I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about Happiness.
Between patrolling the school corridors, ensuring Year 11 are still revising hard and checking the examination halls are in good order, I am writing my next book, This Much I Know About Mind Over Matter. Here is the biographical preface to a chapter on Happiness I wrote this evening.
Make me happy, through the years,
Never bring me, any tears,
Let your arms be as warm as the sun from up above,
Bring me fun, bring me sunshine, bring me love.
Morecambe and Wise, Bring Me Sunshine
As I write, it is a Friday evening at the beginning of the summer half-term holiday. Our eldest son rang from Durham an hour ago to tell us, against expectations, that his Reformation examination went ‘really well’. Our youngest is on the PS4 laughing with his mates. Louise, my wife, is relaxing in the bath. Marcus Rashford has scored for England after just two minutes in the last friendly before the European Football Championships. The weather is calm and sunny, my mate Tom has just texted me to arrange fishing for tomorrow afternoon, I have a good whisky to drink, bought for me by my colleagues Terry and Gail in an act of genuine kindness and I have several days ahead of me writing the final chapters of this book. I have good reason, surely, to be the happiest man on the planet.
I have to admit, right now, at this precise moment, I do feel happy, without qualification. The factors contributing to this sense of contentment are not, however, of equal weighting. Louise luxuriates in a bath most Friday nights. I am never that worried about the football. I don’t need sunshine to make me smile. Fishing with Tom is always a pleasure, but we can go out on the river another day. A cup of Yorkshire tea will suffice if I am short of a decent whisky. Writing is a pleasure but can also be a pain.
No, the main determinant of my happiness is the welfare of our boys.
Joe’s satisfaction with his examination is significant. Like so many Freshers, his first year at university has had its challenges. In four days and two examinations’ time his summer holidays will begin and only then we will be able to look back on the past eight months and realise what a success they have been. As far as Olly goes, if he is getting on well with his mates, then we are all happy.
The thing is, you can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. In the pantheon of populist philosophy, this aphorism ranks amongst the very best. Ultimately, children are the source of your greatest joy and your deepest sorrow.
When Louise said I ought to buy a pregnancy tester when I was out procuring paint during the 1996 Easter holidays, her instruction hardly registered. I duly returned with my pot of yellow Dulux, but without the required test kit. Later that day I nipped to the chemist on the corner of our street. As the elderly sales woman handed me my change – I say elderly, looking back she was probably in her mid-fifties – she said, smilingly, ‘Good luck’. It took me half-way back to our house before I realised what she meant.
After the purple stripes materialised on the plastic test strip to confirm Louise was pregnant, I looked in our bedroom mirror and said to myself, ‘From this point on you will always be worried and always be tired’. Never have I been more prescient.
That insistent, gnawing worry inherent in being responsible for your children never wanes. When they are young their vulnerability is at least manageable. What you don’t realise is that you fret more when they get older because you have far less influence over their welfare. Their two year-old selves might well be wailing away, but you’ve got them strapped in a pram and under complete control.
Quite rightly, as they grow up that level of control diminishes inexorably. The natural way of things dictates that by the time they are in their mid-teens your children begin the process of distancing themselves from you. I call it the child’s boomerang parabola. At around the age of thirteen you become unbearably embarrassing to them. At twenty they stop communicating with you completely. They come back to you in their mid-twenties, when they realise you were not so stupid after all.
As a kid, winter Saturday evenings were the source of my greatest happiness. After an afternoon of breathless footie up the rec and tea and crumpets watching Frank Bough present Final Score, we would be scrubbed clean before settling down in the sitting room for an evening in front of the telly: Dr Who; Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game; Dixon of Doc Green; The Two Ronnies; Starsky and Hutch; Match of the Day. The BBC1 Saturday evening schedule in the 1970s is legendary.
The spectacles I wear to view those evenings of vintage TV derive their rose colour not from the brilliance of Barker and Corbett, but from the comfort gained from having the whole family safe and together for a few precious hours. Seven of us crammed into the front room, craning for a good view of the screen, talking and laughing at the telly, generated genuine happiness.
With the advent of multi-television set homes, tablets and i-Player, TV schedules are no longer the glue which holds the family together. In the BBC series, Back in Time for the Weekend, the Ashby-Hawkins family agreed to give up all their 21st-century technology and travel back in time to discover the radical transformation of our leisure time since 1950. In six episodes, they spent time living under the conditions typical of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. At the end of the series the mum said, ‘The Seventies was the perfect balance. It felt like a real golden era. What I’ve taken away from that is that it’s the time spent with people that is really important and making sure that we don’t let things like technology get in the way.’
What I felt as a child, snuggled in my pyjamas next to mother on the sofa, trying to recall all the items on Brucie’s Conveyor Belt, was a happiness borne of a sense of security. Everyone I loved in one room, safe and well. It could never last, of course, but for a few hours at the end of the week, we were happy.
If we keep pursuing eternal happiness we will be perpetually disappointed. Phillip Larkin once made the astute observation that, ‘The more sensitive you are to suffering…the more accurate notion of life you have.’ Life is inevitably painful and once you realise that is the case, it is liberating; you can stop pursuing the unobtainable and begin enjoying your lot.
Like this evening, which is now nearly done, happiness will always be transitory; understanding that fact is crucial to our well-being.
One May half-term, many years ago, I played football on a sunlit Gibraltan beach with Joe. It was breezy, the ball was too light but his small feet zipped across the beach effortlessly. At the end he fell down front-first in the sand and I captured his indefatigable spirit in this portrait.
Joe final beach
It was a moment in time. The transitory nature of things makes them essentially beautiful. As J.L. Carr wrote, It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.
– York, 27 May 2016

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This post has 17 Comments

  1. You wrote this on my 50th birthday, John, so a reflective time for me. I agree with you that happiness is in those snatched, transitory moments, and I share those happy memories of the family reunited around the Two Ronnies. And the decisive factor these days certainly is the welfare of our children. Our two adopted children are in KS3, both with SEN, and we will be happy if either ultimately achieve any GCSEs. Goodness knows what the future holds for them, or if they will ever move on and move out. But still our happiest moments are when we are all together, having fun and on the same wavelength. We store those memories like squirrels storing acorns for winter. Thanks for writing it so evocatively.

  2. Thank you for encapsulating in words that worry, happiness, joy, frustration and ultimately love, that is being a parent. Plus describing the often joyful moment that is the start of the May half Term! X

  3. I am sat in my kitchen with tears rolling down my face. A beautiful piece of writing x Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thanks for that one, Tommo – am meeting up with Brinkers tomorrow. 5 kids between us – that’s a lot of happiness potential!! Kxx

  5. ‘…you are only as happy as your unhappiness child.’
    It’s like a physical pain when my two are worried – a hot, heavy stone that you carry all day. Like grief.
    My daughter had a horrendous year three; a new head teacher who was overwhelmed, an ‘old school’ teacher who was close to retirement and a group of friends who viciously exerted the pain of their own difficult situations on our daughter. When we look at it in retrospect, we call it a ‘perfect storm’. It took a local authority complaint to resolve, after a farcical response from governors; she still has CAMHS involvement. Last year, my husband had heart surgery after a small stroke and that was easier to manage than Amelie’s unhappiness.
    The implications of acknowledging how vulnerable parents are for schools is huge. Too often their fears and concerns are reacted to defensively, dismissively or both. Too often their place in a child’s life is diminished by poor communication. Knowing the truth of parenting must make us better at involving, acknowledging and helping parents too. Even at high school…

    1. You are so right. I know excellent teachers who do not have children and who get the parent thing right every time. All I can say is that since I was a parent, I have been better at understanding the parents’ perspective. It’s not about winning battles with parents, it’s about being human and understanding why the parents feel like they do.

  6. Good to know there are like minded people out there…I’ve been a class teacher for 29 years (mainly year six- ha ha), deputy head of a large urban junior school for thirteen of them and had my own children within that….I have to re-discover that twenty year old who loved The Eagles and Neil Young, became a vegetarian and wore the original ‘jeans with holes in the knees’ for the look- I have to re discover that person when the pressures of my job threaten to overwhelm me- then I can regain my perspective and laugh at the pressures. They are not ME, they are what I DO!ME is a parent, wife, friend, daughter, sister etc etc, and they are the real things….I totally agree with you. Reassuring to know there are similar mind sets out there!!

  7. As usual, a great piece of writing. And very generous of you to share such personal thoughts. The title of your book suggests you might be interested in a new book I am currently reading: “Cure. A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body” by Jo Marchant, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Hay Festival during half term. One for your wishlist perhaps!

  8. Lovely post, John. Just shared it with my 93 year old, “Oooh I am happy…!” mum!

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