100th weekly column for The Times as Dr FeelGood on The Science of Happiness
“Let us hope good will triumph”, wrote the Headmaster on my final school report. Leaving aside that this made us both sound like characters from Star Wars, neither of us would have predicted quite how goodness, I mean other people’s goodness, would so overwhelm me. You see, for the past ten years, I’ve studied the hows and why of wonderful lives. These I loosely define as lives that are happy and healthy, helpful and good-hearted. This isn’t to say such a life is trouble-free or without fault or flaw, but what’s wonderful about it is the person’s still smiling and going strong after all they’ve been through.
Of course, such a field of study needs to encompass every aspect of life going well, so we look at such human strengths as the achievement of expertise and outstanding performance; creating and appreciating beauty in all its forms; and how we can be enriched by and care for the natural environment. At the very heart of it, though, we need to discover how men and women manage to thrive even in the face of adversity. Aged just 14, Claire Rayner fled her cruel home-life and pretended to be 17 so she could train and then excel as a nurse. NASA pilot, Eileen Collins, the first woman ever to command a space shuttle, grew up in a family where money was painfully short. This meant that despite loving aircraft since early childhood, she had to keep this passion alive until she was 19 and had saved sufficient for her initial flight training.
At 33, Dame Cicely Saunders undertook to re-train as a medical doctor so she would be better able to found and foster the modern-day Hospice movement. Half a century on, there are over 250 UK Hospices specialist in the care of terminally ill children and adults.
And in Britain of the late 1990s, a twenty-something single mum living on benefits, took herself to a therapist to help with her depression. She soon embarked on secondary school teacher training at which first she struggled and then excelled, and all the while this determined soul was penning the first adventures of Harry Potter. In seeking to understand the alchemy achieved by Joanne K. Rowling and so many others, their personal stories have brought to life the science of well-being. And looking around me in my everyday world at some lesser known but no less remarkable individuals, I see the very same principles at work. Their inspiring example reminds me of a stained glass window in The Queen’s University Belfast which reads: ‘Their deeds are written not on stone, but on the hearts of men’.
I could not wish for a more enjoyable endeavour than exploring and recounting such awe-inspiring journeys. It’s been made all the more satisfying because you could fill a book with what I would dearly have wished to better understand at age 16 or 30 or a year ago for that matter, about the roots of resilience and gentleness, progress and companionship. So that’s exactly what I’ve done with my learning from wonderful lives: I’ve filled a book – filled its pages with all the principles, skills and experiences that time and again reveal themselves as profoundly helpful. This is my way of making-up for all the misunderstandings and feeling alone and up against it which can sometimes get on top of us. The fact is, we’re not alone, and closely considering the lives of others who’ve made a good go of it, can put a whole lot of hope and know-how under out-stretched wings.