FeaturesLifeclass: My five steps to happiness
After almost four years, Lesley Garner has decided to take a break from giving her advice column Lifeclass. Here she offers some final tips for life.
By Lesley Garner
Published: 23 Mar 2010
Lesley Garner Photo: ANDREW CROWLEY Dear Readers
This has been a very intense job and, although this page is called Lifeclass, I feel that I am the one who has been learning from you.
After nearly four years as the recipient of every kind of dilemma, from post-traumatic stress and the harm done by internet porn to more perennial woes such as the loss of marital love or that perpetual cry, “Have I left it too late?” I am addressing my own dilemma by taking some time out.
My dilemma has been this: I have a very responsible job for The Daily Telegraph which, so you tell me, helps an awful lot of people and which nobody wants me to leave. On the other hand, there are other things I would like to do and, in particular, other kinds of writing I would like to experiment with.
I am currently a student on a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy. My fellow students and I are lucky enough to benefit from the wisdom and the experience of writers such as Esther Freud, Rachel Cusk and Hanif Kureishi. But while we love to hear what these writers have to say, our real challenge is to use the craft of fiction to create worlds of our own and, perhaps, make sense of our own lives.
Since the life stories I hear from you every week leave little room in my head or heart for inventing and developing life stories of my own, I have decided to step back from this page for a while in order to give myself a chance. And what about you? How will you manage without me? Well, I imagine you will do whatever you were doing before I came along, but in case this isn’t good enough I have some suggestions on how to be your own agony aunt in my absence.
1 Do not do anything alone
One of the many valuable lessons I have learnt on this page is that there is nothing so difficult, exceptional, demanding or painful that somebody else isn’t going through it too.
You are not the only teenager who wonders if he is gay or why he has no friends. You are not the only parents of soldiers who gnaw away at your own worries and fears in private. You are not the only man whose wife has told him she needs space, or the only wife whose husband seems to have changed character. You are not the only person sitting alone and wondering if you have left it too late to find somebody special.
Your troubles will be halved if you reach out to other people and share your sorrows. You can do this both by talking to friends and through the many organisations that cater for every kind of human difficulty, from bereavement and unemployment to marriage problems.
2 Be your own researcher
How do you find other people who are going through what you are going through? The internet is king. Many days I have sat for hours on Google typing in “help for old people”, “midlife crisis”, “celibacy” or “co?dependency” and reeled at the amount and quality of information available at the press of a button.
Your local Citizens Advice Bureau is a useful source of information on all kinds of legal, financial, even emotional problems. Relate (www.relate.org.uk) offers advice in family relationships. The Royal College of Psychiatrists (www.rcpsych.org.uk) is an excellent hub of information on all kinds of mental illness and its treatment. Carers can find help and advice on www.carers.org. People concerned about their own old age or the care of their parents can find help via www.ageconcern.org.uk.
If you feel lonely and don’t know what the social life is like in your area, Google the town you live in and go on to www.meetup.com to find social and educational groups.
3 Use self-help books
Yes, really. I have written some, so I am bound to say this, but some are invaluable. If you don’t know which of the many titles available is right for you, check out Tom Butler-Bowden’s useful series, 50 Self-Help Classics, 50 Psychological Classics, and 50 Spiritual Classics. These are succinct summaries of a large number of books and you will certainly find one that seems to match your own understanding of your problem and state of mind.
And, of course, I highly recommend my own books. Everything I’ve Ever Done That Worked is being reprinted in a lovely new edition this spring and is full of my own tips on changing your state of mind, your fortunes and your life. For anybody struggling with relationships I recommend my book Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Love?; for life’s inevitable ups and downs, Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Change?; and for readers who would like to remind themselves of some of the problems that have gone through these pages and my solutions to them, Life Lessons.
4 Lighten up
Oh, heaven knows this is easier said than done. If you could lighten up, you wouldn’t be writing to somebody like me, but nobody’s emotional toolbox is complete without some simple exercises to break the circuits of misery and regain some perspective. Even in the midst of grief and torment, people can gain equanimity in very small ways by watching comedy on TV, by going for a walk, by looking up at the clouds, by gardening or birdwatching, singing or dancing.
Everything I’ve Ever Done That Worked has lots of useful suggestions for mood-shifting. A very wise woman once told me to imagine that I was seven years old. I find that if I do, life immediately looks a lot more amusing and carefree.
5 Do something different
I realised early on that many people’s problem is simply that they have walked themselves round and round in the same old circle until they are stuck and have lost all perspective on their situation. My sole contribution is to look down from my bird’s-eye view and show them what the nature of their problem actually is.
You can learn to do this for yourself if you recognise exactly when you are repeating a piece of behaviour or an argument. Repetition leads to obsession and obsession doesn’t solve anything.
If madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then sanity is saying to yourself, “I choose to walk in another direction.” Do not engage in the same repetitive arguments. Remain silent and let people vent their feelings. Do a lot more listening than talking. Get out more. Practise changing your brain patterns by walking a different way to work or trying on clothes you might normally avoid. Being stuck is miserable and unproductive. Cultivate ways to be more playful and silly and the gloom often shifts.
I could say so much more – and over the past four years I have – but I have also learnt that people only take in limited suggestions or information at a time. And often, despite my best endeavours, I suspect they carry on doing exactly what they were doing before. It doesn’t do to have too elevated an idea of one’s own importance – that’s another thing I have learnt from you.
I hope to write for you again in these pages in the future, if not exactly in this very special role. In the meantime, thank you more than I can say for trusting and confiding in me. I truly wish all of you happy and resourceful lives.
With love from Lesley
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