My daughters, Zoe and Irene, returned from a visit to my mother in India moved and struck by a 91 year old childless widow called Jenny.
Jenny lived alone, in a tiny house that a landlord had carved off from his own house. One “room” was a corridor. Her tiny bedroom leaked and the landlord would not fix the roof, so she slept in the minuscule living room.
She owned little, had no income, and meagre savings, but was cheerful and happy. “When I wake up in the morning, I thank Jesus for everything.” “I read my Bible all the time.” She was upbeat and positive, singing them a cheerful song about counting blessings in her quavery old voice. With very little money, a tiny leaky house, and no family. My goodness!
They took her a little box with five Thornton’s chocolates. In return, she gave them five bars of chocolate, and a tiffin of chicken curry she had prepared, keeping only a wing for herself. The next day, out of her generosity, she sent pork curry. Overflowing generosity; overflowing joy. There is a link.
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One of my life’s epiphanic experiences was visiting the Bible teacher Dick Woodward who was paralysed from the neck down and in pain, but ebullient, wise and cheerful. What is inside is everything, I realized. Our attitude is everything. The spiritual life is everything. All the wealth and success in the world cannot give us happiness. The spiritual life, on the other hand, is like magic eyes which bathe everything in rainbows and gold dust.
I have a slight advantage when it comes to happiness stakes, because I am naturally cheerful and high-spirited. “Happy” if you like. Current psychological research suggests a “set-point” for happiness–life events move us a few points up or down, but it’s basically set by our inherited biology.
However, being cheerful and positive is also learned behaviour, a facet of character, and of paramount importance to develop as one ages.
Andrew Solomon in his writing on depression (Noonday Demon) suggests that, as we age, the sheath of myelin around our nerves wears away. Anyone who lives long enough will eventually become clinically depressed (he speculates).
What’s our best defence against becoming a crabby, ungrateful, tiresome, negative old person?
Practising. Practising cheerfulness. Practising gratitude.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman posits that whose who record the “three blessings” of their day find themselves 25% percent happier in 1-3 months.
Thou that has given so much to me,
Give one thing more a grateful heart
Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart,
Whose pulse may be Thy praise. (George Herbert, “The Temple”).
That is one of my frequent prayers: Give me a grateful heart. For all the blessings, all the wealth, all the success in the world is of no benefit to us if we do not have a singing heart, thankful for the goodness of the world pouring itself into our very small hands.
Oh, let me be singing when the evening comes!