The power of so-called weak ties

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I recently read an article about ways to be kinder to yourself in 2020, and one strategy was to “cultivate more casual, low stakes friendships”, which the sociologist Mark Granovetter calls “weak ties.”

I have experienced weak ties as a key contributor to my improving happiness and well-being over the past few years. It’s easy to underestimate the impact of these weak ties, but they are a relatively easy way to make a big impact on happiness.

Continue reading “The power of so-called weak ties”

On Purpose

Today I want us to talk about purpose.

Why purpose

There may not be a unified meaning of life, but I don’t think we can think about happiness without thinking about purpose.

As psychologist and author Paul Donan writes in Happiness by Design, happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Everyone needs both pleasure and purpose, though the particular calibration of the two can vary person to person and over time. I’m naturally inclined to need a hefty dose of purpose, which is why I carve out “spare” time and use it to coach, or write, or volunteer. My husband, on the other hand, probably needs a bit more pleasure in the mix. But we both need both to be truly happy.

Happiness writer Gretchen Rubin had a similar observation in her book The Happiness Project, in which she said to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

I think the emptiness of pleasure without purpose is depicted well in the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the Worldin which a comet is coming to destroy Earth and nothing we can do can stop it. Faced with impending doom, a lot of people go into full-on party mode with orgies and drugs. A scene in which a massive party is happening and someone offers heroin to kids (because why not?) is particularly illustrative to me that pleasure for its own sake seems awfully unsatisfying and depressing.

A study showed that students literally walking up a fairly steep hill estimated the hill’s steepness and difficulty more accurately when they reflected on their purpose,  whereas those who didn’t tended to overestimate the challenge. The challenge was still there for both, and all participants acknowledged it, but having a purpose made it more bearable.

So we need to feel good / experience pleasure. We want to avoid feeling bad / experiencing pain. And we need to feel purpose / growth and avoid pointlessness and stagnation. And doing so makes the necessary challenges of life feel truer to size and worth overcoming.

An example of defining a purpose

But what do we mean by purpose? And how to we go about finding in a modern life?

Purpose needn’t be an all-consuming calling. It can be the work we do, which also brings us an income, or it can be raising our kids, or writing a book.

During a recent bout of illness, I binge-watched Call the Midwife and reflected a lot on what my calling is (spoiler: it’s not to be a midwife). I realised I craved the sense of community the characters shared as they fought against injustice and needless suffering, and I wanted to help people, but beyond that, I struggled to feel like I had much of a clear-cut purpose.

When I returned to my daily life, I saw many opportunities to nurture this vague concept of a calling – caring for my kids, listening to their smallest cares (as the things that seem small to me now are actually quite big in their worlds).

Even at work, I felt purposeful when I was doing work that was helping make a colleague’s life easier or helping a supporter.

I even noticed a feeling of purpose whenever I connected with a wider community, in small ways such as a brief conversation with someone on the train, or making eye contact and really listening to a colleague at work talk about something bothering them.

I also felt when the opposite was true – meetings at work that meant nothing and led to no change or decision… the hubbub on the class parents’ WhatsApp group… the time wasted on work that never would see the light of day.

How, not what

My purpose, I realised, would never be an all-consuming singular passion. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a calling is the deep-seated desire to be a mother, which I don’t take for granted having known the possibility of it never happening. Yet even as powerful as that calling has been, it has never been so all-consuming that I saw it as my only calling.

Sometimes, purpose can be as much the how we live as the what we do. My purpose is to help people, to bring more compassion and kindness and love into the world. And I am happiest when I can do this, even in small ways, every single day. I don’t feel a prescriptive need to help people by doing a specific job or being just one thing, but wherever life takes me, I know I must infuse my life with love, compassion, and helping others.

Questions to reflect on

What is your purpose? Is it a ‘what you do’ kind of purpose or more of a ‘how you live’ kind of purpose?

How can you build more of this into your life?

Know your motivation

When faced with a decision between one course of action and another, the motivation can make as much difference as the actual choice you make.

Leaving a job, confronting a loved one, telling someone how their actions have affected you – these are not always easy, and can sometimes lead to pain.

But each of these can be done out of spite or out of love.

Leaving a job can mean thumbing your nose at your employer and saying good riddance to the aspects of the job that led to finding another role elsewhere.

Or it can mean acknowledging your needs, how these aren’t being met in your current role, and being grateful for everything your current role has taught you, as well as leaving the place better than you found it.

Staying in a job where you’re unhappy could create discontent, building tension and dissatisfaction for you and your colleagues, or a nasty competitive environment where you spend most of your energy proving why others are wrong, rather than .

Or it could mean appreciating what is good about where you are, seeking to bridge differences and make the workplace better for colleagues and customers alike.

The decision – should I stay or should I go? should I try to talk to them about it or pull away? – isn’t always the most important factor. The motivation behind a decision is both the ‘why’ you do something, and dictates the ‘how’.

And that makes all the difference.

More than dust

The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.

Excerpt from Faith and Practice, North Carolina Yearly Meeting, 1983

…When I have something very difficult to face that I know I can’t cope with, then I turn desperately to the source [the Light, the seed, God, the holy spirit…]. One of the things I find most infuriating about myself is that I often let the contact go when the emergency is over and flounder along without it for months on end when my everyday existence could be transformed by it. It is as if I opened the blinds in my house for only an occasional hour when – for example – I had an important visitor, or a cable arrived, or I had to sweep up some broken glass; and afterwards allowed the blinds to fall closed again. So that for ninety-per-cent of the time I bumble around, do my housework in semi-darkness, strain my eyes trying to read and can scarcely discern the feathers of those to whom I talk. More than anything I want to learn to live in the Light. So I think, anyway, but in fact I perhaps don’t altogether want to take the demands involved, don’t want to see all the dust in my life.

Quaker Faith and Practice, Fourth edition, (20.05), Jo Vellacott, 1982

Working for and with people with cancer, I have regular reminders of what matters. When the diagnosis comes and the worst is true – you have cancer; it has spread; there’s nothing more we can do – it can be the first day of the rest of your life. An awakening. A rebirth. A chance to live before it’s too late, to move beyond existing as you did before. I’ve seen bankers transform into marathon runners and poets, living their last years more fully than perhaps all the years before.

And it feels shameful to squander my health, my relative youth, my children’s early years, on distractions which ‘dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.’

Yet I do just that.

Dentist appointments. Updating wills. Renewing passports. Boiler maintenance. Paying off my credit card. Vacuuming. Complaining to the bank. Delayed trains.

We are a “quintessence of dust” indeed, to quote Hamlet, when we live our lives this way.

That’s not to say that life is only meaningful when we don’t have to deal with these things. Of course, I have to make dental appointments, update my will, pay off my credit card. I have to work a day job that pays the bills, and it’s hardly my choice whether the trains run on time.

Perhaps this is why the quotes at the beginning of this article struck such a chord with me. Pulling back the curtains and letting the light in allows us to see the room for what it is, dust and all, so we can choose what we do with it. And hopefully see what is the furniture in the room – the stuff that matters hidden amidst the dust.

Not that this is easy. A simple life may be demanding. Freed from the distractions, what is left? Love. Truth. Justice. Self awareness. Compassion.

These are demanding. They are hard work. But they are the opposite of the trivial and mediocre life.

Journal prompts:

When I pull back the curtain and let in the light, the dust I see is…

Without this dust to dilute my energy and scatter my thoughts, what’s left is…

My simplicity is a protest against…

My simplicity allows more _______ in my life, which this week will look like ________.

You can fill these in as many times as feels right.

Example:

My simplicity allows more kindness in my life, which this week will look like prioritising the projects at work that will help people the most.

My simplicity allows more love in my life, which this week will look like being really present with my children.

 

Lessons from trees

Wangari Maathai was working on women’s empowerment and preparing for a UN conference about women and the issues they faced globally at the time. Listening to rural women talk about the problems they wanted to solve, she heard them talk about water, food, energy, and a means to earning an income themselves.

As a child, Maathai remembered her mother teaching her not to chop down the fig trees, as these were sacred in their traditional worldview – something that imperialism and missionary work hadn’t quite fully unrooted (yet).

Fastforward several decades, and Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work founding the Greenbelt Movement responsible for planting millions of trees across Africa and beyond. She realised that trees could solve the root issue (no pun intended) behind many of the problems women expressed around livelihoods and quality of life, as well as helping ensure security and reduce likelihoods of human conflict over limited resources, by increasing those resources.

She also learned that those sacred fig trees that were ripped from the ground after living there for hundreds of years had actually been holding the ground together with their deep and widespread root systems. She deduced that if ripping them from the ground led to increases in landslides and flooding, planting them back and protecting them might reverse the trend. And she was right. There was wisdom in the traditional beliefs, regardless of whether we explain this as god or ecology.

So why do I share this? Aside from inspiring us all to plant and protect trees as quickly as we might try to save a more apparently sentient being, this story holds a key lesson: an elegant root solution can be more powerful and practical than numerous patches. Continue reading “Lessons from trees”

The cult of convenience

I’m going to say something here that is not popular and may be controversial: convenience has no inherent virtue.

The value of convenience is the time/effort/attention it saves us that we can devote to something else more meaningful.

Yet sometimes it seems we’ve fetishised convenience so that it has become an unquestionable end in its own right.

There are three main problems with this that impact on happiness. Continue reading “The cult of convenience”

Holding onto your self in the sea of life

I recently met up with a friend who is going through a divorce. When I saw her, the first thing I noticed was how amazing she looked.

As we sat down with our drinks and I started to take in the details – hair recently dyed to cover stray grays, eyebrows thick and neatly waxed, a cool outfit – she said, “That’s something that’s changed now he’s left – I will not sacrifice my self-care.”

Continue reading “Holding onto your self in the sea of life”