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On Happiness

I attended a course recently called Essentials of CBT ( Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). It was a very informative course and I learnt a great deal that I hope I can put to use, when appropriate, in my counselling practice.

One of the underlining concepts underpinning the approach is that as human beings we are prone to ‘faulty thinking’ processes that can make our lives a misery. This sort of therapy therefore aims to assist and support the individual who comes for counselling to spot these negative thinking patterns and to change them. There are many and various interventions that the counsellor can offer the client to help, and some of these fall under the heading of ‘Environmental Interventions’. Together, the therapist and client will examine the home environment, the work environment and the social environment with the aim of spotting relatively small adjustments that could be made that might then have an impact of the client’s overall mental wellbeing.

For example, one of the most unsettling times for anybody can be a change in role. This might be due to retirement, redundancy or just growing older and finding that you are no longer the centre of a busy home life, but now find yourself on the periphery looking in from a distance. This often happens as we age and is one of the reasons that the elderly are often so plagued with feelings of loneliness. I recall an elderly client telling me that she felt like a rabbit in a cage that was infrequently taken out to play with when her family visited her, and then left alone again, neglected, for long periods of time. What she wanted was to feel needed and to be out in the world fulfilling a useful role. No longer certain of that role is, she had become isolated and depressed. This client really touched me as it did not take too much of a stretch of my imagination to see myself in her place in years to come. Part of my work with her was to help her to see that she could both mourn the loss of her younger, stronger self and accept the changes in her life with renewed hope that she could still find happiness in the years to come.

As a mother to 3 ever growing and changing children, I am very aware of how my role is constantly shifting and changing. I am not needed by them in the ways that I was only a few years ago. It won’t be long now before the school run is a thing of the past. I know that they will continue to need me in a different way, but I will suddenly find that I have more time on my hands. That has the potential to be quite scary. Or to be liberating and exciting. So, when the time comes, I will allow myself to gently grieve for the role of mother to 3 young children and hope that I have the courage to embrace the freedom to come as they fly the nest. This sounds very serene and grown up: the reality is likely to be far more strewn with tears and endless cups of tea and sympathy with friends…

Having looked at the potential environmental stressors that can cause mental distress, the training group went onto examine the very broad question: what makes us happy in life? What are the ideal set of circumstances that lead to a happy and fulfilling life? I have absolutely no empirical evidence for this statement, but I reckon that if you asked a group of young people starting out on their lives you might get responses like: a successful career, foreign travel, a committed relationship with a partner, a big house, wads of cash, masses of followers on social media…

There are lots of Support Groups and now Facebook would have groups you could join. This didn’t appeal to me. I would not have had the capacity to listen to others’ stories or share their grief, but I know that The Compassionate Friends were an enormous support to my mum, and she found comfort and made friends who were in similar situations. They have an amazing website with lots of support here -

Who amongst us has not looked at an old school or university friend’s Facebook or Instagram page and envied them their life in a foreign country? I say this because I for one certainly have. When I was growing up I would promise myself one thing: I will not live in Essex any longer than I have to. And yet…here I am. Back in Essex. You can take the girl out of Essex but you can’t take Essex out of the girl. Or some other such nonsense, but you get my drift. This leads me to question whether I am happy – how can I be, if I’m still where I started and to get out was my biggest marker of success as a young person? Would I have been appalled by my self now as a young person? Have I settled for something less than being fulfilled? Is this just a mid-life crisis?? This thought can lead me to some dark, unforgiving places at times.

I was therefore very heartened to learn something about happiness that I had suspected all along. There is a study known as The Harvard Study that has been running for four generations. The originators of the study were called Grant and Gluek and you can check out Google for further details Robert Waldinger is the current director of the project. You can watch his TED Talk here

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It is truly inspiring stuff and I would urge you to watch it. Yes, there are flaws with the study, most glaringly that it consists entirely of white men. This really grates on modern sensibilities, or at least it did on mine, but by the end of the video I had come to believe that what the study had concluded was of universal application, regardless of race, sex or sexuality. In a nutshell, the study has found that what really matters in life is the quality of our relationships: “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” And it is the quality of the relationships that really matters, not the number nor the nature of them – it does not matter that you might not be in a committed relationship – but you need somebody that you can truly be yourself with. Somebody who can see you at your most vulnerable and with whom you feel safe. Somebody who has seen you at your worst and is still there for you. .

I am lucky enough to have several close friends that I have collected at different points over my life - they have all been there for me in different times when I have been struck by tragedy, illness or too many gin and tonics (if you go back far enough – the after effects of too many snakebite and blacks at the top of the No.1 bus on a Saturday night). And I have been privileged to have been there for them in similar situations. Knowing they are there makes me feel happy and like I have achieved something worthwhile with my life in having those relationships. Relationships are hard work – you have to put in graft to keep them going. In the times of tragedy and illness alluded to, there has often been a deafening silence from those that I might have expected to rely on - but this little crew have never let me down. Blood is most certainly not thicker than water, in my experience. I’d just also like to give credit to my partner too – he has stuck around for a few years now and I most definitely count him as one of the Merry Band. During a recent bout of illness the love and support I felt from my friends and my little community was like a lovely, cuddly duvet of fluffiness.

I think to be able to have those deep and rewarding relationships with others we also need to be comfortable in our own skins. We need to accept the person that we truly are and know that somebody else likes us and values us for that very reason. If we are pretending to be somebody we are not, how can we ever hope to feel at ease with somebody else? Clients very often present with problems in their lives centred around relationships with others, be that friends, family or a partner.

A good counsellor, of whatever modality, should be able to offer an empathic, congruent and caring space for somebody in distress to pinpoint where they feel things are not working for them and to reflect on why that might be. This self-knowledge is very powerful and can equip a person with enough insight to make the changes that might just lead to a happier existence.

In the words of Mark Twain: “There isn't time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”