Saturday, April 27, 2013


On a recent day off, I pottered around. I finished a novel, made soup for lunch, wrote for an hour, weeded the veggie patch with my sister, baked a cake with a daughter, blitzed some chickpeas into hommos for a school stall, and cooked dinner for friends. Late in the afternoon, surrounded by dirty dishes, I was suddenly suffused by warmth, and the words 'I love myself' filled me up like honey. Very surprised, and deeply happy, I ran the hot water, squeezed in the suds, and did the washing-up.

The moment came about not because I sought happiness or self-acceptance, but because I spent the whole day doing things I love for people I love: chopping and cooking, reading and writing, chatting and laughing, and anticipating dinner with friends. I felt competent, relaxed, and cheerful at the thought of the things I was making and those they would serve.

I tell you this because, a month or so ago, I was invited to be a blogging advertiser sorry pioneer for a new website. The website is devoted to making people happy. How ridiculous, I thought at the time; as if life is really about being happy, and as if one should seek happiness out. But I had a look, and my curiosity was piqued.

The site is a subscription service which guides the user through various mindfulness activities. As one works through the exercises, further activities are 'unlocked'. Activities include guided reflections, quizzes, and simple games. I signed up; and I'm writing about the experience because the sort of people who might use this site might overlap with the sort of people who read this blog.

I must admit here that I lasted only three weeks on the site. By that time, I was so infuriated that I chucked it in; but perhaps there are benefits that only a more extended trial would reveal. With that proviso, I will say that I think the site is deeply flawed, and in a number of ways.

First, the site encourages all users to do the activities publicly. When you sign up, you are given a profile drawn from your facebook account (and there are problems inherent in that, of course). Then your responses to and comments about the activities are public, listed facebook style under your facebook badge. So, for example, an exercise might ask you to commit to doing something for somebody else that day; do it; and then write about your experience. Other site users can read what you have committed to, and make comments. They can follow your progress, and if they like what they see they can follow you; thus it is possible to build up a fan base. (I gather there is a private option, but as a blogger pioneer I was pushed into the public stream.)

The problem is that I believe one of the things that make so many people deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with life is that they are constantly comparing themselves to others. The idea that people could comment on my responses, and follow me if they like what they read, made me nervous. I began to think about how to appear cute or intelligent or wise, and then loathe myself for that crawling obsequious bit of me that worries about what other people – strangers! – think.

I found myself self-censoring. As mentioned, one activity was to commit to doing a favour for someone. The thought crossed my mind that I have been pretty grumpy with my husband lately, and perhaps I should grant him a sexual favour. But I was hardly going to write that for all to see, so I put down something else – and then did that other thing, which was to cook dinner for a friend. My husband totally missed out (although he did share in the dinner!). Another activity asked me to list what I was grateful for. At that point, I was delighted that all my effing kids were out of the effing house; but I wasn't going to admit that. Instead, I wrote something completely anodyne: that I was grateful for my kids – which is also true, but not the truth of that moment, and hardly the type of revelation that bubbles out of good honest reflection.

Of course, the act of self-censoring, which was triggered by the public nature of the site, undermined the usefulness of the exercises. Readers of this blog will know that I can be blisteringly honest at times, but on that website I started trying to look like everyone else.

I also began fretting about readership. One of the ways that the site managers encourage bloggers to participate is the promise that early users will get lots of new readers. Now, my blog readership has always been relatively been small, and I'm fine with that. I'm not interested in reading hundreds of other blogs and regularly making soulful or witty comments in order to try and entice readers back to my blog. I pretty much fail Blogging 101 because I don't find social media sites very interesting, and fail to leverage them to create publicity for my blogs. I have never invested in a decent camera or learned how to take great photographs, and I don't really plan to. The blog is what it is, that is, independent, word-based, with the occasional happy snap at the request of some dear friends; and the cost is fewer readers, like it or not.

But here, I began to be tempted by the idea of more readers. I began making thoughtful comments on other people's activities and checking out their blogs; but really, I didn't care about them. I just wanted that elusive sign of 'success': a bigger readership. And then I felt ashamed of myself. In my experience, shame is not something that leads to great happiness; and it was when I recognised the shame that I signed off the site.

The thing is, I can't manufacture genuine relationships with constructed and highly edited identities on the internet. Sure, I have a couple of e-friends that I've never met, but the people who really matter are those who know me well, who like me when I'm striding out in confidence and sit by me when I'm crumpled in a corner of the pub, overwhelmed by my doubts and fears and that ill-advised third glass of wine. What also matters is that those same people trust me enough to tell me what's really going on in their lives and don't feel the need to edit, to make themselves seem more funny or intelligent or kind than they really are.

So I'm not interested in commenting on the reflective activities of people I have never, and will never, meet; nor am I interested in what they think. It's impertinent. We know nothing about each other's background, upbringing, values, or daily struggles; we have no idea if the other is being genuine and have no way to call them to account if their online presence has no continuity with their daily life. It is unreal and dissatisfying and makes me uncomfortable; I really only trust flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all, relationships.

The website sets a minimum quota of activities for the week. In good faith, I will suggest it is to inculcate the habit of daily reflection (I could be more cynical); practically, it means visiting the site at least three or four times a week. I found myself worrying about when to do another activity to get the week's quota, and it became another Should in my life, which is the last thing a mother needs. Worse, each time I turned on the computer to do those 'couple of minutes', I turned away from real people and real activities. It wasn't that the site itself takes much time, but once the computer was on, I would quickly move from the site to somebody's blog, and thence to… the massive time suck that is the internet. Best to stay away from the computer, and to use those five minutes for a quick cuddle or folding the laundry, a job I've always enjoyed.

My final point will sound like a quibble, but I think it's more than a stylistic difference: when you do an activity on the site, you get a little message like 'way to go!' or 'well done!'; you gain points for doing activities; and if you earn a certain number of activities in a week, you get a higher status. And this is ridiculous. I am nearly 40; I am highly self-motivated; I hardly need an electronic message of encouragement. I found these 'rewarding' aspects of the site infantilizing. Whereas some of the activities themselves could have been helpful, even maturing, exercises, when I was rewarded for doing them I felt like I was back at primary school. The very process of engaging in a reflective exercise holds its own reward; but the encouragements and gold stars built into the system undermined the potential benefits of doing the activities.

After all that, I must mention the plus side, which is that there is nothing wrong with mindfulness exercises in and of themselves. Anything which encourages people to stop and reflect has some merit; and so this particular website could be useful for someone who has no habit of reflective practice, needs some basic skills, and doesn't know where to look. If you feel in that category, a quick google should reveal the site and you might like to check it out (or check out the links below: simple reflective practice is really very easy). If you do use the site, I would urge you to use it only in private mode. No comparing yourself; no looking at other people's exercises; no commenting on other people's progress. You cannot do the reflections properly unless you feel safe, and that means keeping them to yourself; and you do not want to flirt with the demon of envy, which is fed when you compare what you do with the work of others.

If you feel the need for encouragement, sign up with a flesh-and-blood friend or neighbour, then catch up once a week over a coffee and have a chat about how you're both going. Real people, real relationships, real reflections that are difficult and surprising and make you angry and cause you to weep: these are what will make you feel connected and help you to grow up. This hard work can go on for months and years with no bright and shiny rewards in sight; but from time to time, in my experience, you might just stumble across happiness.


Reflective practice is very simple. Notice what you're doing or thinking, and sit with it. Practice saying thank you – to the universe, to friends, to God if you so believe. Listen to yourself and to others. Pay attention to the surprising thoughts and images that bubble up from your core, and ponder them. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Tears are healing. There is no need to judge.

Many posts on this blog grew out of reflective practice; the following pieces are among the clearer examples. They do not form a manual. Instead, I hope they give you some hints or pointers as to how you might develop a practice of your own. I write from a Christian perspective and the pieces reflect that, but the methods – sitting, listening, feeling grateful and so on – are open to everyone.

Practicing Gratitude

On silence

Why not love

The voices in my head

Worship, work and play

Praying into the night

Folding Cloth

Peeling Chestnuts


  1. Don't think I would have lasted three minutes! I am reminded of a title I saw once " When rewards punish learning"! Jean

    1. Well, I was curious, which meant I suspended my impatience for a while! I am also reminded of when a child does something very slightly difficult and is highly praised, when a quiet affirmation would do - nothing puts them off quite so much as gushing praise which they know they have not earned.


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