Q&A with Ben Renshaw
Ben Renshaw, director of The Happiness Project, joined us in May 2010. Ben has written six books, including The Secrets of Happiness, and has offered relationship expertise on the Channel 4 show Perfect Match. He is currently working with Keycamp, and has helped them create the Little Book of Holiday Fun.
moondog: Who is Ben Renshaw and what makes you a purported authority?
Ben Renshaw: My name is Ben Renshaw and I am the co-director of The Happiness Project with my colleague Dr Robert Holden. We started The Happiness Project following a QED science documentary of our work entitled 'How to be Happy', which followed the progress of three volunteers on an 8-week Happiness Programme. Our work originated in the NHS and grew to include health professionals, various charities and the general public. I have written six books including The Secrets of Happiness published by Random House.
Librashavinganotherbiscuit: Are you ever unhappy?
Ben Renshaw: Unhappiness is part of the human condition. Happiness is not the absence of unhappiness, it is the ability to accept your unhappiness. Feelings come and go so even when you are feeling unhappy it's important to remind yourself that 'even this will pass'.
Greensleeves: To what degree do you think "happiness" is a desirable life goal for its own sake? Isn't it often the case that contentment with one's lot can impede progress and deplete the drive to improve one's life? I think it may be a mistake to place personal happiness at the centre of one's agenda - I'm not advocating the pursuit of unhappiness, but surely one should identify goals which serve some purpose other than one's emotional gratification and hope that happiness follows as a by-product?
I think there's an alarming trend in modern consumerist/bourgeois society to reach a certain level of comfort, decide that one is happy enough and then enter a sort of time-serving limbo in which nothing is attempted that might risk the status-quo. People who have experienced unhappiness as routine during their early lives are particularly susceptible to this sort of self-protective compromise I think. If we weren't so terrified of losing our "happiness" we might achieve more, push our boundaries further, surprise ourselves more. What do you think? Is happiness the most important thing to strive for in life?
Ben Renshaw: The gift of happiness is that it enables you to give more, grow more and love more. Research from social psychology shows that happy people are more selfless, enjoy better friendships and contribute more to communities. There are some countries, eg Bhutan, that measure Gross National Happiness as an indicator to the wellbeing of their people.
I wholeheartedly agree that a consumerist society breeds individualistic behaviour that leads to greed. I also encourage that you give up the pursuit of happiness as that will always fail. The real goal is to recognise that happiness is a way of traveling that helps you make the most of gift of life.
Earthstar: Is how happy you are dictated by your genes?
Ben Renshaw: Research from studying identical twins shows that our genes contribute about 50% to our happiness levels. This means that we have another 50% to play with in terms of increasing happiness levels.
goldenticket: Our children, according to research, are some of the unhappiest in Europe, even though so many of them have high standards of living and many lovely "things". What can we, as parents, do to help our children be happier, especially entering and during the teenage years?
Ben Renshaw: Research does show that beyond poverty there is no direct correlation between increased wealth and more happiness. Our responsibility as parents is to help our children learn that happiness comes from things like greater self-acceptance, developing an attitude of gratitude, helping others and doing what you love in life.
weegiemum: It's all very well to talk about happiness as a 'project' and something which can be brought about by a 'little book' but how is that possible if you have crippling, and possibly untreatable, clinical depression? I could do everything anyone suggests to be 'happy' and be as miserable as I always am, because I am ill. Are you unrealistically raising expectations?
Ben Renshaw: Thank you for your honesty. I really appreciate your situation and recognise that a little book, or project will not cure your illness. However, there are principles and techniques that you could use which might support you along the road to your healing. I once worked with a woman who had been diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 19. When I met her she was in her early 40s and married with three young children. She had trained as a nurse but had to stop working due to her condition. When we started to explore her depression, she said that her darkest moments were when the symptoms were acute she would go back to the moment her psychiatrist diagnosed her as clinically depressed and the memory of the fear that had gripped her.
The majority of our work was to learn how to bring greater acceptance of the depression so that when she felt down there was less fear present. This in turn allowed her to feel that she had more control over the depression so that rather than being run by it, she could experience more choice.
My advice is to seek medical support so that you can be prescribed the right medication to support you. Depression is treatable. It would also be advisable to request Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT can help you to change how you think ("Cognitive") and what you do ("Behaviour)". These changes can help you to feel better. Unlike some of the other talking treatments, it focuses on the "here and now" problems and difficulties. Instead of focusing on the causes of your distress or symptoms in the past, it looks for ways to improve your state of mind now. I wish you all the best.
The House of Mirth: Is happiness more important than contentment?
Ben Renshaw: As mentioned earlier, at The Happiness Project we study three types of happiness, 1) Pleasure, ie happiness of the physical senses such as exercise, ice-cream, a delicious glass of wine. 2) Content, ie happiness of the mind including the satisfaction of completing a project, enjoying your work, being satisfied with your bank balance, home and car. 3) Joy, ie happiness of the spirit. It's this third type of happiness, which is the most important. Joy is not dependent on external factors. It is found in your heart and the secret is to remove the blocks to the awareness of pure happiness. You can do this through focusing on qualities such as forgiveness, acceptance, gratitude and love which allow you to let go of grievances and open your heart to joy.
jonicomelately: I've felt like I've put everybody before myself for the past eight years and now, when I have a real chance of doing something amazing for myself, find it difficult to deal with the guilt of being so 'selfish'. I don't think I'm putting obstacles in my own way in order to fail before I've begun. I just think I'm so accustomed to serving other people I can't get my head around the possibility of ever being successful in my own right. How do I fix it?
Ben Renshaw: There is a world of difference between serving others and being in sacrifice. Real service is joy. Sacrifice is pain. So you cannot be happy and a martyr. You will go through growing pains as you start taking care of your own needs. This is natural. Remember that guilt is a futile emotion. Guilt is like the mafia of the mind. You pay the mafia to protect yourself from them. Guilt operates in the same way: 'As long as I feel guilty nobody can come in and make me feel bad because I already feel so terrible.' However, guilt is not a solution. In fact, one of the traits of happy people is being selfless. As you allow yourself to be truly happy and successful you will find that you have more to give to others.
HesterPrynn: How can I convince myself to be happy with what I know I'm lucky to have: a husband who loves me, three reasonably well-adjusted children and a part-time job I love, when I want to be with another man, my children just seem to want too much of me, and I want a full-time 'proper' career. As I really don't want to make myself happy at everyone else's expense, I know I have to adapt to them, but how?
Oblomov: I don't know why I am not happy. My husband is fab. I have two children and a part-time job that I love. I never had high ambitions. I have achieved everything I ever wanted and gone to every country I ever wanted to. I have the very thing I craved - a very loving relationship with a man who treats me so well.
So how come I seem unable to appreciate this or count my blessings?
Ben Renshaw: Hester and Oblomov: welcome to the human being club. It is remarkable that we can seem to have it all and still not experience happiness. The good news is that we can learn to be happy and the practice of gratitude is one of the most powerful ways of building your happiness muscle. Start a gratitude journal. Each day write down up to three things that you are truly grateful for. A good place to start is being thankful for your DH, kids and job. Then expand outwards to include all manner of things such as your health, friendships, home and opportunities. Research shows that if you write ten things you are grateful for each week it will boost your happiness as what you appreciate appreciates in value.
calopa: I would love to be more confident in front of other mums – since being a mum I've found lots of people giving me their opinions on what I should or shouldn't do and I probably listen to everyone too much. I'm going to Egypt in a few weeks and don't want my confidence or lack of it to ruin my time away – is this common and what would you advise?
Ben Renshaw: Yes, this is very common. In fact, I would say that most parents would like to appear confident in front of other parents. However, it's far more important as a parent to recognise your own strengths and weaknesses in a way that makes you feel good enough. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, so make sure you appreciate your own commitment to being a mum. Being on holiday is a great opportunity to lighten up about your parenting. You are in a different context with less daily pressures of normal life. Ultimately what other people think about your parenting is none of your business. They are entitled to their own opinion, but it doesn't need to have any influence over you.
Ruthster: Since becoming a mum two years ago, cheesy as it sounds I've never been happier. When I get home from work and see my daughter's smiling face it makes me realise how lucky I am. That being said I'm a big worrier and even when I'm on holiday I worry about her falling off a climbing frame or slipping by the pool – can you give me some tips on how to step back, let my hair down and have fun without feeling like an irresponsible mum?
Ben Renshaw: It sounds like you have traits similar to a Type 6 – The Loyalist – in our personality profiling in The Little Book of Holiday Fun. At your best you are engaging, highly committed and resourceful. However, your key motivations are to feel secure and reassured. As a consequence your tendency will be to worry.
In order to enjoy your holiday you need to be in situations in which you can relax and switch off. It would be good if other people can take responsibility and give you a break. Make sure you participate in some physical activities such as team games, hiking, or canoeing.
miserablenow: Both my husband and I are miserable because of our son's behaviour. What do you do when you are ground down after 18 months of trying? Where's our joie de vivre? How do you learn to love your child again when all your love has evaporated? Friends, family and parenting gurus have no advice for us because we have always loved and disciplined our son in the way they suggest.
stealthsquiggle: How am I supposed to enhance the happiness of my perpetually grumpy seven-year-old son when "all he wants" is family time and DH and I both have to work for a living and get 1,001 other jobs done at the weekend?
Ben Renshaw: Parenting is probably the most challenging and rewarding job that we will ever do. It does activate every type of human emotion and the rollercoaster is tough. It sounds like you have been very committed to finding a solution which enables you to be the kind of parent you would like to be. However, if you were to give up now you would be sabotaging all the work you have put in.
- Be clear on the purpose of parenting. It's important to find out why you are parenting in the first place. A purpose is like a guiding compass, which navigates us through all the ups and downs. Ask yourself, 'If my parenting was successful, what would it give me?' Often people describe the love, joy or fulfilment that comes from parenting as being the real reason for doing it. As you know, you don't experience these states currently; however, by remembering your purpose on a consistent basis then it will bring you close to it.
- There is no such thing as a perfect parent. It's so easy to beat yourself up as a parent, which only brings more pain. No matter how much advice you receive you'll never get it all right. That's OK, and it's important for your kids to learn that you are not perfect so that you don't create false idols.
- Forgiveness works. Probably the most powerful way of returning to love is through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the ability to change the way that you perceive things so that you can keep your heart open and recognise that it's very rare for people to deliberately behave in a damaging way. The key to forgiveness is willingness. It starts with being willing to forgive yourself and then extend it to others. This will help you come back to the original love as a parent and enjoy greater happiness.
Goingpostal: I'd like to know how it's possible to be happy, really truly happy, after my wonderful husband died three years ago, while I was pregnant with our first child. I am now living a life I didn't want and didn't choose. I'm a lone parent, bringing up a small child by myself. I am 100% responsible 100% of the time for everything relating to my and my son's life. DS is at nursery school and so in holidays it is me and him 24/7. He's lovely but he's only just three and his company is a little limiting. We do activities, meet friends, get out of the house etc etc.
I do all the right things, think of strategies to cope, get practical help, have company when possible. My friends would probably think I am fine and doing well. But, fundamentally, when I close the door to my house at night, I am lonely and unhappy. It would be lovely to meet someone new but in the absence of a wonderful partner in my life. How can I make myself truly happy again, and how can I consider the future with true anticipation and excitement when all that is in front of me is the daily child-related grind?
Ben Renshaw: It is no surprise that you are suffering loneliness and unhappiness after such a loss. The grieving period can take several years, particularly with the fact that you've had to be strong as a single parent and therefore have not had sufficient space to heal. It is essential that you are very kind to yourself at this time.
I would encourage you to practise talking to yourself as if you were your best friend. Be gentle and realistic about what to expect of yourself. Set yourself some small goals for rebuilding your life rather than trying to face the future with anticipations and excitement. One of the best techniques for rediscovering your happiness is a gratitude journal. Each day write down one to two things that you are truly thankful for, eg your health, a smile from your son, or the fact that you did you have a wonderful partner in your life. The gift of gratitude is that it encourages you to appreciate more things in life. It's like a muscle to develop. Once you have exercised it over time, gratitude becomes a natural response to most situations and opens you up to new possibilities.
rookiemater: I believe I am not as happy as I could be because I feel unfulfilled at my work. Because I work part time and have neither the ability nor desire to work extra hours, I feel less committed to what I am doing and worry that I am not delivering what I should be. My husband works long hours, so in addition to working more or less full time, I have responsibility for the majority of household chores and although I realise this is not as onerous as being wholly responsible, most of the time I feel overwhelmed and sad.
I am toying with a number of ideas: reducing hours further, reducing grade or even giving up work and buying a buy-to-let property. It will however be a loss of a reasonable income and a lot of associated benefits and I am somewhat concerned that perhaps I am just a natural pessimist who would be unhappy in any given situation. What do you recommend ?
Ben Renshaw: Happiness is an inside job, so looking for it in a job, less hours, or a different income is only part of the solution. You need to start by figuring out what encourages you to be happy and make that the goal in your life. For instance, it maybe that being relaxed, appreciating the moment and feeling loved are all ways of simply being happy. Therefore each day you need to focus on those experiences and bring that state into your work. If your work can be an expression of your creativity and joy then no matter what you're doing you will have a better time doing it.
Fel1x: I am unhappy as I feel there is something missing in my life - a gap. I very much want a third child but my husband very much doesn't. I am a SAHM due to not being able to afford to work (childcare costs higher than any possible income I could achieve), plus I can't afford to study as would then have childcare costs with no income. I can't think of any other way to fill the gap and without filling it, I seem to be unable to enjoy my lovely sons and my husband and quite nice life as much as I should be. What is a good way to get happy in this situation?
Ben Renshaw: If there's something missing in your life it's probably you! The way you describe the gap in your life means that you need to discover your real self in a way that enables you to feel whole and complete, regardless of how many children you have, or how much money is in the account. Ask yourself, 'What do I really value about myself?' Be honest. Don't answer in a self-depreciating way. Really look inside and see how great you are. Make a list of the five qualities you admire about yourself. These are your strengths that you can share in the world.
By focusing on your essential gifts you will find that the internal gap within yourself gets closed. By doing this you will then have much better clarity about whether it really is the right thing to have a third child, study, or make the most of the life you already have.
Riven: I'm dreading the school holidays; six weeks with a frustrated, profoundly disabled child who yells constantly but can't move or talk. I reckon even a happiness expert might be wilting after six weeks with no break!
Ben Renshaw: Absolutely! I have three children under the age of eight and after one day I'm exhausted. The life of a full-time carer is an extraordinary role. The level of service, love and compassion that you offer is admirable. I sincerely hope that you are able to draw upon a support network that provides you with enough help to be able to manage. I would encourage you to exercise self-acceptance, ie the willingness to be kind to yourself whatever you're feeling.
Librashavinganotherbiscuit: Where do you stand on the "go on holiday send children into kids clubs", versus "go on holiday spend every waking moment with them" argument debate?
Ben Renshaw: While it's vital to consider the kids - and possibly include them in the decision-making process – when booking a holiday, don't dismiss the importance of your own enjoyment. A holiday can provide the much-needed escape from everyday life that we all crave, and can give you the opportunity to get some distance from day-to-day stresses to really appreciate what you have in life. Successful holidays tend to have something for everyone.
In my experience, most children enjoy spending time engaging with their peers at the kids' clubs, so relinquish that guilt and enjoy a little me-time during some of your holiday. That way, when you do spend time as a family, you'll be able to dedicate more energy into enjoying your time together. To really maximise that time, why not plan a day of sight-seeing with the kids, allowing them to help decide where to go and what to do. If your kids are old enough, you could take part in an activity such as canoeing, where you can work together as team, plus the physical activity will get those happy endorphins flowing.
Noggie: I am going on holiday with my two little girls this summer. My husband is not able to get time off work so whilst I am really looking forward to it, I wondered if you could give me some advice about making sure we all have a really happy holiday.
Ben Renshaw: Taking a long journey with the kids on your own is always going to be a little daunting and the family dynamic is likely to change without your husband. Make sure you've discussed it together as a family ahead of time so manage expectations and set some ground rules for the kids so that you can stay sane.
Most of all, understand that this is your holiday too, so while it's important to make sure the girls are happy, don't forget to include some activities for yourself or spend time with other families, allowing yourself some important adult conversation.
There are also a few little practical tactics, which can help the holiday go more smoothly. Allowing the kids to pack their own bag and carry it will give them a sense of responsibility, while helping you with the holiday luggage. A selection of travel games and toys are essential and will help dispel boredom and arguments, especially important when you are the only adult.
LadyBlaBlah: I am interested in your work as an organisational psychologist who delivers Learned Optimism techniques (Seligman) to sales people to increase their resilience and 'happiness' in their job, which is usually a very motivationally challenging role. Are you using techniques from Seligman/Positive Psychology too?
Ben Renshaw: The Work of The Happiness Project is influenced by Seligman and Positive Psychology in that we make happiness the learning curve, rather than the elimination of problems. However, the essence of our work is focused on studying three types of happiness; 1) Pleasure, ie happiness of the physical senses; 2) Contentment, ie happiness of the mind; and 3) Joy, ie happiness of the spirit.
StarlightMcKenzie: I'm interested to know if your techniques have a basis in behaviourism, biomedical, nutritional or chemical?
Ben Renshaw: The work of The Happiness Project focuses on four types of intelligence; 1) Physical Intelligence, ie exploring our energy, vitality and aliveness; 2) Emotional Intelligence, ie increasing our positive emotions such as love, compassion and joy; 3) Intellectual Intelligence, ie improving our creativity and possibility thinking; and 4) Spiritual Intelligence, ie creating greater meaning, purpose and inspiration for living with more fulfilment.