many Jews and others perished during Hitler’s hellish reign.
He said: “After a day walking around there, I thought: Problems? I don’t have any problems compared to this. And any I think I have today, I look back to that day and think: well, it’s not Auschwitz, and nobody’s dead.
“The lesson? Get some perspective. If you’ve got a roof over your head and food and drink on the table, you’re doing OK. Everything else is a bonus.”
Next, for Geoff what sustains him is not only friendship and the realisation that the pursuit of interests you enjoy can be immensely curative, but also that the path to contentment need not involve constant striving, that in fact there is sustaining wisdom to be found in tranquillity.
He writes: “I signed up for practical philosophy and art classes, and began to meditate, to connect with my senses, to live from day to day, to stop regretting the past and worrying about the future.
“And I began to realise that I should learn to enjoy things as they are, rather than always trying to make them perfect and just ending up frustrated.
“To realise that not all problems can be solved by thinking about them, and that some have to be left to solve themselves through stillness and acceptance.
“That a mind which can be still can produce more wisdom than a mind in constant movement.”
He further reflected: “I had suffered so much pain that at times ordinary life became an astonishing experience. When those times came I felt like a child, filled with wonder and curiosity at the simplest of things, like walking in the rain, sunlight on brick, or the simplicity of bread and wine.
“The bad days came back, but I was still and let them pass. And now I know at last that one day, before sooner becomes later, I will finally reach the edge of the black pit, haul myself over the precipice and see, glittering in the sunshine, a land of lakes and forests, rivers and mountains, which I thought I would never see again.”
He recommends a number of things you should do in the interests of self-care such as eating good, simple food, getting plenty of sleep, not drinking too much and giving yourself regular treats to look forward to. If you can, get up as soon as you wake up, because the longer you stay in bed, the worse you feel and the harder it is to get up – even the act of getting up can give you enough of a sense of achievement to get you through the earliest part of the day. Then, try to do one thing at a time, and give it your full attention while you’re doing it. And plan your day so that you only do the amount of things that you feel comfortable and capable of doing. Learn to live, crucially, in the here and now, in the golden moment through which the future plunges into the past.
“I spent years ruining today by comparing it with yesterday and wondering how it would compare with tomorrow. Now I just enjoy it,” added Geoff.
And fundamentally, reject the impulse to give into anxiety or constant catastrophising in your mind: “Stop worrying. All worrying does is make you worried. It doesn’t improve the present, and it doesn’t change the future.”
He also recommends connecting with your senses, if you can:“Sit down twice a day and feel the weight of your body on the chair, the air on your skin, the smells in your nose, the taste in your mouth. Pick an object and look at it, or close your eyes and listen to the most distant sounds you can. If thoughts come into your head, don’t fight them. Just let them pass away like a river. This is an exercise close to meditation, and has the same purpose; to help you still your mind.”
Geoff Hill’s ebook How To Be Happy is now available via Amazon. co.uk.
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