So how’s it going so far? Is it all lovely and exciting? Or is it pretty much like last year? Perhaps even a little bit dull? Would you say that, aside from joining hands with friends and family on the stroke of midnight and mumbling the words to a song you only sing once a year, it’s actually quite difficult to know where 2012 came to an end, and 2013 began?
I know how you feel.
Which is why, in a few days time, I will be hosting the first of this years Happy Clubs, here in Southend-on-Sea.
Happy Club – starts Thursday 24th January 2013
If you’re a long time visitor to this blog you’ll know that this year I’ve run numerous How To Do Everything And Be Happy workshops in various parts of Essex.
I think it’s safe to say that the workshops went down a storm, and I’m delighted to announce that using the invaluable feedback I received, Southend’s Therapy Life Centre and I will be running a series of monthly Happiness workshops – starting next Thursday, on the 24th January – to coincide with the recent re-launch of the paperback.
Each month we’ll spend the first hour looking at a different idea from the book How To Do Everything and Be Happy and how to implement it into your life, whether that be Boxing Day, Wish List, Now Lists, Focus, Trophy Boards, or Diaries. Then after a short tea-break (biscuits provided – probably, if I remember) we’re back, looking at your Goals, how far you’ve got with them and how you can take the next step towards achieving them.
This Thursday we’ll be concentrating on how to eliminate unhappiness, and working out exactly what we want for the coming months. It’ll be fun! I can definitely promise you that. But I have a feeling it’s also going to be the start of something special.
Is it a workshop? Or a course? It’s a “club”.
Technically it’s a series of six stand-alone, related, repeating, workshops (when we get to workshop number six we’ll start afresh the following month). You can come along to just one, a series of six, or every month, it’s totally your choice.
The evening will have more of a club-feel to it making the whole experience less “rushed”, more intensive, and introducing a strong focus on helping you achieve your goals as the months roll by.
It’s a fun way to get motivated and fired up about making changes in your life, whilst being practical, realistic and keeping your feet firmly on the floor.
How much does it cost?
The cost is just £60 for six sessions (if you pay in advance – see below), or £12 per session if you pay on the night.
Where and when?
The club starts on January 24th 2013
Subsequent clubs are on the last Thursday of each month and last two hours (including a ten minute break around half time).
We start promptly at 8pm (so maybe get there about 7:45? Put that in your diary).
We meet at The Therapy Life Centre, in Southend On Sea, Essex. (the old driving test centre) – there is reasonable parking.
The address is 11 Prittlewell Chase, Southend-on-Sea, SS0 0RX
The nearest station is Prittlewell (just fifteen minutes walk away) which is on the Liverpool Street – Southend Victoria line.
For most people, Boxing Day is a slightly downbeat, re-run of the previous days festivities. More Turkey. More Christmas pud. Perhaps a change of venue and/or relatives. That’s certainly how it used to be in my family, but when my wife Kate came along Boxing Day became ‘our’ day. A chance to finally be alone together, to declare Christmas well and truly ‘done’, and to bask in the healing power of the unplanned moment.
I remember our first Boxing Day together. We got up around midday, opened a bottle of champagne, looked at our presents from the day before, roasted chestnuts in the oven, played a silly board game, watched “Ghost Busters” in our bath robes, and stuffed ourselves on posh nibbles. And as the sun gave up its fruitless attempt at breaking through the grey December sky, and the lounge was once again lit by tree lights and candles, I found myself giving Kate a chair to sit on, whilst I went down on one knee.
“Marry me,” I said.
That gives you some idea how good Boxing Day made me feel about life. And there hasn’t been a Boxing Day since that hasn’t given me that same inner glow, that same joy for life. And I can speak with some authority here because in the last seven years I’ve celebrated Boxing Day approximately eighty three times.
* * *
Not that long ago, before the days of conjuring words out of the air and rearranging them into an entertaining order, I worked in banking. Credit Card Banking.
I was a fix it man. An ideas man. Wealthy men would ask me how to make even more money with the tools they had at their disposal, and I would tell them. Though it pains me to admit it the ‘credit crunch’ is partly my fault – not my idea, but I was there, pulling the levers and pressing the buttons that made it happen.
I hated banking. It was about a million miles away from what I’d always hoped I would be.
Other than usual childhood dream of being a fireman or an astronaut, my earliest ambition was the desire to create books. I remember taking as many sheets of paper as I was allowed, folding them in two, and using my grandmother’s stapler to create a spine. I’d then proceed to fill the pages with illustrations and narrative, until I ran out of space, which is when the story would – sometimes quite abruptly – end.
These books were distributed on a strict ‘read and return’ basis. I don’t remember the stories I wrote and I have no idea what happened to the manuscripts but I remember it used to make me happy. I remember that.
But you know how it is. You grow up. Put aside childish things. Get real. And all the dreams you had – becoming James Bond, becoming an actor, working in a job that you enjoy – they all get compromised. Down to nothing.
On my thirty-second birthday, I finally realised that there was a distinct possibility that the last of my ‘dreams’ might also never come to pass.
At the time I hadn’t even realised that it was a dream – I just hadn’t had a proper girlfriend for a while. A long while. A really long while. But I’d always assumed that things ‘would work themselves out’. Eventually. It appears I was the only one who thought so.
Colleagues had long since stopped describing me as an eligible bachelor, and some had even questioned my sexuality, which wasn’t helping the situation.
The thought of being single for the rest of my days was unacceptable.
Something had to be done.
* * *
So in order to avoid a life of bachelorhood, I started to plan. I made lists. I came up with a strategy. I took all the problem solving skills I was developing to make rich men richer, and applied them to my own life.
Around that time there was a TV show on the BBC called ‘Would Like to Meet’ where a team of experts (a flirt coach, an actor, and an image consultant) would take some hapless individual and turn them into a heart-throb or a man-magnet. I’d watch it avidly from week to week hoping to pick up some tips. And quickly came to the conclusion that I too could do with a similar makeover, albeit without the entire viewing nation of theUnited Kingdomlooking on.
So over the next few weeks I ordered a truck load of ‘dating’ books and stacked them by my bedside ready for those evenings when I found myself alone. ie. all of them.
I also tracked down an Image Consultant, picking the one I fancied the most on the grounds that any woman I found attractive would probably dress me in a manner she’d find appealing. Of course, back then Image Consultants really only worked for corporations but I had surprisingly little problem persuading her to broaden the scope of her client base to include one sad and lonely thirty something guy. And once my wardrobe had been completely replaced I went in search of a flirt coach.
At the time Channel 4 regularly hired a lady called Peta Heskell whenever they needed a relationship or ‘flirt’ expert, and as luck would have it Peta ran weekend flirting courses. I sent myself on one, took my place in the front row and when instructed, nervously introduced myself to the stunning blonde sitting next to me.
“I’m Peter,” I said.
“I’m Kate,” said the blonde. Then she smiled. And I was smitten.
The course wasn’t that much of a success, in that it didn’t teach me anything new, not that it mattered. My strategy had worked, albeit somewhat differently but infinitely better than I’d hoped. Kate and I were married exactly a year later.
* * *
Kate was a wonderful person. A true entrepreneur. A real visionary. When we met I had vague notions of settling into a rather typical domestic life-style; putting up with a job that I didn’t care for five days a week, in return for the company of a loving woman in the evenings and at weekends.
Kate had very different ideas.
Life wasn’t about ‘settling’ for things. To her there was a world of possibilities out there. We could go anywhere, do anything, have everything, all we had to do was put our minds to it.
When my wife wasn’t trying to convince me that we could escape the ‘rat race’ – or at the very least change races – she was reading. I’d lay money that a copy of every self-help book published around the millennium somehow found it’s way onto my wife’s bookshelf, where it would wait in line to be digested, scribbled over, highlighted, deconstructed and eventually incorporated into ‘Kate’s big theory of everything’ – a kind of pseudo social-science technical manual as to how the world works, and the people in it.
During the two and a bit years of our marriage Kate became more than my wife, she was also my teacher.
And when she died in my arms I was heart-broken.
* * *
People rarely ask me how Kate died. It’s just not the sort of question they feel comfortable asking. Most assume she must have had cancer – that we’d have had some warning. We didn’t.
I’ve learnt since that sudden deaths like hers (a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage) are surprisingly common. Kate had a weak part in her brain, probably since birth. It could have happened at any moment. It was almost inevitable.
I learnt too that after the shock comes the guilt. Every cross word, every nasty thought, every lie – they all come back to haunt you. And amongst the demons that were queuing up to torment me was the realisation that I still wasn’t happy, and maybe I never had been.
There had been happy moments, of course. Quite a lot of moments. Most of them in the previous three years, and most of them down to Kate, but they were moments none the less. And I wanted to be happy all the time. Not just occasionally. Not just for a moment.
Something had to be done.
* * *
And so I decided to tackle the problem in the only way I knew how: by making lists, and coming up with a strategy.
One such idea was Boxing Day.
That first Christmas after Kate passed away my mother, concerned for my welfare during the festive season, asked if I’d like to spend Boxing Day with them. It was a generous offer but I decided to spend it just as we always had.
I got up late, I opened a bottle of champagne, I sat in bed and browsed my collection of gifts from the previous day. Then I took the Brie from the fridge, a box of posh crackers (the edible kind) and worked my way through the whole lot whilst I sat in front of the telly and watched “The Santa Clause”. A little later I emailed friends I’d been meaning to catch up with, and followed that with a walk down to Old Leigh. I looked out at the boats resting in the mud, and then I went home, wrote down some thoughts, and did some planning.
By the time I went to bed I felt like I’d had a week’s holiday, and all I’d done was get out of bed and see how the day unfolded. It was such a good day that I caught myself wishing that Boxing Day happened a little more frequently than once a year, at which point I had the following crazy thought: Why can’t it? What was to stop me replicating the same structure – or lack of structure – on any other day of the year?
From that day on I decided to have a ‘Boxing Day’ once a month. Once a month I get up with absolutely no plans whatsoever and see how the day unfolds. And that was almost seven years ago.
* * *
Though the ‘Boxing Day rules’ expressly forbid pre-planning, my Boxing Days definitely have themes.
I’ve made chocolate brownies, treacle tart, many many pizzas (base included), and truck loads of flapjacks.
I’ve ‘dropped in’ on friends, my family, visited junk shops and museums that I’ve always wanted to go inside.
I’ve set off in the car forCambridgeor other far flung places I can get to, and back, in a day.
And I’ve worked – working is a completely valid Boxing Day activity if it’s what you really want to do, and it isn’t pre-planned. I’ve written whole chapters, spent a day blogging, caught up on all my post and emails.
I’ve had plenty of successful Boxing Days (in that I achieved that holiday feeling by the end of the day), but I’ve also had less successful Boxing Days (when I didn’t). What I hadn’t realised at the time was that I was experiencing something that scientists refer to as ‘Hedonistic Habituation’. Regardless of how pleasurable an activity is, much of its pleasure is actually derived from its ‘newness’. So whilst I thought I was relying on activities that had worked on previous Boxing Days, I had, in fact, got myself into a Cambridge-based flapjacky rut. The trick, it seems, is to think of something you enjoy doing – then tweak it enough to make it ‘new’.
* * *
Of all the ‘happiness’ ideas I’ve had over the years, Boxing Day has been without a doubt one of the easiest to implement. It’s also the one that raises the most eyebrows.
“That’s bonkers,” my friends say. “Brilliant, but bonkers. But don’t you ever feel lonely? Or at a loss to know what to do?” And the short answer to both questions is, yes, of course. Though it pains me to admit it, I can’t guarantee that Boxing Day will work each and every time. But I’ve learnt that when this happens it’s best just to shrug, and move on. When it comes to creating happiness whilst Boxing Days are great, they’re not the whole answer.
“So what is?” They ask. “What else is in this… ‘happiness strategy’?”
At this point I usually tell them to get another round in. And then, over the noise of our fellow festive revellers and ‘Now That’s What I Call Christmas’ thumping out of the juke box, I tell them about my ‘Now List’, my ‘Wish List’, how I set myself yearly goals, and how I make sure I actually achieve them.
I tell them how I’ve taken back control of my life, decided how I want it to be, pointed it in that direction, and given it a kick up the backside.
I tell them how I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had. Smiling more than I ever did. How there’s love in my life again. How I think Kate would be proud of me. And that I can finally say, I’m happy.
“Those ideas are too good to be kept to yourself,” they say eventually. “You ought to write those things down.”
And so I did.
Thirty something years later I am finally doing something that I wanted to do. I’m realising a childhood ambition. I’m making books.
The opening Chapter from ‘How To Do Everything and Be Happy’…
Once upon a time I got sold a dream: I would grow up big and strong, marry a blonde (my mother was convinced of this), have children, and live happily ever after in a big house, whilst I held down a job as an astronaut. Or a train driver. Or a fireman. And this wasn’t a ‘maybe’ – something to aspire to – this was my God given right. This is what was going to happen. All I had to do was wait.
Not that I was very good at waiting. I’m still not very good at waiting! I wanted this idyllic life now. I didn’t want to wait until next week or some other distant point in the future. I must have told my parents this because they would smile and tell me not to be in such a rush. “Peter,” they would say, “schooldays are the best days of your life.”
Obviously they were mistaken. They had to be. When my parents’ eyes glazed over and they talked fondly of ‘schooldays’ they must have been recalling the days of their own distant childhood, days sitting around camp fires outside the school mud hut, marking bits of slate with chalk whilst village elders told stories of dragons. Their schooldays were clearly a far cry from the mixture of humiliation, bullying and boredom that I endured. They had to be. Because if they weren’t, for schooldays to be the ‘best’ days they would logically have to be followed by ‘something worse.’
Then I got older, and things got worse.
Actually, that’s not quite true. They didn’t get any worse – not really – but they certainly didn’t get much better, and they definitely got more complex.
‘Work’ turned out to be very similar to ‘school’ – different bullies, same rules, just as boring. And whereas I was given money in return for surrendering five days out of seven – more money than I’d ever dreamed possible – now there was a slew of people queuing up to take it away from me.
And then there were relationships. Just when I’d got classroom note passing down to a fine art, the game changed completely, and note passing wasn’t going to cut it.
I could go on, but suffice it to say, the initial ‘dream’ seemed less and less likely. It was clear that I was never going to be an astronaut. Or a train driver. Or a fireman. It also seemed unlikely that I would ever live in a big house. Big houses needed big money. I was on small to medium money. Two bedroom flat money.
Finally, on my thirty second birthday, I realised there was a distinct possibility that I might never ever find ‘the blonde’.
This was a serious blow. Without the blonde I might never be married, I might never have children – and whilst I could probably cope without being married or having kids, or my blonde actually being a blonde, I couldn’t imagine being single for the rest of my days. That was unacceptable. Something had to be done.
So, for the first time in my life, I started to plan – to make lists, and take control of my own destiny. Many of the techniques in this book are nothing more than the skills I had to develop to avoid a life of bachelorhood. But it worked. Eventually I found the blonde. Took me a few more years, considerable effort on my part, and a somewhat unorthodox approach to dating, but I found her.
And we did marry.
And when she died in my arms three years later I was heartbroken.
People rarely ask me how Kate died. It’s just not the sort of question they feel comfortable asking. Most assume she must have had cancer – that we’d have had some warning. We didn’t.
I was off to our place in Croatia for a few days to finish my novel. Kate drove me to the airport and as she dropped me off she gave me the world’s biggest hug, bit back a few tears, thumped me in the arm, and told me she loved me – and that I’d better call her when I got to the other end.
I walked towards the main airport building, turned to give her one last wave. Something wasn’t right. I could see our car, but not her.
The next few hours are a bit of a blur. I remember dropping my bags and running back to our vehicle. Taking her in my arms. The lady police officer trying to revive her. I remember the paramedics, the ambulance helicopter, being rushed to the hospital in the back of a police car. And I remember that god awful waiting room, the stoney faces of the doctors as they told me there was nothing they could do, that my wife was gone, and that they’d be switching off the life support machine.
Several hours later I drove our car back to an empty house.
I’ve learnt since that deaths like this – a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage, according to the certificate – are surprisingly common. Kate had a weak part in her brain – probably since birth – it could have happened at any moment. It was almost inevitable.
I’ve learnt too that after the shock comes the guilt. Every cross word, every nasty thought, every lie – they all come back to haunt you. And amongst the demons that were queuing up to torment me was the realisation that I wasn’t happy, and maybe, I never had been.
There had been happy moments, of course. Quite a lot of moments. Most of them in the previous three years, and most of them down to Kate, but they were moments none the less. I wanted to be happy all the time. Not just occasionally. Not just for a moment. And for the second time in my life I decided to tackle a problem in the only way I knew how: by making plans, and lists, and taking control of my own destiny.
Welcome to ‘How To Do Everything and Be Happy!’ If you’re dissatisfied with your life, this book may be for you. If you want to do something – anything – to increase the amount of happiness you feel, this book is probably for you. And if you know how to use a pencil, if you own a diary, if you can make a list, if you’re moderately organised, or could be if you had a good enough reason to be, then this book is definitely for you.
Now then, let me tell you about this dream that I have for you…
Anyone who writes will tell you that they have a favourite place where the writing comes easier than any other place.
For some this might be a study, or an office, or the local coffee shop. Other’s prefer to curl up on their bed with a big A4 legal pad and churn out the pages long hand. I’ve come to the conclusion that the place chooses you, and not the other way around.
In my case, the place happens to be any window seat facing in the opposite direction of travel, on the train to and from London Fenchurch Street. This has turned out to be extremely convenient on my occasional commute to the big smoke, not so convenient on the days when I’m at home and set some time aside to write, and nothing’s coming forth!
Last night on my journey home, I’d just sat myself down and got out my hi-tech writing paraphernalia when a chap sat down before me. He’d clearly been running to catch the train and whilst the rest of us passengers sat in our coats and jackets, waiting for the doors to slide closed and protect us from the chill coming from the platform, the man opposite loosened his tie and undid his top buttons. He lay back against his chair and took a few deep breaths. But this wasn’t just a man who was relieved to catch the train, this was a man who right now was thanking whatever gods there might be that he’d made it through the day. Forty five minutes from now, he’d be home, and it would all be over.
I guess he must have been thinking something like this when he took his mobile phone out of his pocket and called home. I watched a smile appear on his face as someone he cared for at the other end answered, and without thinking he used his free hand to brush his hair back whilst he spoke to her. Which is when he asked her about her day.
The expression changed: His face fell. He closed his eyes, and his free hand moved to his face and he rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers.
“Right,” he said. “Right.” And a few seconds later, “Yes. Ok. Right.” His shoulders fell, and his hand fell back into his lap.
“Uh huh. Ok. Ok. Ok.” He sighed, deeply. “Ok,” he said again.
Eventually, after a few more affirmative statements he muttered something about “seeing her soon”, and shut the phone off.
Gone was the relief. Instead his face was grey and expressionless. Like stone. And as the train pulled out the station he just stared out the window, and probably wondered why he hadn’t stayed at the office, and worked late, or gone for that drink or two that the guys in finance had invited him to.
Somewhere, not forty five minutes from us, someone put down their phone having just off loaded a day full of problems. Whoever they were, I sincerely hope that they felt better, unburdened somehow, because it came at a price, paid for by the gentleman opposite, and it would be sad to think it was all for nothing.
It’s little events like these that make the train such an easy place to write. Something happens, and it sparks a thought. The thought in turn sparks some writing, and one hundred and eighty odd train journeys later you have twenty seven chapters of your first novel written. At least in first draft. You’ll find a couple of those chapters on this website, and as ever I’d value any comments you might have.