Gyles Brandreth’s quest for happiness – and the balance involved – began in 1997 after he was defeated in his bid to return to the British Parliament as a conservative Member of Parliament.
“I was kicked out by the people. They say you shouldn’t take it personally because it involves party swings, but you do. When 100,000 people get up one day and say, ‘let’s fire this fellow,’ you put on a happy face but it wings you,” he says in an interview.
Shortly afterward, in succession, his best friend, sister, and brother died. An author and broadcaster before and after his stint in politics, he was in his fifties, experiencing a mid-life crisis, and began to research happiness. His first discovery was that it’s a relatively modern concept. Indeed, he remembered as a child going to church and hearing that life was “a veil of tears.” Happiness would come in the next world, if you were good now.
He blames Thomas Jefferson for our modern obsession with happiness, since he penned those immortal words about “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. “It’s from then on people got it in their heads that they could expect happiness in the here-and-now rather than the hereafter,” he says.
His journey led him to set up a meeting with Dublin-based clinical psychiatrist Anthony Clare, who had tried to popularize his field on radio. Mr. Brandreth said he wanted to be happy, and asked for the rules – the seven secrets of happiness.
Dr. Clare laughed. “There are seven secrets, are there?”
“I’m sure there are seven. There usually are.”
Actually, there wasn’t. But over the years preceding Dr. Clare’s death in 2007 the two collaborated in trying to find seven universal guidelines that would work for people of all ages and types, which Mr. Bandreth recently compiled in a book, The Seven Secrets of Happiness. Happiness won’t come from any one item, but from getting the balance right with all seven in your life:
Cultivate a passion: The passion can come from anything, but there’s a danger if it comes exclusively from work because your work can disappear, as happened when Mr. Brandreth was fired from office or when people retire. And if it comes primarily from children and grandchildren, they will grow up. “They might leave Toronto and live in Adelaide,” he says in the interview. But if your passion is singing in a choir, cooking, or an appreciation of art – something that is not introspective but outside of yourself – it can be sustained for a long time.
Be a leaf on a tree: To thrive you have to be an individual – have a sense you are unique and matter – but at the same time you need to be connected to a bigger organism – be it your family, community or an organization. Again, if work is your tree, it can be a problem. He cites his uncle who managed a key branch for the Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto, and after retirement found life so dull he returned to the tree serving in a more minor position in the bank. The tree can be a church, your golf club, a voluntary organization – but it should be growing. He points to Margaret Thatcher, who was a leaf on the tree of British and international politics, and who had a passion for politics. When she ceased being prime minister, she lost her passion and her tree. “As a consequence, she was not a happy person,” he says.
Break the mirror: Narcissism and self-absorption drive people away and will make you unhappy. Break the mirror of self-regard and he says it won’t bring you seven years of bad luck but, according to studies seven to 10 years of longer life through the resulting happiness. This is particularly difficult, he feels, for younger people, who can be self-obsessed. “Clare would say, ‘Stop talking about yourself. Nobody is interested in you,’ ” he notes.
Don’t resist change: As a small-c conservative this is difficult for him to promote. But change is good for us. “If you resist change you will be unhappy in this world. Change is an inevitability of life. So go with the changes – accept change,” he says. He recalls his mother, who in her 95th year got an iPad and eagerly took to it.
Audit your happiness: Analyze your life, and consider the things that make you unhappy and the things that don’t – concentrating on the top 10 on each side of the ledger. Then do more of the things that make you happy and less of those make you unhappy. One of the biggest sources of frustration is commuting, and if that applies to you he says it’s costing you years of life through the unhappiness that comes in its wake. Change jobs, or gain the right to telecommute. You’ll live longer.
Live in the moment: Most of us live in the past or in anticipation of the next moment, rather than finding joy in what we’re doing. He interviewed the Queen of Denmark, who spends endless time in receptions, where she follows the advice of her father: Everyone you meet has one interesting story to tell, so lean forward, engage actively, and find that story.
Be happy: If you want to be happy, be happy. Put on a happy face. Act the part.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter