I knew I didn’t really need to read Thrive by Arianna Huffington, having read so many books on happiness already (see my various blogs on happiness), but I’m very glad I did. It takes only a few hours to read and gives you a quick but insightful overview of what is really important in life. Huffington describes the book as about helping move from what we know to actually doing it, and I think it does this really well. Many of the things she emphasises are things I’ve being trying to put into practice since I first starting reading about happiness in earnest in 2012.
Having a good attitude to life and what it throws at you
First up, and most importantly of all, is her advice on how to have a good attitude to life. Huffington had a good start in thinking deeply about this, as her mother sounds amazing and a great influence to have had. A woman who was constantly focusing her daughters on what really matters and giving them sage advice. When her daughters complained she advised them to ‘change the channel’ and reminded them that they were in charge of the remote control and could change what they focused on. Huffington recommends a stoic attitude – saying ‘so what?’ instead of letting the same problem make you miserable for years.
This sounds simple, but doing it well means separating the everyday worries and preoccupations from what is really important as well as being grateful, taking joy from the smallest of successes and counting your blessings (ideally on a daily basis). She argues that maintaining a childlike awe and curiosity is part of the fun and intense mystery of being alive. It also means letting go of resentment and remembering you have a choice of how to behave in whatever circumstances. If Nelson Mandela can do it, well then so can you.
She also points out that when things happen, you can’t always connect the dots looking forward, you can only do so when looking back at events, so you’ve got to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. The biggest turning points and setbacks often only make sense as we look back, rather than when we are experiencing them. Life is not about avoiding failure or accumulating victories – it’s about being ‘whittled and sandpapered down until what’s left is who we truly are’ – a phrase I love.
What really matters in life is well articulated in people’s eulogies. Having written a fair few of these in the last few years, as many of my older relatives have sadly died, that really struck a chord with me. We all know the saying that no one says on their death bed ‘I wish I’d worked harder’, but she goes beyond this and talks about how eulogies focus on what we gave, how we connected, small kindnesses, lifelong passions and the things that made us laugh. The lesson to take from this is the importance of being fully present in our own lives (so get off that mobile phone!).
There’s much more in this book on having a good attitude to life, on health and on applying this approach at work, but what spoke to me most were the sections on giving, sleep, walking and nature, having a dog (of course!) and dealing with email.
Giving to others
Huffington highlights how much of our happiness comes from feeling good by doing good. The research on volunteering backs this up. And personally, I know this works. I take my dog to a dementia care home every Saturday as part of the charity Pets as Therapy and seeing the residents connect with him and the joy it brings them stroking him never fails to make me feel better (all thanks to Ben Fogle’s book Labrador which is where I first heard of the charity – see my blog on Labradors and Hedgehogs).
I’m also a Dementia Friends’ champion and running dementia awareness sessions and knowing that I am doing a tiny bit to make the world easier for those living with dementia does me at least as much good as it does anyone else. One study showed that volunteering at least once a week yields improvements to wellbeing tantamount to your salary increasing from $20,200 to $70,000. Giving time away to others can also actually make us feel more time affluent (rather than time poor).
When talking about the importance of sleep she uses the great analogy of a house party – the brain can either entertain guests or clean up the house but cannot do both. We also lose touch with our intuition when sleep deprived and yet listening to our intuition is often more accurate than bearing down on a problem with cold, hard logic. It’s also possible that more sleep helps us lose weight. But what she calls social jetlag can get in the way – the mismatch between what body clocks need and what social clocks demand. If you want to read more about the importance of sleep then I would also highly recommend reading The Sleep Revolution, her latest book (see my blog).
Walking and nature
Huffington also points out that sitting is as bad for us as walking is good for us. There’s a great quote by Nietzsche that only thoughts conceived while walking have any value. Better still to spend time walking in natural settings. It makes us more generous and community-oriented and there are lower rates of depression amongst those who live near geeen space.
And if you need some encouragement to do that, well then you should get a dog. Pet owners have higher self-esteem, lower feelings of loneliness and are more physically fit and socially outgoing than those without. Taking a dog into the office is also a good thing (phew!). In the course of a workday stress decreased for workers who brought in their dogs. One study showed that having a dog in the office had a positive effect on the general atmosphere, counteracting stress and making everyone happier. Huffington points out that some of most innovative companies allow dogs in the office and a dog policy is apparently in Google’s code of conduct.
She also argues that animals help us to be better humans, showing us how to be our best selves, seeing a world that we take for granted by literally sticking their noses into everything. They can teach us to appreciate the simple things as well as selflessness and unwavering loyalty. She calls dogs ‘minor angels’ who love unconditionally, forgive immediately, are willing to do anything to make us happy, and are the truest of friends, as novelist Jonathan Carroll puts it.
The final subject that struck a chord with me was how to be better at dealing with email. She describes how you may be unconsciously holding your breath for short bursts of time when reading your email and I realised immediately that I do this. This is not trivial. It knocks the body’s balance of oxygen, nitric oxide and carbon dioxide, which can exacerbate stress. So, observe your breathing as you deal with emails. Turn off those email notifications too – so that you are in control of when you want information and not the reverse. I have put this into practice and it helps.
Taking an ‘email vacation’ also reduces stress and allows you to focus more. She describes one company where to get a financial bonus you had to go on holiday, had to disconnect and couldn’t work whilst you were there. If you don’t work somewhere that enlightened, then at least make sure you stop doing emails over Christmas. It may just help you thrive in the New Year.