How To Do Everything And Be Happy

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How to talk to Michelle Ward about Boxing Day and Everything

keep-calm-today-is-boxing-day
Almost exactly a year ago I popped into Phoenix 98 FM, to chat to the lovely Michelle Ward.

If you’re a regular visitor to the blog you already know that I’m a regular guest on the show, and together we present a slot called ‘Happy Club‘, whereby I dispense some tips and hints on happiness, and related subjects (for instance; here’s a show that we did on how to survive Christmas).

This particular time we were supposed to be talking about Boxing Day, but instead we ended up talking about, well, me – specifically, how I became an author and my tendency to get totally wrapped up in building a career, unfortunately at the expense on my own happiness.

We do eventually get around to discussing Boxing Day.

Eventually.

Anyway, if you’ve got a few moments, have a listen. Click the PLAY button in the image below, or click here to open YouTube. The last couple of minutes of the interview went a bit screwy, so I’ve just faded it out on this version – you haven’t missed much, honest.

If you’re not able to listen to audio at the moment, you can read a blog post about Boxing Day here.

Do you already have Boxing Days? Why not tell me (and other visitors to this blog) about them in the comments below, or over on facebook.


The Good Guy’s Guide To Getting The Girl (mentioned in the show) has been out a year now – get your copy for mere pennies from your local amazon store.

For other happiness tips, like Boxing Day, check out How To Do Everything And Be Happy, available everywhere in all formats… but also on amazon (.co.uk | .com)

And remember, Christmas is just around the corner and books do make incredibly good gifts!


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How I Re-invented Boxing Day And Found Happiness

paris20051

For most people, Boxing Day is a slightly downbeat, re-run of the previous days festivities. More Turkey. More Christmas pud. Perhaps a change of venue and/or relatives. That’s certainly how it used to be in my family, but when my wife Kate came along Boxing Day became ‘our’ day. A chance to finally be alone together, to declare Christmas well and truly ‘done’, and to bask in the healing power of the unplanned moment.

I remember our first Boxing Day together. We got up around midday, opened a bottle of champagne, looked at our presents from the day before, roasted chestnuts in the oven, played a silly board game, watched “Ghost Busters” in our bath robes, and stuffed ourselves on posh nibbles. And as the sun gave up its fruitless attempt at breaking through the grey December sky, and the lounge was once again lit by tree lights and candles, I found myself giving Kate a chair to sit on, whilst I went down on one knee.

“Marry me,” I said.

That gives you some idea how good Boxing Day made me feel about life. And there hasn’t been a Boxing Day since that hasn’t given me that same inner glow, that same joy for life. And I can speak with some authority here because in the last seven years I’ve celebrated Boxing Day approximately eighty three times.

* * *

Not that long ago, before the days of conjuring words out of the air and rearranging them into an entertaining order, I worked in banking. Credit Card Banking.

I was a fix it man. An ideas man. Wealthy men would ask me how to make even more money with the tools they had at their disposal, and I would tell them. Though it pains me to admit it the ‘credit crunch’ is partly my fault – not my idea, but I was there, pulling the levers and pressing the buttons that made it happen.

I hated banking. It was about a million miles away from what I’d always hoped I would be.

Other than usual childhood dream of being a fireman or an astronaut, my earliest ambition was the desire to create books. I remember taking as many sheets of paper as I was allowed, folding them in two, and using my grandmother’s stapler to create a spine. I’d then proceed to fill the pages with illustrations and narrative, until I ran out of space, which is when the story would – sometimes quite abruptly – end.

These books were distributed on a strict ‘read and return’ basis. I don’t remember the stories I wrote and I have no idea what happened to the manuscripts but I remember it used to make me happy. I remember that.

But you know how it is. You grow up. Put aside childish things. Get real. And all the dreams you had – becoming James Bond, becoming an actor, working in a job that you enjoy – they all get compromised. Down to nothing.

On my thirty-second birthday, I finally realised that there was a distinct possibility that the last of my ‘dreams’ might also never come to pass.

At the time I hadn’t even realised that it was a dream – I just hadn’t had a proper girlfriend for a while. A long while. A really long while. But I’d always assumed that things ‘would work themselves out’. Eventually. It appears I was the only one who thought so.

Colleagues had long since stopped describing me as an eligible bachelor, and some had even questioned my sexuality, which wasn’t helping the situation.

The thought of being single for the rest of my days was unacceptable.

Something had to be done.

* * *

So in order to avoid a life of bachelorhood, I started to plan. I made lists. I came up with a strategy. I took all the problem solving skills I was developing to make rich men richer, and applied them to my own life.

Around that time there was a TV show on the BBC called ‘Would Like to Meet’ where a team of experts (a flirt coach, an actor, and an image consultant) would take some hapless individual and turn them into a heart-throb or a man-magnet. I’d watch it avidly from week to week hoping to pick up some tips. And quickly came to the conclusion that I too could do with a similar makeover, albeit without the entire viewing nation of theUnited Kingdomlooking on.

So over the next few weeks I ordered a truck load of ‘dating’ books and stacked them by my bedside ready for those evenings when I found myself alone. ie. all of them.

I also tracked down an Image Consultant, picking the one I fancied the most on the grounds that any woman I found attractive would probably dress me in a manner she’d find appealing. Of course, back then Image Consultants really only worked for corporations but I had surprisingly little problem persuading her to broaden the scope of her client base to include one sad and lonely thirty something guy. And once my wardrobe had been completely replaced I went in search of a flirt coach.

At the time Channel 4 regularly hired a lady called Peta Heskell whenever they needed a relationship or ‘flirt’ expert, and as luck would have it Peta ran weekend flirting courses. I sent myself on one, took my place in the front row and when instructed, nervously introduced myself to the stunning blonde sitting next to me.

“I’m Peter,” I said.

“I’m Kate,” said the blonde. Then she smiled. And I was smitten.

The course wasn’t that much of a success, in that it didn’t teach me anything new, not that it mattered. My strategy had worked, albeit somewhat differently but infinitely better than I’d hoped. Kate and I were married exactly a year later.

* * *

Kate was a wonderful person. A true entrepreneur. A real visionary. When we met I had vague notions of settling into a rather typical domestic life-style; putting up with a job that I didn’t care for five days a week, in return for the company of a loving woman in the evenings and at weekends.

Kate had very different ideas.

Life wasn’t about ‘settling’ for things. To her there was a world of possibilities out there. We could go anywhere, do anything, have everything, all we had to do was put our minds to it.

When my wife wasn’t trying to convince me that we could escape the ‘rat race’ – or at the very least change races – she was reading. I’d lay money that a copy of every self-help book published around the millennium somehow found it’s way onto my wife’s bookshelf, where it would wait in line to be digested, scribbled over, highlighted, deconstructed and eventually incorporated into ‘Kate’s big theory of everything’ – a kind of pseudo social-science technical manual as to how the world works, and the people in it.

During the two and a bit years of our marriage Kate became more than my wife, she was also my teacher.

And when she died in my arms I was heart-broken.

* * *

People rarely ask me how Kate died. It’s just not the sort of question they feel comfortable asking. Most assume she must have had cancer – that we’d have had some warning. We didn’t.

I’ve learnt since that sudden deaths like hers (a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage) are surprisingly common. Kate had a weak part in her brain, probably since birth. It could have happened at any moment. It was almost inevitable.

I learnt too that after the shock comes the guilt. Every cross word, every nasty thought, every lie – they all come back to haunt you. And amongst the demons that were queuing up to torment me was the realisation that I still wasn’t happy, and maybe I never had been.

There had been happy moments, of course. Quite a lot of moments. Most of them in the previous three years, and most of them down to Kate, but they were moments none the less. And I wanted to be happy all the time. Not just occasionally. Not just for a moment.

Something had to be done.

* * *

And so I decided to tackle the problem in the only way I knew how: by making lists, and coming up with a strategy.

One such idea was Boxing Day.

That first Christmas after Kate passed away my mother, concerned for my welfare during the festive season, asked if I’d like to spend Boxing Day with them. It was a generous offer but I decided to spend it just as we always had.

I got up late, I opened a bottle of champagne, I sat in bed and browsed my collection of gifts from the previous day. Then I took the Brie from the fridge, a box of posh crackers (the edible kind) and worked my way through the whole lot whilst I sat in front of the telly and watched “The Santa Clause”. A little later I emailed friends I’d been meaning to catch up with, and followed that with a walk down to Old Leigh. I looked out at the boats resting in the mud, and then I went home, wrote down some thoughts, and did some planning.

By the time I went to bed I felt like I’d had a week’s holiday, and all I’d done was get out of bed and see how the day unfolded. It was such a good day that I caught myself wishing that Boxing Day happened a little more frequently than once a year, at which point I had the following crazy thought: Why can’t it? What was to stop me replicating the same structure – or lack of structure – on any other day of the year?

Answer: nothing.

From that day on I decided to have a ‘Boxing Day’ once a month. Once a month I get up with absolutely no plans whatsoever and see how the day unfolds. And that was almost seven years ago.

* * *

Though the ‘Boxing Day rules’ expressly forbid pre-planning, my Boxing Days definitely have themes.

I’ve made chocolate brownies, treacle tart, many many pizzas (base included), and truck loads of flapjacks.

I’ve ‘dropped in’ on friends, my family, visited junk shops and museums that I’ve always wanted to go inside.

I’ve set off in the car forCambridgeor other far flung places I can get to, and back, in a day.

And I’ve worked – working is a completely valid Boxing Day activity if it’s what you really want to do, and it isn’t pre-planned. I’ve written whole chapters, spent a day blogging, caught up on all my post and emails.

I’ve had plenty of successful Boxing Days (in that I achieved that holiday feeling by the end of the day), but I’ve also had less successful Boxing Days (when I didn’t). What I hadn’t realised at the time was that I was experiencing something that scientists refer to as ‘Hedonistic Habituation’. Regardless of how pleasurable an activity is, much of its pleasure is actually derived from its ‘newness’. So whilst I thought I was relying on activities that had worked on previous Boxing Days, I had, in fact, got myself into a Cambridge-based flapjacky rut. The trick, it seems, is to think of something you enjoy doing – then tweak it enough to make it ‘new’.

* * *

Of all the ‘happiness’ ideas I’ve had over the years, Boxing Day has been without a doubt one of the easiest to implement. It’s also the one that raises the most eyebrows.

“That’s bonkers,” my friends say. “Brilliant, but bonkers. But don’t you ever feel lonely? Or at a loss to know what to do?” And the short answer to both questions is, yes, of course. Though it pains me to admit it, I can’t guarantee that Boxing Day will work each and every time. But I’ve learnt that when this happens it’s best just to shrug, and move on. When it comes to creating happiness whilst Boxing Days are great, they’re not the whole answer.

“So what is?” They ask. “What else is in this… ‘happiness strategy’?”

At this point I usually tell them to get another round in. And then, over the noise of our fellow festive revellers and ‘Now That’s What I Call Christmas’ thumping out of the juke box, I tell them about my ‘Now List’,  my ‘Wish List’, how I set myself yearly goals, and how I make sure I actually achieve them.

I tell them how I’ve taken back control of my life, decided how I want it to be, pointed it in that direction, and given it a kick up the backside.

I tell them how I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had. Smiling more than I ever did. How there’s love in my life again. How I think Kate would be proud of me. And that I can finally say, I’m happy.

“Those ideas are too good to be kept to yourself,” they say eventually. “You ought to write those things down.”

And so I did.

Thirty something years later I am finally doing something that I wanted to do. I’m realising a childhood ambition. I’m making books.

And I remember now, how happy this makes me.



The Guardian Dec 2012Originally written for the Guardian, December 2012

Find out more about Boxing Day and other ‘Happiness’ ideas in How To Do Everything And Be Happy – published by Harper Collins and available from all good book stores including amazon (.co.uk | .com)


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Beating fear – advice from ‘future’ me

fearBack in January  I wrote about how I’d come up with a new way to figure out what Goals I should be setting myself for the coming year. I called it my ‘vision exercise‘ and I like to think of it as a sneaky way of by passing all that usual wish-list malarkey whilst at the same time delving around in the sub-conscious to find out what’s really important to us.

My ‘vision exercise’ resulted in three rather ambitious goals one of which was this:

 I am writing FICTION
(rather than NON-FICTION)

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed writing every one of my self-help books BUT they rather came about by accident – my first love has always been fiction.

Now obviously, if you’ve read ‘Happy‘, you’ll know that for that to be a proper goal it should have a deadline attached to it, and perhaps even a penalty, but as I started the year I realised that a really good first step on the path to achieving this goal would be to actually finish the novel that I’d been fiddling with for the previous ten years.

Followers of my author blog already know that I’ve claimed my novel was ‘finished’, or ‘almost finished’, several times. Here in 2011 for instance. And here. And, oh dear, here too. But the truth is I knew I could never claim it was actually finished until it was out there and in print. So I set myself the following goal:

My novel
(The Good Guy’s Guide To Getting The Girl)
is AVAILABLE in two formats.
Easter 2014

Well I’m sure you know what happened next.

Easter came and went and the novel was nowhere to be seen.

People asked me where was it, and I told them that

  • it was with my agent, or
  • another publisher was taking a look at it

And whilst all those things were true, it wasn’t quite the whole truth, because I actually could have made the Easter deadline. If I’d put my mind to it. If I’d really wanted to. But I didn’t.

Why?

Because I was scared.

This novel has been a long time in the making. It was a journey that Kate set me off on just after we’d met. She believed in me. She believed in the story. She thought the book would do really really well. Basically there’s an entire decade of hopes and dreams wrapped up in those words.

But if I publish it…

  • maybe no one will buy it?
  • maybe people will buy it but maybe they won’t like it!
  • maybe they will like it, but not that much.
  • maybe this will be the first and last novel I ever write!!
  • maybe this will be the last book I ever write.
  • maybe this will herald the end of my writing career.

People often think that I left credit card banking because my first book, How To Do Everything And Be Happy, took off. That wasn’t the reason at all.  I left a well paid career behind because I realised, yet again, that life’s too short to be doing things that don’t make you happy!

I had a half finished novel on my desk, a half finished self help book, some money in the bank, and dreams of what life could be like – if I put some effort in – I took it all and made the most crazy decision of my life. In short I took a leap of faith.

I only realised recently that I’m still mid-leap. I’m still terrified to see it through.

I’ve spent my life being terrified.

When I was younger

  • I was terrified of asking girls out
  • I was terrified of failing my exams
  • I was terrified of youth club
  • I was terrified of travelling, of going places where I didn’t know anyone, of being vulnerable.

Sometimes I wish I could travel back in time and tell that kid a few things! I’d say…

  • Ask that girl out!
  • Forget about studying!!
  • Go to flippin youth club!!!
  • Travel the world!!!!

I was telling Della this just the other day and she suggested that whilst it is too late to go back and change the past (and more to the point, impossible) it’s not too late for the future to come back and change the present.

3back-to-the-future-original

I got to wondering what future me might say were he to appear right now. And I came to the conclusion that he would tell me the following:

Publish the damn book!

“But what if no one buys it?” I’d squeak.

“They will,” he’d reply.

“But what if only a few people buy it?” I’d counter

“Then tell more people,” he’d say.

“But what if no one likes it!!” I’d roar.

“Well, some will, some won’t – publish it anyway…”

And I think he’d go on to tell me to write more books, take more risks, throw myself out there even more, try even harder, to reach for the blinkin’ stars.

Then I got to wondering, is this ‘future me’ …successful?

Maybe this is advice from a successful ‘future me’. Maybe a less than successful future me would tell me something different? But when I thought about it some more I suddenly realised, no, unsuccessful me would probably say exactly the same thing!!! Unsuccessful me would be thinking “if only I’d taken more risks, tried harder, pushed myself….”

TGGGTGTG drop shadowSo finally…

The Good Guy’s Guide To Getting The Girl is here. In two formats. And if you happen to be reading this before the 19th of September 2014 then it’s currently less than a quid for your kindle enabled tablet or smart phone! That’s got to be worth a punt, surely. Click here to visit your favourite online bookseller.

I’m still terrified of course. I have no idea what people are going to make of it. I have no idea whether I’ve lived up to the high expectations Kate had of me. And I have absolutely no idea whether this will herald the start of my career as a novelist, or the end of my career as an author. But at least now I’ll get to find out.

What about you…

Are you being held back by fear? Why not share your thoughts with the class in the comments box below, or on facebook. Be great to hear from you.


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Opening Chapter: How To Start Dating And Stop Waiting

This month saw the launch of my new book How To Start Dating And Stop Waiting. It’s available now in paperback, as an ebook, and (once I’ve finished recording it), as an audio download from audible. Pop along to amazon and select the format of your choice. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the opening chapter…

To Begin With

On my thirty-second birthday, as I sat at my mother’s dining room table in front of a large cake, thirty two candles threatening to ignite my beard should I lean too far forward, I realised that the only ambition I had left in life – the only dream I hadn’t given up on – was to be married.

Or at least in some sort of steady, loving relationship.

A long term partnership with someone whose ying was a close match to my less than melodic yang.

But even this, this last naive expectation of life, was looking increasingly unlikely. Every candle on that cake was some sort of burning epitaph to just how utterly rubbish I was when it came to affairs of the heart.

There had been relationships in the past – of course there had – but I’d kind of ‘fallen into them’, by accident. And after the ladies in question had tried, and failed, to mould me into the kind of man they actually wanted, those relationships had withered and died. There hadn’t been an ‘accidental relationship’ for a while. Colleagues no longer described me as an eligible bachelor. Some had started to question my sexuality.

So as my family launched into a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ I decided there and then that the prospect of being single for the rest of my days was unacceptable.

Something had to be done.

Around that time there was a BBC TV show called ‘Would Like to Meet’ where a team of experts (a flirt coach, an actor, and an image consultant) would take some hapless individual and turn them into a heartthrob or a man-magnet. It very quickly became my favourite TV show. I’d watch it avidly from one week to the next hoping to pick up some tips. And the conclusion I came to was that I too could do with a similar makeover – albeit without the entire viewing nation of the United Kingdom looking on.

So over the next few weeks I tracked down Image Consultants, and contacted one. Back then, Image Consultants mainly worked for corporations, re-styling senior corporate executives who might otherwise look less than sharp in the boardroom, but I had surprisingly little problem persuading my consultant of choice to broaden the scope of her client base to include one sad and lonely thirty-something guy. She took one look at me, threw away every item of clothing I’d acquired in the previous decade, and in an afternoon gave me some much needed va-va-voom, in the wardrobe department.

And once I’d been completely re-styled, I looked around for a flirt coach.

These days, you can barely move for self-styled relationship experts and flirt coaches – heck, I’m just about to tell you why I’m one of them – but back in 2003 I could find just one. And she ran courses.

I took several hundred pounds from my savings, and booked myself on a ‘flirting weekend’. Nervously, I took my place in the front row, and when instructed I turned and introduced myself to the stunning blonde sitting next to me.

“I’m Peter,” I said.

“I’m Kate,” said the blonde.

Then she smiled.

And I was smitten.

The course wasn’t that much of a success, in that it didn’t teach me how to flirt. Not that it mattered. My strategy had worked, somewhat differently but infinitely better than I’d hoped. On the Monday evening Kate and I had our first date. By the Tuesday I’d officially found myself a girlfriend. A few months later I found myself on one knee. And a year to the day after we’d first met, I found myself married.

It didn’t last.

Two and a bit years later I lost Kate. To a brain haemorrhage. At Stanstead airport.

And when the dust settled – when I adjusted to a world without my wife – I was single again. The loneliness returned. And though I’ll never be able to replace my beautiful blonde, I needed to fill the space that she’d left.

Something had to be done

It’s my considered belief that ‘dating’ – whether that be online dating, speed-dating, “hey – what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” dating – is similar to job hunting; it’s just as brutal, many times more frustrating, and potentially far more heartbreaking.

And just like job hunting nobody wants to become ‘good’ at dating. To get good you have to do lots of it, and the very fact that you have to apply for a lot of jobs – or go on a lot of dates – raises more questions than it answers. It’s not really something you want to shout about. Never the less, I was determined. There was no way I wanted to return to the way things were, before Kate, life’s just too damn short. So date I did.

Many, many, many times.

And finally, after years and years of being completely useless at finding romance, I cracked it.

There’s love in my life again.

Just as there can be in yours.

Welcome to How To Start Dating And Stop Waiting.

If you’ve been sitting around, on your own, telling yourself you should really make an effort and ‘get out there’, this book might be for you.

If you’re already dating – or you’ve tried it – and you’ve encountered nothing but liars and Lotharios, started your own personal collection of dating disaster stories, all whilst beating off people you wouldn’t normally look twice at, this book is probably for you.

And if you’d rather fast forward through the dating stage as quickly as possible, and find someone you’d like to have a relationship with – whatever type of relationship that might be – this book is most definitely for you.

But before you get too excited, let’s establish some ground rules. Buckle up and prepare to learn the hardest lesson this book has to give.


‘How To Start Dating And Stop Waiting’ is available NOW in paperback, as an ebook, and shortly in audio from audible.co.uk & .com
Visit amazon to purchase the book.

You don’t need a Kindle device to read a Kindle book. Download the FREE kindle app for your computer, smart phone or tablet from amazon (.co.uk | .com)


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From Invisible To Irresistible

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Last week we talked about Goals and how to identify what yours should be using the ‘Vision’ method.

When I do this exercise in workshops there are a handful of Goals that come up time and time again. I blogged about the number one Goal of all time a few months back, but there’s another popular goal that easily takes the number two slot.

Even in this day and age of social media and online dating it seems that more people than ever find themselves sitting at home on a Friday night, with nothing more than a packet of crisps and a cat to keep them company. For some people that might sound like absolute bliss, but I’ve met many others who were hoping for a little more. At the very least someone who would sit between them and the cat, share the crisps, or bring their own bag for the occasional swapsie.

If finding and starting ‘a new relationship‘ made it into your Goals List then you’re in luck! Over the next few weeks I’ve got not one, but two books coming out on the subject.

How To Start Dating And Stop Waiting, my long awaited third How To book, will be released in paperback, audio and as an ebook, on the 14th of February this year; Valentines Day. If you enjoyed How To Do Everything And Be Happy, if you’ve ever found any of my advice useful, if you’re fed up with being single and would like 2014 to be full of love, lust or romance… well, this might just be the book for you. Subscribe to this blog (top right hand corner of this website – it’s FREE), or LIKE the facebook page, and I’ll be sure to remind you know when it’s available.

Fed up with being invisible?In the meantime, do you remember how I met Kate? (You can find out here, or listen to the radio interview I gave to BBC Broadcaster Matthew Bannister below). When I tell people the story of how I met my wife they nearly always get the short version. The one paragraph version. But there was quite a bit more to it than signing up for a flirting course and sitting myself next to the prettiest girl in the room. I also underwent something of a self imposed image makeover. I did anything I could to turn myself into a ‘accidental relationship’ waiting to happen.

Now, I’m not about to start handing out fashion advice or makeup tips. That’s not my bag. What definitely is my bag however is a slew of ideas based on my own experience and/or scientific research, on how you can influence and improve how people perceive you. Think of it as a step-by-step personal re-branding exercise, all wrapped up in a mini-book.

From Invisible To Irresistible is the shorter, quirkier, but none-the-less completely gorgeous companion guide to How To Start Dating And Stop Waiting. Through a series of twelve anecdotes I highlight (and fix) those underlying problems, that make otherwise attractive, charming people invisible to those they’d like to date.

Chapters include:

  • Changing Your Mind – How you can think yourself more attractive, and why a little back-to-front logic might work wonders.
  • Changing Your Image – Why it might be a good idea to cut off your hair (or grow it back again), how to shed pounds without spending a fortune, and why hiring a professional image consultant could be a waste of money.
  • Changing Your Environment – Why sitting at home in front of the TV isn’t a dating strategy, why some of your friends are holding you back, and why it’s vitally important to have the right sofa.

How I met Kate

Finding a wife wasn’t quite the breeze I always assumed it would be. It required a little effort, some planning, and a somewhat unorthodox approach to problem solving. You can find out more in this short audio snippet taken from a BBC interview with Matthew Bannister. Click the big play button in the middle of the image (or here if you’re reading this in an email).

You can listen to the full length interview here.



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A chat with Matthew Bannister, from the BBC World Service show ‘Outlook’

b01m6crnYesterday I met with Broadcasting Legend Matthew Bannister, now the presenter of the BBC World Service show ‘Outlook’ (amongst others). We talked about how I came to write How To Do Everything and Be Happy, as well as how Kate and I met, and why my first attempts to create ‘happiness’ were a total disaster.

After the show there were some really fabulous comments on facebook. Click here to read those or add your own.

To listen to the interview click the play button in the box below, or (if you’re reading this in an email) click here to play clip on YouTube.

Want to hear more about the book, and less about me? Click here to listen to an interview I gave to Dave Monk of BBC Essex back in May 2011



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How I Re-invented Boxing Day And Found Happiness

paris20051

For most people, Boxing Day is a slightly downbeat, re-run of the previous days festivities. More Turkey. More Christmas pud. Perhaps a change of venue and/or relatives. That’s certainly how it used to be in my family, but when my wife Kate came along Boxing Day became ‘our’ day. A chance to finally be alone together, to declare Christmas well and truly ‘done’, and to bask in the healing power of the unplanned moment.

I remember our first Boxing Day together. We got up around midday, opened a bottle of champagne, looked at our presents from the day before, roasted chestnuts in the oven, played a silly board game, watched “Ghost Busters” in our bath robes, and stuffed ourselves on posh nibbles. And as the sun gave up its fruitless attempt at breaking through the grey December sky, and the lounge was once again lit by tree lights and candles, I found myself giving Kate a chair to sit on, whilst I went down on one knee.

“Marry me,” I said.

That gives you some idea how good Boxing Day made me feel about life. And there hasn’t been a Boxing Day since that hasn’t given me that same inner glow, that same joy for life. And I can speak with some authority here because in the last seven years I’ve celebrated Boxing Day approximately eighty three times.

* * *

Not that long ago, before the days of conjuring words out of the air and rearranging them into an entertaining order, I worked in banking. Credit Card Banking.

I was a fix it man. An ideas man. Wealthy men would ask me how to make even more money with the tools they had at their disposal, and I would tell them. Though it pains me to admit it the ‘credit crunch’ is partly my fault – not my idea, but I was there, pulling the levers and pressing the buttons that made it happen.

I hated banking. It was about a million miles away from what I’d always hoped I would be.

Other than usual childhood dream of being a fireman or an astronaut, my earliest ambition was the desire to create books. I remember taking as many sheets of paper as I was allowed, folding them in two, and using my grandmother’s stapler to create a spine. I’d then proceed to fill the pages with illustrations and narrative, until I ran out of space, which is when the story would – sometimes quite abruptly – end.

These books were distributed on a strict ‘read and return’ basis. I don’t remember the stories I wrote and I have no idea what happened to the manuscripts but I remember it used to make me happy. I remember that.

But you know how it is. You grow up. Put aside childish things. Get real. And all the dreams you had – becoming James Bond, becoming an actor, working in a job that you enjoy – they all get compromised. Down to nothing.

On my thirty-second birthday, I finally realised that there was a distinct possibility that the last of my ‘dreams’ might also never come to pass.

At the time I hadn’t even realised that it was a dream – I just hadn’t had a proper girlfriend for a while. A long while. A really long while. But I’d always assumed that things ‘would work themselves out’. Eventually. It appears I was the only one who thought so.

Colleagues had long since stopped describing me as an eligible bachelor, and some had even questioned my sexuality, which wasn’t helping the situation.

The thought of being single for the rest of my days was unacceptable.

Something had to be done.

* * *

So in order to avoid a life of bachelorhood, I started to plan. I made lists. I came up with a strategy. I took all the problem solving skills I was developing to make rich men richer, and applied them to my own life.

Around that time there was a TV show on the BBC called ‘Would Like to Meet’ where a team of experts (a flirt coach, an actor, and an image consultant) would take some hapless individual and turn them into a heart-throb or a man-magnet. I’d watch it avidly from week to week hoping to pick up some tips. And quickly came to the conclusion that I too could do with a similar makeover, albeit without the entire viewing nation of theUnited Kingdomlooking on.

So over the next few weeks I ordered a truck load of ‘dating’ books and stacked them by my bedside ready for those evenings when I found myself alone. ie. all of them.

I also tracked down an Image Consultant, picking the one I fancied the most on the grounds that any woman I found attractive would probably dress me in a manner she’d find appealing. Of course, back then Image Consultants really only worked for corporations but I had surprisingly little problem persuading her to broaden the scope of her client base to include one sad and lonely thirty something guy. And once my wardrobe had been completely replaced I went in search of a flirt coach.

At the time Channel 4 regularly hired a lady called Peta Heskell whenever they needed a relationship or ‘flirt’ expert, and as luck would have it Peta ran weekend flirting courses. I sent myself on one, took my place in the front row and when instructed, nervously introduced myself to the stunning blonde sitting next to me.

“I’m Peter,” I said.

“I’m Kate,” said the blonde. Then she smiled. And I was smitten.

The course wasn’t that much of a success, in that it didn’t teach me anything new, not that it mattered. My strategy had worked, albeit somewhat differently but infinitely better than I’d hoped. Kate and I were married exactly a year later.

* * *

Kate was a wonderful person. A true entrepreneur. A real visionary. When we met I had vague notions of settling into a rather typical domestic life-style; putting up with a job that I didn’t care for five days a week, in return for the company of a loving woman in the evenings and at weekends.

Kate had very different ideas.

Life wasn’t about ‘settling’ for things. To her there was a world of possibilities out there. We could go anywhere, do anything, have everything, all we had to do was put our minds to it.

When my wife wasn’t trying to convince me that we could escape the ‘rat race’ – or at the very least change races – she was reading. I’d lay money that a copy of every self-help book published around the millennium somehow found it’s way onto my wife’s bookshelf, where it would wait in line to be digested, scribbled over, highlighted, deconstructed and eventually incorporated into ‘Kate’s big theory of everything’ – a kind of pseudo social-science technical manual as to how the world works, and the people in it.

During the two and a bit years of our marriage Kate became more than my wife, she was also my teacher.

And when she died in my arms I was heart-broken.

* * *

People rarely ask me how Kate died. It’s just not the sort of question they feel comfortable asking. Most assume she must have had cancer – that we’d have had some warning. We didn’t.

I’ve learnt since that sudden deaths like hers (a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage) are surprisingly common. Kate had a weak part in her brain, probably since birth. It could have happened at any moment. It was almost inevitable.

I learnt too that after the shock comes the guilt. Every cross word, every nasty thought, every lie – they all come back to haunt you. And amongst the demons that were queuing up to torment me was the realisation that I still wasn’t happy, and maybe I never had been.

There had been happy moments, of course. Quite a lot of moments. Most of them in the previous three years, and most of them down to Kate, but they were moments none the less. And I wanted to be happy all the time. Not just occasionally. Not just for a moment.

Something had to be done.

* * *

And so I decided to tackle the problem in the only way I knew how: by making lists, and coming up with a strategy.

One such idea was Boxing Day.

That first Christmas after Kate passed away my mother, concerned for my welfare during the festive season, asked if I’d like to spend Boxing Day with them. It was a generous offer but I decided to spend it just as we always had.

I got up late, I opened a bottle of champagne, I sat in bed and browsed my collection of gifts from the previous day. Then I took the Brie from the fridge, a box of posh crackers (the edible kind) and worked my way through the whole lot whilst I sat in front of the telly and watched “The Santa Clause”. A little later I emailed friends I’d been meaning to catch up with, and followed that with a walk down to Old Leigh. I looked out at the boats resting in the mud, and then I went home, wrote down some thoughts, and did some planning.

By the time I went to bed I felt like I’d had a week’s holiday, and all I’d done was get out of bed and see how the day unfolded. It was such a good day that I caught myself wishing that Boxing Day happened a little more frequently than once a year, at which point I had the following crazy thought: Why can’t it? What was to stop me replicating the same structure – or lack of structure – on any other day of the year?

Answer: nothing.

From that day on I decided to have a ‘Boxing Day’ once a month. Once a month I get up with absolutely no plans whatsoever and see how the day unfolds. And that was almost seven years ago.

* * *

Though the ‘Boxing Day rules’ expressly forbid pre-planning, my Boxing Days definitely have themes.

I’ve made chocolate brownies, treacle tart, many many pizzas (base included), and truck loads of flapjacks.

I’ve ‘dropped in’ on friends, my family, visited junk shops and museums that I’ve always wanted to go inside.

I’ve set off in the car for Cambridge or other far flung places I can get to, and back, in a day.

And I’ve worked – working is a completely valid Boxing Day activity if it’s what you really want to do, and it isn’t pre-planned. I’ve written whole chapters, spent a day blogging, caught up on all my post and emails.

I’ve had plenty of successful Boxing Days (in that I achieved that holiday feeling by the end of the day), but I’ve also had less successful Boxing Days (when I didn’t). What I hadn’t realised at the time was that I was experiencing something that scientists refer to as ‘Hedonistic Habituation’. Regardless of how pleasurable an activity is, much of its pleasure is actually derived from its ‘newness’. So whilst I thought I was relying on activities that had worked on previous Boxing Days, I had, in fact, got myself into a Cambridge-based flapjacky rut. The trick, it seems, is to think of something you enjoy doing – then tweak it enough to make it ‘new’.

* * *

HowToTakeControl-drop-shadowOf all the ‘happiness’ ideas I’ve had over the years, Boxing Day has been without a doubt one of the easiest to implement. It’s also the one that raises the most eyebrows.

“That’s bonkers,” my friends say. “Brilliant, but bonkers. But don’t you ever feel lonely? Or at a loss to know what to do?” And the short answer to both questions is, yes, of course. Though it pains me to admit it, I can’t guarantee that Boxing Day will work each and every time. But I’ve learnt that when this happens it’s best just to shrug, and move on. When it comes to creating happiness whilst Boxing Days are great, they’re not the whole answer.

“So what is?” They ask. “What else is in this… ‘happiness strategy’?”

At this point I usually tell them to get another round in. And then, over the noise of our fellow festive revellers and ‘Now That’s What I Call Christmas’ thumping out of the juke box, I tell them about my ‘Now List’,  my ‘Wish List’, how I set myself yearly goals, and how I make sure I actually achieve them.

I tell them how I’ve taken back control of my life, decided how I want it to be, pointed it in that direction, and given it a kick up the backside.

I tell them how I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had. Smiling more than I ever did. How there’s love in my life again. How I think Kate would be proud of me. And that I can finally say, I’m happy.

“Those ideas are too good to be kept to yourself,” they say eventually. “You ought to write those things down.”

And so I did.

Thirty something years later I am finally doing something that I wanted to do. I’m realising a childhood ambition. I’m making books.

And I remember now, how happy this makes me.


Originally written for the Guardian, December 2012 – find out more about Peter Jones, his books, and other exciting stuff at peterjonesauthor.com