Happiness Project

Recently I’ve been getting quite into reading about happiness and the theories behind it, I think this is one new hobby this blog has definitely given me. Something that was recommended to me again and again was Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Published in 2009, it is an account of one writer’s challenge to set herself a Happiness Project over the course of the year. I know I’m a little late to the party but it made me realise that I’ve been implementing my own kind of happiness project. It’s structured very differently to Gretchen’s, perhaps not quite so organised and thorough, but at the heart of it I’m challenging myself in various different ways to see if I can make myself happier.

What I loved most about Gretchen’s book is that it is truly part autobiographical and part self-help guide. I don’t find self-help guides useful at all because I’m constantly wondering how you would implement what they say in real life. They may give instructions but don’t always take into account whether you work long hours, whether you have children or live on your own, illness, stress, those days when you just can’t be bothered. Autobiographies on the other hand don’t tell you how you can implement lessons you’ve learnt from someone else’s life practically in your own. Gretchen’s is the perfect mix, it’s an account of how she applies a theory she’s invented – The Happiness Project – into her own life.

Although Gretchen’s in a different life space to me – she has children and is married – it’s still very relatable. I like the fact that she’s showing you how to get more happiness out of your normal life. Sometimes the posts on my blog which have had the most hits are the big ones – the cutting my hair, the running 10k – but the ones which I’ve felt most benefit from have been the smaller ones like my staycation or even just taking a country walk. I’ve felt able to enjoy the moment and feel that calm, serene happiness which is sometimes even better than that shot of adrenaline. I’ve felt pressure to do bigger and better challenges, just as Gretchen talks about doing drastic things like changing career or moving country, but not actually wanted to. Reading her book makes me happy because it reminds me that with just a few small changes you can feel happier in the everyday.

Of course, she has a good start. Her job sounds like my dream job, she has a nice house, lives close to family, has a loving husband and beautiful children. But it’s not about that, it’s about making small changes to what you have to raise your spirits. I’ve taken plenty of ideas for future challenges from her book (hope you don’t mind Gretchen!) Also, I’ve realised how much I enjoy the theory of happiness which she talks about a lot, and it’s something I would like to look further into. After all, nearly all the greats have dealt with the subject.

It made me happy to realise that I’m not the only one who feels that there could me more without the need for major changes. It’s about the everyday and things becoming habits. If you want to find more happiness in your normal life, definitely give it a read!

Take Control

I have to admit something. I am a control freak. It’s probably been pretty obvious from my posts, I’m organised to the extreme and I write a thousand lists a day. I have to be in control and I can’t handle it any other way. So one of my happiness challenges had to tackle this. It definitely is a barrier to my happiness, not being in control makes me anxious and you can’t always predict everything that will happen. I have to learn that sometimes relaxing and letting the world pass you by is better. My idea to force this upon myself, let someone else take control for the whole day.

When I told my boyfriend that this Saturday I wanted him to make all the decisions for the day, he at first looked confused. “Really,” he said “All the decisions?” I’m pretty sure, despite my protestations, he didn’t believe me. He didn’t believe that even for one day I could let him take complete control. To make matters harder, this weekend we were in Brighton. Whenever we head to the boyfriend’s home town, I get overexcited and plan to do everything. He has to curb my enthusiasm, tell me we can’t visit the Lanes, the beach, the Sussex Downs, the gym, the big shopping centre and make time for chilling with his family as well, all in one day. I was certain a day planned by him would involve far less activity and I wondered if I would be okay with that.

As expected, on Saturday morning we woke up and I reminded the boyfriend that the day was entirely in his hands. Predictably he smiled, looked at my eager face, rolled over and went back to sleep. This was my cue, a day planned by him would certainly not involve early starts. When he eventually decided it was time to get up, I casually mentioned (not in a controlling way AT ALL!) that he should think about our plans for the day whilst he was in the shower and present me with a plan when he comes out. He rolled his eyes and looked at me; surely if I’m in control and I don’t want a plan then that’s okay? He had a good point.

With some reluctance I rolled over and went back to sleep, I knew that we probably wouldn’t be doing anything til at least 12pm so I may as well embrace the lie in. I spent the morning mooching, just as the boyfriend wanted. I have to say, I felt almost instant positives. Because I had no plans and no ideas when the plans would begin, I could do nothing but relax. I wasn’t always anticipating as usual. Then, out of the blue, at around half 12 the boyfriend said we were going into town. At first this made me panic a little, I needed to get my bag ready, sort my hair, I was about to paint my nails. Then I realised it was his choice so I’d have to go with it. I went into town unprepared, so unlike me.

When we got there, I assumed he had a plan. I’ve known him five years so I should really have known better. When I casually prompted, what are we going to do? Just potter, he said. So I embraced it and tried really hard to just enjoy my surroundings. I was quickly learning that the world wasn’t going to fall apart if we had no plan. I looked longingly at a few shops and he always took the hint, allowing me at least a few moments of shopping. Then he pulled me into his favourite little coffee shop and we sat in the corner with coffee and browsed for the holiday we’re planning to book. I rarely take the time to just sit and watch the world go by, although it is one of my favourite activities. I constantly believe I have something to do, something to achieve but you can achieve a lot just by doing nothing.

We browsed a few more shops, I confess I didn’t let him take control when he wanted a bagel for lunch and I was more taken by a toasted sandwich shop. I think that’s allowed though; being a fussy eater is another problem to tackle another day. It was a very moochy afternoon, perfect in the boyfriend’s world. Although it was not the trip into Brighton that I would plan, I had a really lovely and relaxing time. It’s not something I would do everyday but it’s certainly refreshing letting someone else take control, I felt a lot less pressure from myself.

After we returned home, I floated the idea of an evening beach visit to watch the sunset but he didn’t take so I left it. Instead, we spent the time watching TV and with his family which, on reflection, was exactly what we should be doing when we return on our rare trips to the city. If you’re a control freak like me, give this a go. Whether it’s your boyfriend, best friend, sibling or Mum, there’ll be someone who will leap at the idea of taking control for the day and I’m sure you’ll have the most relaxing day you’ve had in a while. In fact, learning some lessons from yesterday, I’ve spent today doing very little and I’ve had the most chilled weekend I’ve had for ages. Just what I needed, even though I didn’t realise it.

Last weekend was a very special weekend, I’d say the most special of the year so far. It had taken months of preparation, and quite literally blood, sweat and tears to put together, but it was so worth it in the end. I threw my lovely Mum and Dad a surprise 25th or silver wedding anniversary party.

When I was little, I always said: “When you have your silver wedding anniversary Mum, I’ll organise it all.” At the time I thought 23 was all big and grown up, I thought I’d probably be moved out, be well put together and able to organise just about anything. How quickly the time crept up on me. About three months ago, I realised that the 25th wedding anniversary year was actually this year and I really had to keep my promise.

Marquee - Garden view

I started by thinking about what my Mum and Dad would like, and I knew immediately it would be family time. They don’t like too much fuss and wouldn’t like a huge party. I also thought an afternoon do would be more their thing, so all the kids could join in. Neither are big drinkers so I settled on an afternoon tea theme, perfect for July in the garden I thought. Then, I thought again and remembered I live in the UK and the weather can just about never be relied upon, so I made my first purchase of a marquee. I secretly crept out with a tape measure one morning and found one that perfectly fit our lawn. Just to make it clear, our garden is quite small (for some reason it looks a lot bigger in the photos), the marquee was 6m by 3m so just enough for everyone to squeeze under if the inevitable downpour were to happen.

I approached planning this party with military precision, I made a spreadsheet of tasks to be actioned and very early on got my brothers on board. I began by sending out emails to all my family with the date – decide on a date before you do this, I learnt this the hard way with everyone weighing in on which date they felt would be best. To suit the afternoon tea theme, I settled on the Sunday before my Mum and Dad’s actual anniversary. Once I’d sorted the invites and the marquee, I then wrote a menu and list of food for the day. We decided just to go for finger food in order to alleviate the need for knives and forks. This saved so much hassle and also meant the food stayed quite simple, I think it was the best decision I made.

Food

Next up I bought all the decorations, this was my favourite part. I had a Pinterest board with all my ideas on (check it out here: https://uk.pinterest.com/100waystohappy/surprise-garden-party-ideas/) and knew I wanted to have lots of arty DIY bits. My little sister is a Pinterest fiend so I knew she’d help me. We decided on a few key things; lots of bunting, flowers in milk bottles and the pièce de résistance my washing line numbers. We thought these would all fit with the afternoon tea theme and also would work well both in the house and in the marquee.

Table flowers 2

Table flowers 3Table flowers

The washing line numbers became our absolute favourite thing we did for the party, but they were a nightmare. I’d seen on Pinterest the idea of highlight cards and also seen glittery silver pegs so we combined the both. I bought a load of cheap wooden pegs and some silver glitter and we glammed the pegs up for the silver wedding anniversary party. Then we came up with a fact relating to my parents for each number 1-25. There were things like; ‘5 Prime Ministers there have been since their wedding day’ and more personal ones such as ’17 the number of people that sit round the Christmas table’. We printed these out, backed them on black card and pegged them up to a string which draped the whole back wall of the marquee. It was a huge talking point for the whole party, and my Mum told me it was her absolute favourite part.

Number line full

Number line closeNumber line close 2

We also did a shopping spree for all the bits you forget you need; paper plates, heart shaped balloons (maybe not as necessary but every party needs balloons!), plastic pint glasses, serving trays, table cloths and paper bowls for pick n’ mix. I also thought about entertaining the children and so borrowed from my aunt some giant garden games – hoopla, giant dominoes, pick up sticks and giant jenga. These went down brilliantly on the day.

Outdoor games 2

Pick n' Mix

The weekend before is when it all started to get a bit panicky, before then I’d felt in control and on top of things. We had organised for Mum and Dad to spend the night in a very fancy London hotel and to see a West End show when they were there. They thought this was their only surprise and were over the moon. They rarely do things just the two of them and don’t often get to London so they were very happy about this. Once we finally got rid of them on Saturday morning, we got to work.

First and foremost, a giant shop in Lidl and Sainsburys. We were making all sorts, from four different fillings of sandwiches to crudités, smoked salmon and cream cheese, sausage rolls, mini cheese and onion rolls, of course scones (both the cheese and strawberry and cream variety). The list goes on. I was also making giant bourbons and custard creams and a cake so we had to get lots of ingredients. Helpfully I’d asked everyone who was coming to bring a cake or pudding as well and this made a real difference. Definitely reach out to people if you’re planning a surprise party, it’s so easy for them to bring just one thing and added all together will make a real difference to you. When we got home, my brother and boyfriend made the dream team putting up the marquee, and I got to work in the kitchen baking my biscuits and preparing the sandwiches. Then there was the giant tidy up and soon it was late evening. I couldn’t believe where the time had gone. I’d text my cousin earlier in the day about coming over to bake the cake (I was using her larger oven) and had suggested I would come at 4pm, I ended up arriving at 9pm and not leaving until 11.30pm – still without a decorated cake.

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The next morning is a bit of a blur in my head, decorations were being put up quickly, food being prepared and things laid out ready. Some of my favourite things were the flowers in the milk bottles which looked super cute all over the house; I paid around £10 for 12 mini milk bottles online and £5 for a large bunch of mixed flowers in Lidl so it was a really cheap way of making something look really special. I also loved the Pick n’ Mix table I had and I know that went down so well with the children; I just bought 8 packets of sweets and put them in paper bowls and then decorated another paper bowl with a ‘Pick n’ Mix – Help Yourself’ sign. Also my cake was a highlight, I used 2 and 5 moulds and made one half Victoria sponge and one chocolate cake, then covered them with butter icing and milk and white chocolate buttons. I loved my drinks table, lovingly designed by my little sister, with Pimms, beer and soft drinks and the paper cups laid out like a heart, the finishing touch was scattering little 25 silver sequins everywhere.

Heart cups 2

My worst fear was confirmed that afternoon, with half an hour to go the heavens opened. But luckily my marquee stood the test and as people arrived, the skies started to clear. i nearly got very upset about the rain but soon realised it made no difference at all. There is no feeling quite like it all coming together and realising that weeks of organisation have finally pulled off. Everyone was so impressed with the effort I went to and I can honestly say the little details were what made all the difference. No one cares if it’s raining and the food isn’t the best in the world, they care about the little things that show you’ve put your heart and soul into it.

And my Mum and Dad? Let’s just say there were a few tears, lots of smiles and a million and one treasured memories.

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I am currently reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and, getting to the chapter about friendships, I remembered a challenge I set myself way back in January which I’ve managed to stick to. Six months down the line, I decided I could officially call it completed and tell you all about it. In my February post about organisation http://100waystohappy.com/2015/02/01/challenge-9-get-organised/, I spoke about my Christmas present of a Filofax. To be honest, I’m still coming to terms with the Filofax way of life and tend to prefer my daily diary. However, I absolutely love that I can use it as an address book and this brings me on to this challenge. 

In January, I realised to strengthen my friendships this year it would be really important to do the small thing of sending everyone a birthday card. It doesn’t take much effort but it’s so personal to receive post in this day and age and shows you’ve gone to a bit of effort. In the days of Moon Pig and Funky Pigeon, and with my office being nextdoor to a Scribbler, I really had no excuse. At work we send all clients a birthday card and I noticed how much this little act meant and how it had strengthened relationships so I thought this was a great idea.

There was just one problem, I have a rubbish memory. I’ve tried sending birthday cards in the past and always remembered on the day of their birthday when it’s a little too late. So in January I got myself organised for the year and I wrote all the birthdays I wanted to remember in my Filofax. Once I’d done that, I asked all my friends/family for their addresses and added them into the address section. When you’re 20-something people move around all the time so I never had my friend’s addresses, felt too awkward to ask them just before or on the day of their birthday and, therefore, ended up not being able to buy cards. This was my plan to solve all my birthday card buying problems.

So far this year, I’ve only missed one birthday (unfortunately I forgot to put her in my Filofax – if you’re going to do this challenge, double check you remember everybody’s birthdays!) I can’t say that I haven’t ended up sending a couple of cards on the day of the birthdays, but with their addresses I can easily blame the unreliable English post! And it really takes no effort, in fact I enjoy choosing the perfect card for each person, and most of all I love the texts I get thanking me for the card. 

With some of my friends, as Gretchen found, sadly that is my only communication with them all year. But I feel happy that at least it’s some communication. It usually ends with them texting me to say thank you and then us either texting to update each other on what we’re up to or organising a phone call. It’s well worth the little bit of effort it takes. 

Sunflower 1

This post has probably taken the most preparation of any post I’ve written on this blog so far. Way back in March I decided that a great challenge would be to grow my own plant, I didn’t realise then what a process I was embarking on. Of all the things I’ve done in the 50 challenges I’ve undertaken so far (50? I know, where is the year going?!), from running 10k to controlling my finances to cutting all my hair off, I would never have imagined growing a plant to top it all in difficulty. But boy, was this a challenge. And the thing that surprised me the most was how emotionally involved I got in the whole thing, I don’t have a child or a dog but I now have Sunny, my pet sunflower. Let me tell you his life story.

It wasn’t an easy journey but Sunny has battled through thick and thin. He began life as a tiny little seedling in a pack of hundreds. He and his brothers and sisters (I shouldn’t really call them this because *spoiler alert* they’re all dead) were poured in to the bucket they came in with lots of lovely fresh soil. They began their life there, all huddled together and under my watchful eye on a sunny shelf in my house.

Sunflower 2

The days and weeks passed by and I lovingly fed my little seedlings with water everyday, I also did a little sun dance to make sure they got plenty of light goodness on their shelf. Soon they popped up as little sprouts to say hello and I had to strain not to allow a little tear to escape my eye, my babies were growing. They moved quickly, producing little leaves and growing upwards as they hustled for space and light. They all became a little competitive, a little quickly; who knew that sunflowers suffered such serious sibling rivalry. I had to keep my eye on their relationships, but soon we couldn’t go on. It was time to let them fly the nest and succeed in life on their own. And that’s where it all went wrong.

Sunflower 3

Whilst my babies were safe and under my watchful eye, they had security. Never underestimate how difficult life in the wild is. At least I can be proud in the knowledge I gave them the best chance in life. On the advice of my Grandad, who is a wise and experienced gardener, I moved them in their bucket into the shed. It was April and still pretty cold and wet, he said moving them half outside would harden them up to the different conditions. This is when we lost the first swathe. It was an unpredictable, and at times cold, April and some of the little chicks didn’t make it in the shed. Their leaves withered and they faded. Who am I to stand in the way of natural selection, it’s survival of the fittest out there and sometimes you just have to accept that.

Next up, was the move to the ground. Moving house is never easy, especially when you move out of the family house and set up your first base on your own. There was another cull then, only the strongest could have spots in the soil and many had withered by this point anyway. I admit, I selected only the biggest and the best.

Sunflower 4

I tried my hardest to move the roots from the bucket to the soil, but this was by far the hardest test. You need a steady hand and a lot of patience, I expect I failed my babies here. Many made it but few survived the next few nights. Though I had cleared all the weeds, dug the biggest holes and filled them with the most nutritious of soil, it was not enough for some. Death by broken roots, death by snapped stalks and death by insect, we suffered it all. I was down to four, and Sunny had already emerged as by far the strongest.

Sunflower 6

I strapped my remaining babies up to sticks with strings to help them grow strong and large. The next period of growth took a lot longer, every day I watered my teenagers waiting for them to flower into beautiful adults. Slowly they wilted away, one by one until I honestly thought I’d failed in my challenge. It got to the point that my Mum bought me a fully grown sunflower so I could mourn my losses. It wasn’t the same, I hadn’t grown him from seedling, he was a traitor.

And then a miracle happened, Sunny who I had given up for dead, grew strength. His insect attacked leaves repaired themselves, he grew taller and he ACTUALLY FLOWERED. When I spotted the bright yellow, freshly spouted petals I almost cried tears for the second time in the sunflower growing process, but this time tears of joy. He was beautiful. I was so proud. I did it, after months of blood, sweat and tears we had made it. I had grown a plant and Sunny was born.

Sunflower final