The five recommendations for wellbeing suggested by the New Economics Foundation are keep learning, be active, give, connect and notice. ‘Noticing’ is one of my favourite words – it is about taking the time to watch and listen to what’s going on around you, become aware of changing seasons, tune into other people, stop and savour the moment. It is also a useful phrase in working positively with students when you can say “I have noticed that …” to comment on extra effort, a change in behaviour, greater engagement – or just a new haircut!
Recently I noticed a sudden lift in my spirits and began to think about what contributed to this and then reflected on when this happened for me at other times. The more aware we are of what presses our uplift button, the more we might seek these moments out. When do we find ourselves smiling, forgetting any pressure, walking with a lighter step and a fuller heart?
This particular moment of awareness happened for me as I left the Columbia Road flower market in East London. I turned to David and said, “That was such a good morning”. I was feeling a heady mix of ecstatic, mellow and blessed. It was not just one thing that fed this uplift but a combination of big and small events. My spirit is always nurtured by being enveloped in nature and the market is abundant with flowers and plants. In the middle of the east end of London it is an oasis. The colours, forms and scent of the roses, delphiniums, calla lilies, sweet peas and more filled me to the brim. And it seems I was not the only one whose sense of wellbeing was being fed just by being there. The stall holders calling out in cheerful cockney, the punters with smiles on their faces as they scooped up three bunches for the price of just one in a high street store – and the general good nature of people letting a cyclist go through, making way for someone carrying coffee, smiling.
But the market wasn’t the only thing that lifted my spirits this week.
On the way to the market we bought a newspaper and on the bus I searched my bag for a pen to do the crossword. I always carry a pen with me so where this one had gone was a mystery. The girl in the seat behind heard our conversation and passed one over to me saying “I don’t get off until Holloway Road, you can have it till then!”. Just one of many small acts of kindness and conversation. Snatches of conversation in which you share a story with strangers can be a little bit of gold-dust in an otherwise dry day! The salesperson who stopped talking sofas and told us about having been a nurse in the army, the lady in the park who spoke with love about her grandchild, the interaction I had with a four year old carrying a balloon in an underground train, the vibrant exchanges with a group of American teenagers waiting, along with everyone else, for their luggage in the arrivals hall! Moments of connection, flashes of undiluted enjoyment, hearing stories. I appreciate that it is easier for a woman to do this than a man but not impossible if they choose the context well and withdraw rapidly if the conversation is unwelcome.
I began to ask friends and family what lifts their spirits? For David it was pieces of music that he lost himself in, his new-found pleasure in singing in a choir, sunlight through trees, bird song, being on a canal. I have lived with him for decades and didn’t know about the canals! Leo told us about watching a young child escape his mother to jump as hard as he could into a large puddle with utter delight and I remembered that watching the unselfconsciousness of young children does it for me too. I emailed my colleague Ali, wondering what did it for her. She came back straight away: Bright yellow … a cup and saucer, a cushion, a clock, a watering can, a front door, a car, a flower. And for my daughter, Emma the answer was exercise, sunshine and tidying up (the result, not the doing of it!).
And so the list goes on – getting a clue on a crossword puzzle, having lunch with people I love, picking up the enthusiasm of others, hearing the voice of an old friend, smelling the cake I am baking – and even better the marmalade that is bubbling away so the whole house fills with the aroma of oranges, finishing a piece of writing, waking to a warm bright day, a hug, the moment you realise you no longer have jet lag and any time anyone says that the workshop I have just run has made a difference to their thinking – or confirmed for them that their practice in schools is on the right track – regardless of government directives!
Life can be hard and as inequality increases for some it is harder than ever. If you are in an unhealthy relationship or a job where the only value is profit or you live with a disability, these chronic challenges can pull your spirits down badly. But even for those who struggle, life is also full of everyday magic and miracles. All we have to do is notice and remember where that uplift button is – and remember to press it whenever the need arises – or even when it doesn’t – just for the sheer heaven of it!