Everything is relative. To answer a question like: “How happy are you with your life?” we cannot answer without comparing our situation with some point of reference. If that point of reference is how much poorer we were three years ago, or our unfortunate friend who has just had heart attack, or the plight of refugees in Syria, we are likely to say we are, and actually feel, very happy with our lot.

However, if we compare our situation with someone who has more money, looks or status than we do, or how much more we think we should have achieved by our particular age, we are likely to feel dissatisfied.

Many of the most miserable and unconfident people I have worked with in counselling were beautiful young women at university who, by most people’s standards, had everything going for them. Their problem was that they constantly compared themselves unfavourably with others. This destructive mental habit caused them to focus only on other beautiful young women and to fail to notice anyone who wasn’t in their league. If on a rare occasion a classmate had put on weight or said something silly, they felt temporarily superior to that person – a rather ugly response.

Making comparisons that assess people into better or worse than yourself stops you from being the genuinely beautiful person you could be and is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Instead, cultivate compassion for yourself and for others. We are all human, fallible and prone to suffering. A non-judgmental approach helps you understand other people and promotes kindness towards them.

And practice gratitude for all that you have. Nothing is to be taken for granted. If you remember that things could be so much worse than they are, you will feel far happier.

Compassion and challenge

For years I cultivated compassion, not wanting to become desensitised to the suffering in the world. At times I felt overwhelmed by all the suffering around me and wanted to alleviate it wherever possible.

A couple of years ago I attended a seminar with Caroline Myss, a spiritual leader whose books I had been reading. I was prepared to be enchanted by wonderful truths pouring from her lips, but the biggest impact came from a minor incident during the day.

Caroline asked the audience whether there was anything they thought they deserved. One young woman stood up and said she deserved to be loved. In a scathing tone, Caroline answered, “No, you don’t! Who should love you? Why should they?” Then she carried on with her talk. A few moments later she stopped and looked at the woman, now sitting down again. “Why are you wearing sunglasses?” she asked. “Because I’m crying!” “Oh,” said Caroline and turned back to her talk, never to mention it again.

I was horrified. That poor woman! She had been set up to be humiliated in front of a crowd of people. She was crying and this supposedly compassionate person didn’t even care. I would never have done something like that.

But further reflection showed me what had gone on there. Caroline was exposing a basic spiritual truth: that we do not deserve anything and should be grateful for whatever we are fortunate enough to receive. Most likely the woman in the audience felt unloved by her husband or mother and felt sorry for herself. Caroline was telling her that her sense of entitlement was making her unhappy; not the other person. And the irony is that if she had shown compassion at that moment, it would only have confirmed the woman’s sense of being hard done by.

I realised then that we all have our own journey and that it is necessarily a hard road. Sometimes cushioning someone’s pain can prevent them from learning to deal with things themselves. This incident also released me from a sense of duty to carry other people’s pain. I still believe compassion is very important but I now know that I am not responsible for easing all the suffering I see.

As well as teaching me these important lessons, Caroline Myss gave that woman an amazing gift that day. I fully trust that after the initial humiliation, she emerged stronger and happier for the experience.

Nelson Mandela, politics and spirituality

Nelson Mandela is no longer with us. I find myself quite tearful, perhaps not from sadness, because he had made the most of his 95 years on this earth, but simply in recognition of the wonderful qualities he embodied. Nelson Mandela will always remain my hero, not because he was an extraordinary person, but because he was an ordinary person who allowed himself to grow into something more.

His journey started when he noticed injustice and resolved to fight against it. This political stance had him joining and becoming a leader in the ANC and taking part in strategies to stand against apartheid. Many people can relate to this need to act politically when the status quo is morally wrong. (I will always remember the passion with which I joined the protests against the Springbok tour in 1981.) But often people become so caught up with fighting for a cause that the fighting becomes an end in itself. A case of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ where bringing down the enemy is the only focus.

The difference with Mandela is that during his years in prison he worked tirelessly on himself. Rather than embedding the idea of himself as a fighter (which also solidifies the idea of the enemy), he began to ‘be the change he wanted to see.’ He let go of the idea of armed struggle and developed ideas of peace, starting with inner peace. Who would have thought that a prisoner of 27 years could have so much influence on the world outside of himself? This could not have happened had he been simply a fighter or a martyr. Instead he became a leader; people sensed the qualities he embodied and wanted to follow him.

Whether in everyday struggles or in addressing world problems, Mandela will always provide inspiration for me as to how to proceed. The world has lost a wonderful man, but how lucky we were to have had him.

A bad day?

Today, after taking a client to a medical centre with a workmate, I came home and couldn’t find my bag. I searched all over the place, then from the work phone I called my colleague (who was on his way home) to see if he had seen it. He hadn’t.

My keys and phone were in my bag, so I was locked out of my flat, and couldn’t text anyone. It was afternoon and I was hungry. This looked like being one of those days.

But my work colleague offered to take a detour via the medical centre to see if my bag was there. While I waited I was able to pop into the house next door, where two lovely ladies entertained me with conversation and gave me tea and Christmas cake. I used their phone to contact the medical centre, who confirmed that they had the bag and were just handing it to my workmate.

I am extremely grateful to the people who turned a potentially bad day into an experience of receiving kindness.

Gratitude for the Hard Times

We all know that it’s beneficial to be grateful for the good things in our lives, especially when we know that other people don’t have all the comforts or luxuries we have. But we can develop gratitude for the hard times too.

This is easiest done in retrospect. Thinking back over the most tragic, difficult or painful times you’ve been through, you can usually identify some silver linings – the experiences you had or the people you met that wouldn’t have happened otherwise; the people who came out of the woodwork to support you; and especially the ways in which you learned and grew through those difficult experiences.

Once you’ve mastered retrospective gratitude for hard times, you can begin to cultivate gratitude even while hard times are actually happening. In a way, difficult times are a privilege. They are opportunities for growth that lift you out of mediocrity and test your mettle. Approached with an attitude of acceptance and faith, difficult times can only lead to becoming a better person. While you could never say that the experience was ‘worth it’ or that you would wish it on anyone, often our hardest times are the very experiences that force us to grow strengths and understandings that we might never have found otherwise. An attitude of gratitude towards our difficulties means we see them as opportunities for growth and look for their lessons.

Imagine if nothing ever went wrong in your life. Things would be predictable and easy – but you would be severely limited in your ability to adapt, stretch yourself or show compassion for others. This alone is a reason to be grateful when something happens that sorely tests you.

Things you get used to

– washing clothes and bathing without running water
– sweating a lot
– small plastic bags and plastic water sachets littered everywhere. There’s no rubbish collection, so people burn their own rubbish but generally think nothing of dropping their empty sachets on the ground. And everything you buy is served in a tiny black plastic bag, so the ground is covered in plastic

Things I’ll miss when I leave

– The noise. There’s always someone with a big sound system playing African music loudly in the street, or in the taxi
– The friendliness. People here all talk to each other. They don’t pass on the street without spending time chatting to people they know, even mere acquaintances.
– The hosts of local children who get all excited when they see me and come running up to hold my hand, show me things etc.
– All sorts of things available to buy on the street at affordable prices
– I’m sure I’ll be adding more …
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It’s official – pets make us happy

Studies show that owning a pet can increase self esteem, develop social skills and help people make friends. Families with pets tend to feel closer and play together more often.

A strong bond with a pet has all sorts of benefits to health and emotional wellbeing. Studies with elderly people showed that owning a cat reduces anxiety, loneliness, depression and hypertension. Another study showed that pet owners have a better chance of survival after being hospitalised for heart problems.

When their owners are suffering, dogs can be very gentle and comforting. Cats, too, tend to pick up when a person needs sympathy and will cuddle up and purr, when normally they enjoy their independence. Pets can be so perceptive at picking up when their owner needs comforting that some have actively prevented suicide.

For all that we humans think we’re the top of the evolutionary chain, we have a lot to learn from the simple, loving ways of a well-cared for pet.