It was the winter of discontent. I felt like I had been drudging to and from work under the cover of darkness since the Dark Ages. My Vitamin D was in serious deficit. My last dose of sunshine was a faded memory and my next getaway felt like a distant dream. The outlook was bleak.
January is infamously depressing; it’s cold, it’s dreary and you’re probably skint. If, like me, you’re prone to a bit of self-diagnosed S.A.D. (Seasonal Affected Disorder) then it isn’t ideal to reside in a country with an ostensive 9 month winter.
So I had the January blues. Some psychopathic philistines would probably say I just needed a massive slap round the chops. Those psychopaths would only be partly wrong, because what I did indeed need was a change of perspective, but I was hoping to achieve it in a less painful way.
So in the bleak midwinter, I heard about a viral project permeating social media called the #100happydays project. My friend Kim started doing it on facebook and it took me all of 10 minutes to realise this was exactly what I needed.
The concept sounded simple enough: find one thing to be happy about, once a day, every day, for 100 consecutive days, and post a picture of it either on facebook, twitter or instagram.
Please, help yourself
I wouldn’t dare use this blog to extol the virtues of ‘self-help’ – much of which seems to involve pseudo-psychologists spouting utter drivel in paperbacks which bewitch people into defying common sense with advice such as ‘only eat green foods’ or ‘never text a man back after a first date, except on Tuesdays’ or ‘channel your inner cave woman’. I’m not a fan of the genre but I am a fan of helping yourself.
As anyone who’s prone to dark times knows, you need to have some sizeable crutches in place to tackle life’s undulating ups ‘n’ downs. One of the crutches that has been empirically proven to work (thereby deftly differentiating itself from most of the self-help genre) is mindfulness, a central part of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and an all-round good idea for anyone with any stresses in their life whatsoever. (So that will be just about everyone then.)
I’ll now attempt to very poorly explain my very poorly understood version of mindfulness. It’s essentially a technique to halt your racing mind, to stop worrying about the past or the future, or things outside of your control, and to try and centre your thoughts in the stillness of what is physically happening, right here and now. It also involves breathing, but doesn’t everything these days?
The reason I could do with a good medicated dose of mindfulness is that I have a chronic problem of perpetual planning: plan meals, plan tasks, plan work, plan socialising, plan the year ahead, plan the year after that… and I then proceed to fret about all the finite details of said plans, most of which I can’t yet do anything about. This coincides with one of my biggest pleasures in life, travelling, and consequently I have spent most of my adult life focused on the question: ‘when’s my next big adventure?’ Which sounds like a decent question to ask but not when it leads to me suspending my day-to-day joyby telling myself, “I won’t be having a good time until I get to Kenya. Everything until then is just a build-up to that holiday.” With a standard 25 days allotted annual leave, this philosophy means most of the year is spent looking forward to something, rather than enjoying the here and now. I know in theory that I’ve got a lot to be grateful for in the present tense but my panicky mind fixates on future plans and how to fix them. This leaves my mind a little too full for being mindful.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t post or tweet every day but once I took up this mantle, I set off with alacrity because 100 days didn’t seem a very long time at first (trust me, it is ages!) and I acknowledged that a slap round the chops perspective-changer was needed. I hoped this challenge would turn my frown upside down.
I purposely tried to vary the posts, not just to keep it interesting, but also because I wanted to come away with 100 different things to feel good about. If you have a list of 100 separate pleasure-giving things, then that’s a lot of quality stock to take forth.
I deliberately tried to restrict the number of food posts, otherwise it would have read like a list of my lunches, and nobody likes a food bore. Exceptional eating experiences that made the cut were: Day 95’s lunch at The Yorke Arms (seriously, it’s only 2 hours’ away, get in a car and go! Now!); delivering homemade pizza to cheer up a pal (Day 93); a surprise ‘thank you’ trip to the gorgeous Mr Cooper’s House & Garden (Day 88); steak for tea (86); grilled mackerel baguettes in Istanbul (82); Street Food in Spinningfields (71)… ok so maybe food was pretty prevalent after all.
I learnt that food is the most consistent bringer of good times. I also learnt that I base my life mostly around ‘experiences’ rather than material things and it served as a timely reminder that I’m dead lucky to live in a city with such a variety of cultural activities to stumble upon like Chinese New Year in China Town (46) and with incredible venues like the Royal Exchange Theatre (days 36 and 98).
Some days I had to go out and create something happy – there’s a life lesson in there somewhere – so a bad day at work that previously would have led to me curling up into a cocoon only willing to emerge once all the chocolate hobnobs in Manchester had been consumed, instead led to an evening jogging along the canal with aggressive geese for entertainment.
Isn’t it annoying?
It probably is annoying for some people on facebook who couldn’t abide my perpetual sunniness but the retort is that nobody has to follow the posts. We all have annoying ‘friends’ whose statuses are hidden from our news feeds. (You don’t? Click top right next to one of their posts and hide them from view; ignorance is bliss!) I’m sure my daily posts of endless optimism have triggered my relegation to a few hidden lists!
I was continually conscious that my in-yer-face cheeriness might be getting on people’s wick. I was particularly thinking of old acquaintances that never spent much time with me in the first place, with whom I’m now inextricably forever ‘friends’ with on facebook, through fear of defriending just before I awkwardly bump into them for the first time in 15 years. I’m certain those folk don’t want to witness daily gloating glee from me.
Weekends are the pinnacle of exasperating positivity. From 6pm Friday through to midnight Sunday, life can feel like one long stream of glorious events:
After a lie in!
Gin and tonic!
In bed! And so on.
As a born worrier, I’d be conscious that there might be someone out there who doesn’t have access to filter coffee, and now thinks I’m a horrendous, profligate show-off.
I was given succour for this because as the project unfolded, a bizarre thing happened… various people I have little direct contact with in real life got in touch with me to say they were really enjoying my 100happydays. It happened a few times and although I was surprised by it at first, I was mainly relieved that I hadn’t done absolutely everyone’s head in. Then I read an article in Stylist about social media and emotional intelligence. It quoted an academic study which found that negative posts spur negative posts from other users, angry posts spur even more angry posts and happy posts generate happiness in others. This seems a bit evangelical but maybe that was why I received such nice feedback, maybe what I was doing was spreading good vibes. Maybe, just maybe, people would rather read a post about me appreciating a filter coffee than a post from someone whingeing about the traffic on the M6. The fact is that other people enjoy hearing about, and sharing in, happiness.
So one major thing I learnt from doing the challenge is that positivity breeds positivity. This mantra was reinforced for me because not only did I post happy things, but I also got a Iot of kind words and lovely sentiment in return. It had a cumulative effect as the challenge wore on, to the extent that I was left feeling like that was an exceptionally pleasant period and that good things occurred outside of my 100 days’ posts that I didn’t even record, things that wouldn’t ever normally happen. My perspective was well and truly changed.
Why a public challenge?
A lot of people have commented that as this is a personal challenge, then why make it public? Good question. Well I can vouch for the fact that the public pressure forces you not to slack off. Some days you’re really struggling to find something, your brain wants to dwell on what it perceives as being more important than a silly challenge and it wants to stay in grumpy mode. Or maybe it has gotten to 11pm and you haven’t picked anything and you want to go to sleep. As a public challenge, you know that it will be noticeable if you omit a day on social media and then the whole project will have failed. That pressure forces you to slip out of moody mode to seek out the day’s delights. After that pre-slumber task, you can’t help but sleep more soundly. It is remarkable that even on the worst days – which we all experience – there is always something to smile about.
I’m not sure that private noting would have the desired effect because here you’re actually taking the time to reflect on what it IS that you feel happy for, so rather than having a vague or fleeting thought like “Today I’m grateful for family” you have to pick something specific, tangible and photographable, like “I’m happy to hang out with my Dad today.” When you take stock and concentrate on something, then you feel properly grateful for it. This must have more of a lasting effect.
Does it work?
I know plenty of people for whom this challenge didn’t work, some who found it tiresome to post every day or gave up for their own personal reasons. It isn’t a universal panacea. But you know what? It worked for me! It worked because I woke up every day thinking, “Right, what can I be happy about today?” which is pretty revolutionary.
Of course the ‘challenge’ is not challenging at all at weekends, on holidays, birthdays and so on, when there’s always an abundance of positivity to post. But most days are just average, lacklustre weekdays and those are the days when the benefits really started to shine.
For example, when I woke up groggy on a Tuesday, instead of thinking, “Eurghhh” (as one should naturally feel) instead I would think, “What the hell is my ‘happy thing’ going to be today” and then my thought process for the rest of the day would go a little something like this…
“Jam on toast is underrated…”
“…how cool is the Sunlight House building…”
“…bumping into her was lovely…”
“…those cherry blossom trees are pretty…”
“…that was so nice of him to say that…”
“…I love Cheetham Hill food markets…”
…all the while I was evaluating what I was going to pick as the ‘happy thing’ for the day, because by midnight, something needed to be uploaded.
This method meant that even on a truly “Eurghhhhh” Tuesday, you find you have a plethora of pleasure to choose from. You realise how spoilt you are, how spoilt most of us are, because after all, we are western, decadent, privileged gits, and we’ve got truckloads of wondrous things to smile about every single day. I learnt (or rather, I was thoroughly well-reminded) that I am ridiculously fortunate, that I have bountiful things to be grateful for and that I have amazing people in my life. Of course we don’t always stop to smile about those things because, in reality, we’ve also all got stresses and strains in our lives. Naturally we don’t have the time, or the inclination, to stop and smile at a blooming cherry blossom tree, because why the hell would we…unless if course…we desperately needed to post something happy on facebook! The point is that it forces you to adopt happy-go-lucky behaviours despite the stressors in your life.
The days that were hard were the ones when you’d worked solidly with no leisure time and were feeling pretty tense, or days when you’d had bad news and were feeling down. These days happen to all of us, always have and always will, and we can’t escape that. Those are the days when this project really comes into its own because it forces your mind to reframe your mood, to scrape the barrel and see what goodies come up. That’s when you start to feel grateful for those things you usually take for granted. The effort it takes to find a ‘thing’ to be happy about, picture it, post it and write a sentence about it, I found that is just enough effort to shift your mood from miserable to mindful.
The challenge’s biggest boost of all comes right at the very end. You might ordinarily look back over any standard 3 month period of your life and think ‘it’s been vaguely up and down’ without really remembering how you felt day-to-day. After doing this project, you can look back proudly and say, ‘I was happy every day, for one hundred days in a row’ and that in itself is something to smile about.
I did it! I made it to 100 days. Now that the challenge is completed, I hope to be able to continue taking stock of what’s around me here and now. I’m trying to carry it on but it isn’t as easy without the ongoing need to post!
I’m gutted it’s over and already looking for something new. I’m not going to subject everyone to another stream of public posts but I’d love to see #100good-deeds as a challenge; that could be tricky but imagine a world where everyone was constantly on the look-out for a daily act of kindness. I’m also floating the idea of #100momentsofcalm where I would try to find a few minutes of quiet contemplation every day – nah, probably impossible. In any event, I’m now going to subject everyone to #100glastonbury days which will be brimming with positivity but probably pretty annoying. Feel free to defriend / unfollow me now…