I was broadcast this morning on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought speaking on the subject of happiness. If you are in the UK you can listen to it at approximately 45 minutes into the recording.
I’ve just recently upgraded my mobile phone. The shiny chunk of metal with its gleaming screen arrived home a few weeks ago, and when I held the object of desire in my hands, it felt like something I had been missing had finally arrived. I felt happy.
After my brief tingle of excitement, I asked myself – more soberly – if it was really the object that had made me so excited and whether money had just bought me happiness.
According to scientific research it turns out that money can indeed buy happiness. Money that gets you out of crushing poverty, and all the basic misery associated with it, undoubtedly improves happiness. After that, it’s relative. If I have more than my peers, I feel happy. But after a certain point, more money doesn’t make us more happy.
The research identifies the different ways we spend money that really give us different amounts of happiness. Buying things makes us happy, just like me and my phone. After that we spend our money on experiences. And finally on other people.
And it’s this final act that increases our happiness the most. As the saying goes “there is more pleasure in giving than receiving”. And now we have science to say the same thing.
And yet despite knowing this we continue to aspire to gain more money and more things which don’t necessarily improve our happiness. Most of us spend so little time doing good things, things that make us truly happy.
Unfortunately, those things that make us happy aren’t very fashionable. Expressing our gratitude for what we have improves our state of mind, but isn’t always very cool. It seems harder than ever to be randomly kind to a stranger without having your motives suspected. And sometimes it’s just pure lethargy: it’s easier to be unhappy and moan about it, than to go out there, do some good and be happy.
According to the Prophet Muhammad, one very vital form of giving to others is smiling. It’s easy and contagious and will brighten up someone’s day. And if you’re still doubtful, according to science, smiling makes us feel better too. So to start all of our days in a positive way – this smile is just for you.continue reading
This was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s Vanessa Feltz show on 25 July.
As the Olympics begins in London this week, I’m finally feeling excited. What I’m most looking forward to is watching both visitors and athletes from around the world interacting with each other, whether that be just milling in the open air, or engaging in sporting challenge.
The Olympics is one of those exceptional occasions where the differences between nationalities and ethnicities manage a rare balance between being overlooked in favour of common human endeavour, while at the same time as being noted and even openly discussed. Usual ethnic and national stereotypes are generally put to one side, and there’s an attempt to judge people on their merits.
We are able to do this because the baseline for participation is shared humanity, and the aspiration to push the limits is also shared. The differences are a positive: highlighting the many ways that human beings can approach the same challenges to achieve results.
The ritual of the hajj has similar underlying themes. For Muslims the pilgrimage is the opportunity to gather in Mecca to complete one of the obligations of Islam. The pilgrims who number more than 2 million people come together from different cultures, ethnicities and geographies with the common goal of performing specific religious rites at the Kaba and surrounding areas. The shared purpose is even more emphasised as indicators of class, wealth and provenance are eradicated by all pilgrims wearing the same white clothes.
In both situations, people are put into close proximity with each other, forced to look past difference towards their common goals. This combination of closeness and shared purpose eliminates our fear of difference and the prejudice that all too often results from it.
The Qur’an talks very pointedly about differences between people and the purpose of this difference. “We created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes” it explains, and then says why: “so that you may know each other”
Difference is a good thing, a helpful thing. There’s a purpose and a pleasure to difference.continue reading
I was broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought Segment on the Vanessa Feltz show. Here’s the text of the broadcast
It’s the beginning of Ramadan this week, the Islamic month of fasting, where Muslims refrain from bodily intake from dawn to dusk. I’ve hung my timetable on the wall which indicates for each day of the month, the exact minute when morning breaks and when night falls, the minutes which mark the boundaries of the fast.
In these longer days of the British summer when the day starts as early as 230, and night does not set till well after 9pm, fasting is no mean feat.
The rigid discipline feels unmanageable – it’s just not normal to refuse all food and water for nearly twenty hours. It’s the morning coffee I miss most, that, and the pleasure of tasting flavours and food.
But you get used to it surprisingly quickly, usually within a few days, and the discipline yields some surprising results. Your body stops dominating how you structure your day because huge swathes of time are freed up from preparing and consuming breakfast and lunch. Instead of thinking about your body all the time, you can think about you.
The discipline extends to cutting out gossip and what you come to realise is pointless chatter – admittedly guilty pleasures. Again it’s surprising how much time this frees up for self-reflection and resolutions, and actually getting round to do the things you always meant to do. It’s like new year, but you have a whole month ahead of you with a vast community of nearly two billion people all pulling in the same direction during which to embed your resolutions.
Almost exactly as Muslims are participating in Ramadan, and all the physical, mental and spiritual focus that requires, the Olympics will be taking place in London. For these athletes, discipline is a way of life, a means towards achieving their dreams. The structure, rigour and absolute commitment towards their goals will reach a culmination during these three weeks.
Discipline, rules and structure are unfashionable these days, seen as being repressive. But our celebration of events like the Olympics should make us stop and think about the fact that discipline is quite the opposite of constraint: instead discipline releases our potential. Of course upholding discipline in our lives is tough, but if we want to see the potential it can liberate, all we need to do is to watch the incredible achievements of the Olympians over the coming weeks.continue reading
This morning I was on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought segment, reflecting on the subject of holiness. Here is the text of the recording.
Last year we were all mesmerised by reports from the Large Hadron Collider that scientists were on the verge of finding the Higgs Boson particle.
Even more exciting than the science was the intense thirst on display during the search, the thirst for bigger meaning, and an understanding of how the universe works. The intensity of the quest for meaning made it, for me, a holy search.
That the Higgs Boson is called The God particle I don’t find heretical: instead I see it as an expression of the human yearning to understand what is around us and our place in it. The search connects the biggest questions of all: how did our universe come into being? How do we exist? To the very tiniest of creations: the most elusive of particles, the Higgs Boson.
God, after all, is the name we give to the Divine, the source, the Creator, the Ultimate, the Beginning and the End.
That’s why the small pervasive nature of the Higgs Boson excites me: because holiness is something that is everywhere, and we are constantly connected to.
We think of holiness as outside of our daily experience, as something grand or unreachable. I can understand that. That’s what we are brought up to believe, that holiness is located in ornate religious buildings, restricted to special locations, or only found in people who have dedicated their lives to faith, religion or charity.
Such holy places and people do take us outside of ourselves. We need that, because it is so easy to get engrossed in the daily grind of work, chores, bills and obligations. We long to break the cycle, wishing our days away until we can go away, or rest on bank holidays. We then take advantage of the forced pause to rest, recuperate and occasionally to reflect.
But if we can enforce that pause ourselves during the mundane happenings of our lives, then the stress and even the tedium can become holy, a moment to be treasured. A beautiful flower, a warming cup of coffee, the smile from an innocent child, they are all gifts for us to enjoy. When one of those moments happens to you today, cherish it, because something small but amazing, something holy, has just happened to you.continue reading
This is the text for my Pause For Thought that was aired this morning on BBC Radio 2 on the subject of ‘Second Chances.’
You can listen to the audio if you are in the UK for the next 7 days.
Last week the British Museum opened an exhibition about the hajj the Islamic pilgrimage. It‘s believed to be the first ever of its kind, showcasing historic artefacts collected from around the Muslim world which depict how integral this journey is to the global Muslim population.
Mecca of course has religious significance for Muslims as the place towards which Muslims pray. It is the destination for the journey of a lifetime. But more than this: taking part in the hajj gives pilgrims the chance for a fresh start, to wipe away the sins, the regret, the remorse and the hurt we so often carry with us for years.
Although it’s the iconic black cube called the Kaba which springs to mind when speaking of the hajj, it is in fact the desert known as Arafat which marks the turning point for pilgrims. Here under the fierce afternoon sun in the barren sands the pilgrims will gather to pray for purification and forgiveness. This is where redemption is granted.
As afternoon gives way to dusk, they move forward to the next stage of the hajj, ready to begin their second chance. All the troubles and peccadilloes are wiped clean. There’s a palpable lightness of step in the feet of the pilgrims, an excitement at beginning life anew. Even the white clothing that all pilgrims wear is a public display of starting again.
When the pilgrims return home, they’re greeted by the whole community who present them with garlands of fresh flowers. In Muslim countries even ministers will go to the airport to greet the returning hajjis. This is because the entire community recognises that these people have been given the opportunity for a second chance. This becomes a public celebration, to rejoice in the chance to start afresh.
We don’t need to wait for an epic once in a lifetime event to give ourselves a second chance. We too can spend time thinking about how we will move forward, unshackling ourselves from our previous burdens, and releasing our regrets.
We must look forward just as the pilgrims do in the hajj, rather than looking back. Like the pilgrims, realising we are not alone in this quest gives us strength.
Most importantly, just as the pilgrims embrace the opportunity for a second chance, we too can be kind to ourselves and offer ourselves the chance for redemption.continue reading