A pessimist sees only the dark side of the clouds and mopes; a philosopher sees both sides, and shrugs; an optimist doesn’t see the clouds at all – he’s walking on them – Leonard Louis Levinson
It’s a simple fact that there are those of us in this world for whom the glass is half empty and those for whom the glass is half full; think about the people you know and I will bet you can put each and every one of them into one of these two categories. Me? My glass is almost always half full. There may be an hour or two of yelling and swearing before I drink the glass (!), but I am seldom in any doubt that it is half full. It’s always interested me – how some people with relatively problem-free lives can spend practically all day moaning; while others soldier fairly cheerfully on through all manner of disasters with seldom a complaint. With all the recent interest in happiness, its pursuit and how we measure our own happiness (witness the slew of books on the topic available on Amazon), there have been some studies into the topic – and the results may surprise you.
We’ve all heard that your weight has a natural “set point” – the equilibrium at which your body is most comfortable. Yes, you can gorge or diet and change your weight, but left to its own devices there is a weight at which your body is comfortable and which it will gravitate towards if given the opportunity. Similarly, there is apparently a set point of happiness for each individual, which remains roughly the same despite external variables. For examples, studies have shown that both able-bodied people who become paraplegic and lottery winners who become millionaires overnight will experience an immediate decrease or increase in their levels of happiness – but within a few years both groups return to being about as happy as they were before the life-changing event. It’s like we all have a built-in self-righting mechanism that returns us to our natural equilibrium level of happiness. Of course, different people may take more or less time to recover; different events take longer to recover from; and some things like chronic pain or long-term extreme poverty can permanently decrease your level of happiness. But I always think of my mom who spent the last 7 years of her life on dialysis and in renal failure (and eventually in a wheelchair) but continued to have more joie de vivre in her little finger than my perfectly healthy father had in his entire body!
So where does our tendency to be happy (or unhappy!) come from, if not from outside events? A large portion of it is determined by genetics – so if you had pessimistic parents, it is unlikely that you will be a raving optimist. Still, genes don’t determine all of your capacity for happiness – they simply offer you a range of potential happiness and it’s up to you whether you operate at the top end or the bottom end of the range of your happiness. A nice analogy I’ve seen describes it like this: you may live in the house you inherited from your parents, but you make the choice of whether to live in the dank basement with a bare lightbulb and rats for company; or in the lovely big, airy room on the top floor with a view of the mountains.
It’s often easier to play the “glass half empty” role. When Jane asks Mary how she is and Mary says “terrible – my boyfriend cheated on me and my car broke down!” then this naturally leads to an outpouring of sympathy from Jane (which makes Mary feel better) and the chance to share stories about how Jane’s ex-boyfriend also cheated on her and her car also broke down once, and the chance to bond over these shared misfortunes. If Mary replies “I’m doing great!”, bonding over shared misfortunes is unlikely. If you look at Twitter, Facebook and blogs you will find them choc-a-bloc full of people sharing every detail of their relationship, midlife crisis, health, financial and other troubles. My own husband comes home and every night and tells me only about the annoying or frustrating things that happened at work! But for all my swearing, slamming of doors, and uncanny ability to generate worst-case scenarios in my head (thanks for that, dad…!) I am generally embarrassingly happy. It’s kind of unfashionable and was a positive handicap in my brief career as a Goth at university – but I would not have it any other way. I go to bed at night and before I go to sleep I try to focus on three things for which I was grateful that day: a friend, a great meal, a lovely walk in the sun – small things thayt made the day worthwhile. And when I wake up in the morning and swing my strong, healthy legs out of bed without thinking about it for a second, I remind myself of all the people for whom getting simply swinging their legs out of bed is an almost insurmountable task. People who were denied the possibility of a good night’s rest by chronic pain. People who do not have a bed to sleep in. And then I ask myself “do I feel happy today?”. It kind of puts all your worries in perspective.
Life is short and we spend too much of it obsessing about the negative. Nobody that has ever met me would describe me as a manically grinning Pollyanna type, but I loathe it when people do not appreciate what they have – and every person reading this blog has something to be grateful for today – even if it is just internet access which millions of people in the developing world do not have. So why not grab any chance whatsoever to celebrate while you can? Champagne with dinner? Why not! No point in saving it for high days and holidays. Singing on the Tube? Yes, people think you are nuts but damn it’s fun! Dancing badly but with great enthusiasm? Nothing feels better! And when there is an unexpectedly sunny Sunday in March in London, when all your crocuses are flowering and the scent of your hyacinths is almost overpowering, laugh off the laundry, forget about the blog post you were meant to write and spend the day in the garden, being grateful for this sunny corner of London that belongs to you. Oh – and make something celebratory for lunch, like this confetti rice salad. The word confetti comes from the Italian word confetto meaning small sweetmeats (e.g. sugared almonds) traditionally thrown at the couple at a wedding celebration. Today, there is confetti available for every celebration, so I thought this salad with its colourful, confetti-like diced vegetables would be suitably celebratory. It’s crunch, colourful, relatively good for you, and a great way to use up leftover cooked rice. Enjoy with a glass of bubbly for no reason whatsoever – and remember to drink a celebratory toast!
CONFETTI RICE SALAD (serves 2 happy people)
about 2 cups cooked basmati or long grain white rice
1 large red bell pepper, finely diced
2 spring onions, finely diced
2 large carrots, finely diced
about 7-10cm of a cucumber, finely diced
1 large stick of celery, finely diced
2-3 Tbsp mayonnaise (you can use less and thin it with milk)
mild curry powder to taste
salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Check for seasoning, season as necessary and serve. Ours was delicious served with some smoked peppered mackerel fillets.
You can use different colour vegetables or indeed, add different vegetables as you wish – peas and corn kernels would work well, as would other colours of bell peppers.
Did you miss our our super-successful Tuscany Plate to Page workshop last October? Well, registrations are open for Plate to Page Somerset to be held in the UK in Spring 2012! Have a look at the programme (I’ll be teaching food writing), details about accommodation, and if it looks like something you’d like to attend, register here – but hurry: places are limited to 12. It would be great to see you there!