Saturday, May 31, 2014

Happiness isn't all it's cracked up to be?

It seems like everyone these days just wants to be happy. Pharrell's singing about it, there's endless self help books about it, all the lifestyle magazines are selling it. But what is happiness anyway? And is it all it's cracked up to be? Read on for ten magic steps to find happiness!! (Actually I don't have ten steps, sorry to disappoint some of you so early, but please bear with me and read on anyway).

In my somewhat faded Concise Oxford dictionary, after 'happi' (a loose informal Japanese coat if you didn't know), and before 'haptic' (relating to the sense of touch - obviously), there are various definitions for 'happy'. These include 'feeling or showing pleasure or contentment'; 'pleasing' and 'slightly drunk'. 

I have to say that I was slightly surprised by these definitions, as they don't seem to match the 'happiness' sold throughout our media and culture.  I don't know about you, but I think we've hyped happiness up into some kind of heavenly and perfect state of affairs that we should all individually aim for. These dictionary definitions of happiness are all pretty superficial and slightly selfish, focused on our own pleasure, maybe even to the extent that we become 'slightly drunk' on satisfying our own wants and desires. Perhaps the problem with the search for happiness is that we end up wanting "everything, all the time", to quote the Eagles.

If I'm painting an unnecessarily negative view of happiness then I apologise. Of course we can be pleased with things working our well for others etc, but I do think we have a tendency to seek our own personal happiness over and above everything else, and perhaps at the expense of others (knowingly or unknowingly).

A problem with the search for happiness is that it can lead us to an unhealthy focus on ourselves, perhaps a degree of isolationism, and also to a short-termism in our thinking and actions. In the short term, I'd happily binge on Jaffa cakes, Pringles and burgers at mealtimes rather than take the time to prepare some decent food. This bingeing may make me feel temporarily happy but pretty quickly my feelings would degenerate into guilt and (moderate) self loathing at my bad food choices and short-term perspective. Left to my own devices I know it's much more tempting to take the short-term view and make bad food choices! Food does seem to be one thing we can turn to when we're feeling unhappy! 

Reflecting on happiness, it does seem to be a shallow thing in many ways. If (as the dictionary states) it's so linked to our feelings then this makes a lot of sense, as my feelings fluctuate and don't always reflect reality! Perhaps happiness really isn't all it's cracked up to be, and if we've been sucked into the worldview that our ultimate aim is the search for happiness then maybe we've been duped!

So what should we be searching for instead? 

I think there's something deeper than superficial happiness that we can find, and it's around the idea of peace, completeness, prosperity and welfare. There's a Hebrew word which sums this up - Shalom. The idea of Shalom is more than "just" peace, but a broader sense of becoming whole - more than just the absence of conflict but instead the active presence of peacefulness. What I like about this idea is that it's less individualistic, since we generally need others to complete us, for us to prosper, and for our mutual welfare.

The word Shalom is often used as a greeting, in the style of "peace be with you", and I like the richness of meaning it conveys. I like that it's a phase used for blessing others, compared to the notion of seeking our own individual happiness. As an aside, I remember from growing up going to Mass that there's a particular moment in the liturgy where you are encouraged to offer each other the sign of peace - usually a handshake and a muttered "peace be with you" (in my experience often a slightly awkward moment). I distinctly remember an occasion as a stroppy teenager when I was clearly in a mood about something or other, and after telling me that I was "going around like a bear with a sore head" (a family saying), my Dad said to me (out of context, since we were probably in the kitchen at the time) "Peace be with you". I remember thinking this was a bit strange, since we weren't at Mass, but as I reflect on it, isn't it usually the case that we need to be reminded of this in the everyday-ness of life.. and especially when we're going around like a bear with a sore head!

So is happiness all it's cracked up to be? Probably not, and maybe this week we should stop (just) seeking our own individual and short term happiness and start seeking out a broader, deeper Shalom instead. You never know, we might just find this makes us more happy in the long run after all..

Friday, May 23, 2014

Footprints or Tyre tracks?

Are you travelling slowly enough to leave footprints?
Earlier this week my wife Kate and I went for a fantastic walk together. About 50 yards from our front door, next to our allotment site, there's a path which leads to a large area of fields and woodland. 

Over the seasons we watch from our kitchen window and see the crops being planted, growing and then harvested

We love running various routes through and around these fields, and as a family we've hunted and found hidden geocaches. 

Last summer my daughter and I spent two hours one sunny Saturday afternoon foraging for elderberries and sloes.. we love this area of countryside on our doorstep, and on our walk around there this week Kate and I noticed the heavy hum of many bees noisily buzzing away at their daily business, magpies and other birds calling and flying. We also noticed and explored new paths, fresh growth on the trees and bushes, as well as enjoying some quality time together. All in all it was a great walk, and something we should do more often. 
"I've been wondering what trail I'm leaving in different parts of my life"
As it happened, the paths were hard after a dryish spell, so I didn't notice us leaving any footprints (although I did see some hoof marks from horses). Sometimes there are tyre tracks on these paths, and some evenings we can hear younger members of our community tearing around the fields on motorbikes. I doubt that these young chaps notice the bees humming, the birds calling or particularly enjoy quality time together - for them it's mainly about speed!

Reflecting on this difference, I've been wondering what trail I'm leaving in different parts of my life. Am I leaving footprints, travelling at an appropriate pace, or am I impatiently leaving tyre marks as I scramble my way to the next goal, the next rung on the ladder, the next achievement?

I should point out that there's nothing wrong per se with travelling quickly, but for this post at least I want to use the comparison between footprints and tyre tracks as a metaphor for whether we're living life with a deep sense of awareness and "noticing", or whether we're just desperate to get where we're going without enjoying the journey to get there. This is another angle on whether we're destination-focused or journey-focused, which I've touched on in a previous post.

Are you leaving tracks in your haste?
Over the years I've spent a fair bit of time in the mountains of North Wales, not least because until recently my brother lived there with his family. I've climbed Snowden (the highest mountain in Wales) numerous times, and by various different routes.
"Am I impatiently leaving tyre marks?"
Once I climbed it with a group of friends as part of a 3-peaks challenge. Another time two friends and I "accidentally" climbed up via the precarious Crib Goch route (not ideal for someone like me who's not a fan of big drops, and we were wearing cowboy hats as well).

In each case the climb itself has been an essential part of the whole experience, sharing companionship, encouragement and enjoyment with those others I'm climbing with - leaving footprints along the way, and having a shared satisfaction at reaching the trig station at the summit.

If you know Snowden, you'll know that there's also a steep rack and pinion train track which winds up the mountain from Llanberis, enabling you to enjoy the view in comfort as you ascend, and scale the summit with minimal footprints. For the record, I really have no problem with people who choose this as their means to ascend the mountain, and I know that for some people this is their only way up, through disability or illness. For me though, while I am able, it's a richer experience to leave footprints on the side of the mountain, especially when sharing it with others.

Perhaps what I'm getting at here is the difference between getting somewhere quickly all by yourself compared to getting somewhere together. Anyone who's ever looked after small children (even older children) will know that getting somewhere quickly together can be a hard task! Putting coats and shoes on reluctant toddlers can be like trying to fit an octopus in a string bag, let alone the subsequent pace of the journey with little and/or reluctant legs! But it's more important to be going somewhere together at a shared pace - much as we'd like, it wouldn't be right just to stride off to our destination and leave the kids miles behind to catch up!
"'s a richer experience to leave footprints on the side of the mountain, especially when sharing it with others"
As an aside, as we look back over our lives it can be easy to be hung up with the footprints we've left, perhaps our trail hasn't been entirely where we intended or wanted - through our own decisions or by life's circumstances. Wherever our trail has led us, it's our footsteps going forward that can begin to lead us in a new direction. We often underestimate how far we can go. As I plod to and from the station during the week, I often take encouragement from Rosie Swale-Pope (not literally I should add!). Rosie ran around the world, exhibiting amazing determination, guts and strength, and is a fantastic example of what you can achieve simply by placing one foot in front of another - I'd recommend her book "Just a little run around the world".

Are you allowing your steps to be guidied?
In terms of our footsteps going forward, I love the description of God in the book of Genesis as
someone who walks with us in the garden. We are not alone on our walk and have a God who can guide our next step.

As a family we are very excited at the moment because in a few days we are due to get a Guide Dog puppy to foster for a year or so. Guide Dogs are amazing companions for blind and partially sighted people, and often mean the difference between someone being afraid to step outside their own front door, and someone being able to confidently step across the threshold and walk to wherever they need to go.

How much more confidence and direction can we have when we allow God to guide our steps, to guide our path? Our vision for our lives is small in comparison with God's great design for us.
"It's more important to be going somewhere together at a shared pace"
Thanks as always for reading this post, and I've love to hear your thoughts. How grounded are the different areas of your life? Are you leaving casual and hasty tyre tracks, or connected and relational footprints? Perhaps there's areas of your life where you need to slow down to shared walking pace?

Here's to taking that next step!


Thanks for taking the time to read Footprints or Tyre Tracks. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The only thing to fear is fear itself?

'The only thing to fear is fear itself', as President Roosevelt famously announced. But is it? I think there are plenty of healthy fears we can have - for me, I have a healthy fear of big hairy tarantulas (not quite a phobia I'd say), and a healthy fear of big drops (again, not heights per se, it's the drops that worry me more!). 

Recently I've been enjoying watching extreme sports on Red Bull TV (currently my favourite channel by a long long way) - people with seemingly no fear climbing up and jumping off buildings, extreme snow sports, insane mountain biking.. All things that are well beyond my comfort zone. I definitely don't have the killer instinct to do that kind of stuff! 

I don't know about you, but I have a tendency to play it safe - possibly even a natural bias. I'm not the natural risk taker, adrenaline seeker that you see on Red Bull TV. That's not to say that I don't like pushing myself and I've completed my fair share of triathlons and less extreme sports events in my time. A few months ago I finally dusted off my road bike and went cycling with a friend for the first time in about three years. I've had no problem keeping fit in the meantime (I've been doing a solid amount of running while my bike was hibernating), and all was going ok on the ride to begin with. The flat sections were fine, we even climbed up Clent, a very steep and long local hill, which went really well. 

Unfortunately I discovered that I had a problem when we got to the top. The problem was this - I'd completely lost my guts for going downhill at anything more than walking speed (hard to do on a roadbike built for speed). It was embarrassing, and it was a shamefully slow ride down. I've been wondering quite how to regain my cycling mojo ever since. I need to build my confidence up again, and regain a healthy relationship and trust in my bike and bike handling skills.

Notwithstanding my current lack of mojo for cycling down hills, in general as I've grown more and more into my skin in the last decade or so, I've felt more able and empowered to take positive risks. As I reflect on it, I think that often the fear of what other people may think of me has held me back, along with the fear of the unknown. Perhaps being more secure in myself helps me to make decisions more consistent with who I believe I'm made to be, rather than who other people think I should be.

None of us are exempt from fears, and whilst I'm not necessarily seeking a cure for my fear of giant tarantulas (I see Dudley zoo offer 'hands on' sessions to overcome this.. No thanks!!), it's often the everyday fears that delay us making a decision or doing something we should.

Something I've found helpful on a day to day basis is asking myself (often but not always at work) the question: what would I do if I wasn't afraid? I find this helps me get a sense of perspective, to step to one side of what I may or may not be feeling, and take positive action. Sometimes the answer is to make a phone call, speak to someone, put something 'out there' - I find the question a helpful way of overcoming roadblocks in my thinking or doing. My gran used to say 'the sooner you face up to your problems, the sooner they go away', which is a good point! 

While I don't think that the *only* thing to fear is fear itself (big hairy spiders and big drops being valid in my opinion), I do agree that fear for its own sake can be debilitating. For me, knowing the love of my God, my wife, kids and family has made me happier in how I'm made, and more able to face those fears and take those positive risks to be the best expression of 'me' that I can be. 

Maybe, like me, you need to rebuild your confidence with something. I literally need to get back on my bike and face some (smaller) hills. What could you do today, this week, this year if you weren't afraid? Maybe asking yourself that question will help you to take a sidestep around roadblocks in your mind and heart to find a positive way forward.

Thanks for reading, I'd love to hear your comments, or any stories you may have of overcoming your fears. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

I ask not for a lighter load..

..but broader shoulders (Jewish proverb)

To be honest, broad shoulders aren't something that really runs in our family, something I found particularly disappointing as a tall and skinny teenager. Back in the 1990s I used to love watching Gladiators on Saturday evenings, and even now I could probably name most of the competitors and individual events in 1990s era Worlds Strongest Man competitions (possibly a specialist subject to keep in reserve for that Mastermind appearance). Sadly, no matter how hard I tried, I could never bench press as much as my schoolfriends, and whilst some of them bulked out to resemble Atlas, I didn't! My dad and I even spent a day casting my own set of lead weights, which were suitably heavy but so much denser than the shop bought weights my friends had they looked pathetically small by comparison - but none of them had the satisfaction of melting lead with a propane torch until molten and then pouring it into their own sand-filled moulds! (In hindsight, I've realised that many of the ways my dad expressed his love for me and my brothers and sister were unorthodox, often involving making things together in the workshop using dangerous and not so dangerous tools and techniques - as a dad myself now, I love him all the more for doing this with us).

These days I've made my peace with not being broad shouldered, but as a culture we do seem to value individual strength - only the strongest survive, survival of the fittest etc. Now I'm all for meritocracy to a degree, but I think we fool ourselves if we think that we entirely rise and fall on our own actions - life is too random for that, events happen, and a nasty flip side of the coin can creep into our thinking in which we see the poorest in our society as "losers", deserving of all that's happened to them. Unfortunately we can see this all too often in the media, and I'd recommend watching Alain De Botton's TED talk on a kinder philosophy of success, which explores this idea in more detail.

I've noticed this strength-cult in the workplace, where we're expected to be strong men and women, but in reality we can't do everything in our own strength all of the time. As I've said before, we all have different and varied strengths as individuals anyway! So often we can feel (or be made to feel) like we need to face problems alone, to prove ourself in some way. It's funny how we can perceive asking for help as a sign of weakness - especially in the workplace!

Much as I want to be able to do everything in my life in my own strength, there are times when I do feel weighed down with life, circumstances, situations and tasks. Today is a good case in point when I would gladly have wished away a situation in my workplace! Sadly, there's rarely a magic button that makes our troubles vanish and we have to learn to deal with them as best we can, as well as deal with our relationship with our troubles too.

I've never been a huge fan of assault courses. Inevitably there are sections which require good upper body strength - broad shoulders actually - where I fear I would get stuck (pull ups are another area I'm not naturally gifted in). And at times, life can feel like an assault course can't it? Army assault courses have a reputation for being fearsome, involving submerged pipes to crawl through, barbed wire to crawl under, and other tough challenges. The thing is, I'm led to believe that the toughest army assault courses require you to work as part of a unit.

I believe that it's right that our expectation of ourselves and our capacity to do things increases over time. With experience and practice our skills and knowledge increase. In that sense our shoulders do broaden over time. But in a world where it's increasingly 'every man for himself' who have you got around you? Who's sharing your load? Conversely, who's load are you helping with?

Today I was glad to have supportive colleagues to share the load - the cliché is true that a problem shared is a problem halved. Also clichéd but true is that by working together you are able to shoulder more than the amount you can each shoulder on your own. Two people working collaboratively can do more than two people's worth of work!

For those of us with faith, we believe in a God who invites us to cast our burdens on him, who isn't distant and remote but who is actively offering to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in the midst of what we're facing. We may be praying for a lighter load, but instead our shoulders can be broadened when we share our loads with God. Too often I think that I try to be Atlas, attempting to carry the world all by myself, and buckling under the weight. Increasingly I want to turn to the one who instead set the stars in their place (see Psalm 8). God isn't at our beck and call, he doesn't sprinkle fairy dust to make our lives magically easy, but he invites us to "yoke up" with him, to share our troubles and receive his peace and love. Our circumstances may not change in ways we expect (although they can and sometimes do in response to prayer), but we have a God willing to sustain us in the midst of whatever it is we're going through.

This week I've finished reading Mark Batterson's excellent book "The Circle Maker", which I've found an inspiring and encouraging read on how to share our biggest fears and dreams with God - how to place them on his shoulders. I've found it so helpful I'm planning to read it again, and I'd heartily recommend it to any of you reading this post.

Perhaps today it's time to stop asking for lighter loads, but to ask instead for extra shoulders..

Thanks for reading, and as always I welcome your comments and contributions. Please feel free to share this post with anyone who may be interested.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Thriving weeds or flourishing seeds?

Our allotment was very weedy when we first got it...
Or "Everything I needed to know about life I learned on the allotment" (in homage to Robert Fulghum's kindergarten passage).

This week I'm thinking about "thriving", a word we maybe apply more to gardening or horticultural situations, as it implies flourishing growth. 

To me this immediately makes me think about the thriving weeds that we wage incessant war against on our allotment.

If you're not from the UK you may not be familiar with the peculiar things we have called allotments. Napoleon may have called us Brits a nation of shopkeepers, but in many ways we're a nation of gardeners, and allotments are really just community gardens where you can rent a plot of land to cultivate your own crops.

They're a national institution, enshrined in various arcane laws and bylaws and have been around for hundreds of years. Our allotment site is at the end of our road, about 50m from our front door, and our plot (number 39) is about 15m long and 9m wide (or about 50ft by 30ft). It's a big plot (one of the biggest on the site) and as much as growing anything, the main challenge is keeping the weeds down - they thrive with much less care and attention than anything we intentionally plant!
"It feels like we only have to turn our backs on our plot for a week in the spring and the weeds are waist high"
It feels like we only have to turn our backs on our plot for a week in the spring and the weeds are waist high.. especially as so many fellow plot holders are retired and therefore keep immaculate "show" plots. However, something I have learned is that it generally looks a lot worse than it really is. Weeds have a habit of spreading themselves out, taking up as much room as possible, but often they're only anchored to the ground in one place.

This is an allotment lesson we can apply to our daily life, as our situations often feel worse than they really are, crowding our thoughts, when actually decisive action to the root can easily rid us of the stress they bring. We need to be good mind-gardeners, as I talked about in this post not so long ago.

It takes potatoes time to grow...
One thing that having an allotment has taught me over the years is about the time it actually takes things to grow - it's a long lesson in patience, and in gentle consolidation. However impatient I have been about various crops growing, you just can't rush them!

They grow in their own time. It's the same with us - we can get so impatient (well, I can anyway) when things don't happen in the way we want them to and with the speed we want them to.

But I'm sure that so many of us can look back on situations that seemed endless at the time, but in hindsight timing was perfect and things actually worked out better as a result.

Many things in life are better for maturing longer - wine, cheese, even brewing a pot of coffee! Patience is an undervalued commodity in our "instant"culture.

Consolidation is also important. When we got our allotment it had been fallow for some time, the entire plot was waist high, and to even think about planting anything, let alone reaping anything was some way off. It's easy to be daunted by our circumstances, but as Saint Francis of Assisi said: "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."
"Many things in life are better for maturing longer - wine, cheese, even brewing a pot of coffee!"
When I read the story of God's people in the Bible, after numerous trials and tribulations they enter "the promised land" (incidentally divided into allotments for each tribe). However, before they go in, Moses emphasises the need for them to take it slowly, not to over reach themselves:
"The Lord your God will clear away these nations for you little by little. You may not make an end of them all at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you." (Deut 7:22, ESV)

It felt the same on our allotment, the need to clear it and conquer it slowly, and it can be the same with our dreams and the promises we feel God has given us in our lives.

I'm not saying that we can't accomplish big dramatic things - I do think there are times for big decisions and big action - but I firmly believe that many things are accomplished little by little. Steadily sowing, feeding, weeding and cultivating. For me this is not just physical weeds on our allotment (and I do take great pleasure in digging and hoeing the soil), but also our ideas and dreams.

Much of the stuff that starts to grow on our allotment is unintentional - whether perennial weeds or dandelion seeds blown in by the wind. I once watched a documentary about weeds (yes, I know how to party), which simply defined them as a plant in the wrong place.

Maybe we've got a lot of unintentional things in our lives, good or bad, weeds or not. What are we allowing to thrive in us? The trick is to spot the weeds early and pull them out before they root too deeply. Maybe we need to consolidate some of the things we have intentionally planted and weed out the things that are crowding out the space our seeds and saplings need.
"I firmly believe that many things are accomplished little by little"
Change in our lives doesn't necessarily happen overnight (although it can), much the same way that I can't magically get rid of all the weeds on our allotment (napalm isn't really an option). We need to give ourselves time to grow, to mature, even to grieve. 

As well as cultivating our ideas, dreams and God-promises, there's also a time and a place for cultivating our circumstances to enable us to thrive where we are.. and more than that, to move in the direction we need to go in (like the heliotropic movement of plants following the sun).

A book I'd recommend to help you with this is "Now discover your strengths" by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. Like many others, I have found this really helpful in discovering the things that I naturally flourish in, things I can cultivate to make me thrive. It's helped me articulate the things I love doing, and helped me make decisions at both work and home to cultivate my strengths. For instance as well as writing this blog, I'm also finding more opportunities to write for my employer. 

The more we play to our strengths, the more I believe we'll thrive - but we still need to keep those weeds down!


Thanks for taking the time to read Thriving Weeds or Flourishing Seeds. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media. Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here).

I'd love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or email me at 

If you want to stay up to date please sign up to my mailing list, and do check out my book Life Space on Amazon.