The Way Home to Happiness

No one is happy all the time. Even the most optimistic and glass-half-full person does not leap from bed every morning singing a merry tune. Life is not a breakfast cereal advert – we do not need this article to tell us that.

Given this though, there is disturbing evidence for many people –and many of them young – that feeling unhappy all or most of the time is a daily reality. Examining the studies that produce this data, reasons for this are not straightforward to untangle. For example, survey questions eliciting this response are often weighted in such a way that not being able to tick the “happy” box auto-ticks the “unhappy” box, when in fact a more nuanced experience is the case.

More detailed studies have focused on the impact of social media usage, loneliness, financial/housing insecurity, addiction and mental health factors on perceived happiness. Again exploring anything as subjective as a person’s sense of well-being with a set of uniform questions is hard to fully interpret. Where there are two people with superficially identical challenges – and both of whom respond honestly – one will report as being “happy most of the time” and another as “unhappy most of the time.” Having said all of this, there is a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, discontent and unhappiness in our national discourse, as well as in wide-spread personal testimonies. (NB The focus in what follows is on this self-reported generalized unhappiness, not on those who are suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorders.)

The reasons for this generalized unhappiness are also hard to untangle. Do we expect more from life than previous generations? Is it too easy now to compare ourselves with others and feel we are missing out? Is the focus on personal fulfilment above collective responsibility causing more of us to feel discontented? Do we live in genuinely more unhappy times? No answers to this here, but another question: Do we lose our way to happiness when we lose our way home? By this I mean have we lost our recourse to the people and places which offer us the potential for happiness, content and well-being for the times when we are not feeling those things ourselves?

The people and places are the homes, families and communities which nurtured us from birth and continue to offer care and respite throughout our lives – or can do. Two points about this to consider. The first is about literal recourse to home, that is being able to go back to a physical place and nurturing network of relationships for renewal and support.

Increasingly this is not an option as the demands and opportunities of work and study as well as other drivers mean that people move away from their birth communities. The loss of continuity of place can be an aspect of social isolation but there are many good reasons why actually “going home” is not viable or the real issue.

The second point, then, is more significant: the way in which early experiences of home build resilience and capacity for happiness that can be drawn upon throughout our lives. It is this sense of finding our way home that can offer us the resources to deal with the difficulties of life, including feelings of disassociation, disappointment and unhappiness.

Growing up in a stable and reliable home environment allows children to watch and learn how difficulties can be resolved and how those who are troubled can be supported. Not seeing life as a cereal advert, but being able to cope better with difficult days in the future based on good experiences of coping in the past.

As you will know from recent posts, HRF supported by STI has just published Happiness and Domestic Life, which lends academic weight to this argument.  If we have a place to go back to–physically or emotionally – where our well-being has been valued, we also have a way to find that place in ourselves. A Way Home to Happiness.

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No home

“After breakfast, after Stefanie and the children have kissed me goodbye and run off to the museum, I sit quietly and look around the suite. It’s like all the hotel suites I’ve ever stayed in, but this one is even more so. Clean, elegant, comfortable: this is the Four Seasons, so it’s beautiful, but it’s still just another version of what I call “No Home”.

I was reading this paragraph in tennis player Andre Agassi’s memoirs, ‘Open‘, and I was thinking of all those people who have no home to return to at the end of their working day. How many people, either for work reasons or for personal circumstances, do not live in a home, but in a hotel room, which is not always a suite. Some stay in small rooms on long business trips, roadside motels, hostels in the middle of nowhere… And I am sure there are even people who return to their house every day but have not managed to make it a home for whatever reason.
And you may ask, how important is this? Well, it is vital. Whatever their age, the role that home plays in their lives, in their mental health, in their development, in their care, and in their stability is essential.

The memoirs of this tennis player are, among other things, an ode to the family and the home as a fundamental pillar for the personal and professional life of the individual. Whether you like tennis or not, it is worth reading; it’s not just another sports biography. You might get a little lost in the story of some of the matches, but the effort, sacrifice, discipline and passion that this man is forced to work for, despite hating tennis when he was a child. How he has been marked by a demanding and severe father, more coach than father, shows a true example of self-discipline to achieve all that he has.

This is what leads him to want to have the kind of family he did not have and to care for and admire his wife and children as a daily motivation to keep going, without the pressure of winning or losing, because he knows that when he returns home they are there.

But “they” and the “home” he returns to have been built by him and Stefanie Graff together. They share a similar past, thanks to all the values that tennis has taught them since they were young. Let’s say that everything Andre Agassi suffered and lacked as a child and teenager, allowed him later to be able to value and care for the treasure of having a family where affection, calm, admiration and love reign.

“We are like blocks of stone… the blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect”. A quote from their (both) favourite film, Shadowlands, which is about the life of the writer C.S.  Lewis and sums up excellently what life is all about.

Thankfully, we are not robots!

We know ourselves to be social beings who need one another and are reminded of it each day in various little ways. The lockdowns during the pandemic made that fact abundantly clear to us and the whole of society. Our vulnerability and need to be cared for is addressed in an article by Professor Argandoña published recently in the Spanish weekly Alfa y Omega, following the launch of our latest Communication Project.

But in addition to needing each other, we each play a part in various spheres of our lives. But unlike robots, we do not have the capacity to separate some aspects from others but can juggle those differing roles with ease and naturalness. We don’t arrive home placing our professional avatar in airplane mode, or work in the office with our personal antenna switched off. Fortunately, although it may seem like a nuisance at times, our lives develop and overlap on personal, family, professional and social levels. We are the fruit of the combination of all of them.

There are stages in life when some gain more weight than others, but very rarely are there times when one aspect of our life is blocked out altogether. We are born into a family, we interact with our friends at school, we are part of a sports or social group and we work to earn a living.

Our well-being and our balanced lives, both personal and mental, depend on stability and harmony in all these areas. And since this balance is recognised as being so crucial to achieving our true potential, we have entered a research partnership with the International Centre for Work and Family (ICWF) at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, to investigate and analyse the interaction between these spheres of life.

Over the next four years, three researchers from the research centre, led by Prof. Mireia Las Heras, whose credentials you can read about here, will be carrying out extensive research into this field. We will be disseminating the results of this in-depth investigation, which will provide a greater recognition of the work involved in creating healthy and strong home environments and family lives. The objective is to identify individual and collective strengths within the family sphere both in attributes and processes and to discover how they enable human beings to flourish.

We are pleased to announce this joint project partnership which builds on many years of collaboration with IESE Business School.

This is Us

We are in the middle of summer and enjoying disconnecting a little after months of coping with the threat of COVID-19 and the intensity of feelings surrounding the virus.

No doubt, during quarantine, you have been watching family sit-coms or films suitable for everyone, but finding it harder each day to source new dramas to watch together as a family.

One particular series I can highly recommend, but which may be difficult for children to understand, is one that focuses on the lives of members of the Pearson family.

I do not know of anyone who hasn’t enjoyed This is Us. It is not easy to talk about this gripping drama without giving too much away. Everything revolves around a strong and solid marriage with three children, and how they deal with the day-to-day issues that threaten to destabilize both the couple and the family.

Of course, they make mistakes along the way – coping with misfortune, addiction, illness, loss or unresolved problems from childhood or adolescence – but it’s the portrayal of the contrasting emotions of life, of love, that make it such compelling viewing.

If you’ve seen it, we would love to hear your comments. Who is your favourite character? It is impossible not to be moved by the charm of Jack, the dedication of Rebecca, the sweetness of Kate, the intelligence of Randall, the kindness of Kevin… Although if there is someone who has brought tears to my eyes it is Dr. Nathan Katowski with his words:

You took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.”

Any other suggestions of suitable series or films to watch as a family are welcome.
This summer, we may venture out less and need to be more cautious, but we will enjoy ourselves nonetheless!

Calling All Families: Covid Family Study

There is no question that though health workers have been in the frontline of dealing with Covid-19, all of us have been seeing action on the “Home Front” during the pandemic. Especially families, where parents have been managing the care and education of children while juggling the new demands of working from home and concerns for older relatives. The impact on our families and on the physical and mental health of parents has been the source of much anecdotal comment and speculation.

Dr Anis Ben Brik, distinguished and acknowledged expert in Social Policy and Sustainable Development, LSE alumnus, now Associate Professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University College of Public Policy Qatar, has set up the Covid Family Study  to provide some real evidence of this experience and opportunities to learn from it. The Impact of the Pandemic on Family Life Across Cultures is an ambitious and timely study.  Twenty-one researchers from 40 countries across five continents will be looking at the survey data generated by the project. Fourteen partners are also contributing to this work. We are delighted that Home Renaissance Foundation is one of them, joining with international organisations sharing our vision and priority for the life and work of the home.

The aims of the study are wide-reaching and of great potential value to all families and agencies concerned with their thriving: to track the pattern of the symptoms, causes and risk factors of mental health in parents; to understand the experiences, coping skills and mechanisms of parents under pandemic conditions; to identify parents’ needs, and to use this evidence to inform the design of policy and support for families in the future.

Such aims reveal a strong understanding and recognition of the foundational role of parents in providing secure, stable and healthy home environments for their children. At HRF we whole-heartedly endorse this understanding and approach. During the pandemic, we have returned to our homes for safety and support. There have been positive aspects to this; many children have benefited from more time with their parents and regular daily patterns of meal and bedtimes, but it has also been costly for families in terms of health, living conditions and resources.

The Covid Family Study survey invites parents to share their experiences to help provide support in the future. The questions are straightforward and the guide time to complete the survey is 30 minutes. By receiving information across all national, cultural and economic contexts, both global and local insights will be generated. The investigating team will be able to use these responses to direct, design and deliver the best support services for every family.

If you are a parent of a child or children under 18, please take some time now to contribute to the survey to be a part of this vital work. For, if the pandemic has led to an international conversation on what we want to happen next in our world, it could not start in a better place than at home.

Less is more, or not!

The more children you have, the less quality of life? Think again!
I have a friend who is something else. I don’t usually brag about friendships but I can’t help giving this dear friend a special mention.  Regardless of the particular country where I happen to be working or visiting, the circle of friends in which I find myself – be it a family reunion or a discussion about children and family life – my friend immediately springs to mind. Some people call her and her husband crazy but I haven’t noticed a constant stream of what might be classed ‘sensible’ people in my travels.

Each time she says she has a big announcement to make, you know in your heart it must be the news she has been sharing with us for a number of years – that they are expecting another baby. They now have 9 children – and as you come to get to know each child, your whole perception of what it means to be part of a large family changes.

The first comment people usually make when I talk about the family is “Of course they will surely be from some radical religious group?” And I am amused because my answer is, “I don’t know or care, but what I do know is that they belong to a group of people who possess a quality we should all imitate -generosity.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that their like-minded group of friends have equally large families but, economics aside,  they are all generous and give of themselves completely. I might not pass that test of sheer selflessness.

When you walk through their front door it immediately feels like a home. The first thing that hits you is the buzz and vibrancy of children offering to help. The disorder expected is non existent as everyone has a designated role to play, something they’ve been taught from a young age. Their five-year-old was setting the table, taking dishes from the cupboard at his height level and carefully arranging the knives and forks on the table. I could have offered to do it for him but I thought better of it.

There’s no need to speak about equality in this house because clearly, their home belongs to everyone. Their sons and daughters divide the chores equally and both parents manage to work outside the home, neither having to give up their chosen profession.

People often ask me if they have lots of nannies and are rich to afford so many children. The answer is negative to both those questions. But sometimes I don’t even bother to answer as it’s clear that, even after explaining everything, they still don’t understand that a team of 11 is much stronger than a team of just 3 – for prejudices of this nature are hard-wired into the human brain.

 

Fine Dining? Living At-home Culinary Culture

 

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How much does it cost to go to a really swanky restaurant? Fifty pounds a head? A hundred? You can certainly see why the authors of a new study, suggest that people now plan and save for a lovely dinner prepared under the aegis of a top chef.
 
The author, a Cambridge university academic, speculates that so seriously do diners take their forays into the world of fine dining, that they are prepared to set cash aside for it, in much the same way they would for a holiday.
 
Wow. Is a good dinner really worth taking that seriously? Are there really people out there who think some appetising nosebag is up there with a week at the beach? Maybe there are, and each to their own etc.
 
But the guiding spirit of thrift moves me to ask – is it worth it? The author says her respondents – 40 celebrated chefs – liken the occasion of going to a top restaurant to a trip to the theatre; a cultural, rather than a strictly gastronomical, experience.
 
Which rather sets the cant-detector off. Because the whole drift of the food industry – the cult of the celebrity TV chef, the library of cooking books, the magazines, the faux intellectualism – is predicated on a love of food; principally – its taste.
 
Yet a ‘cultural experience’ is more than how the taste buds are responding. It’s about what we see, who sees us, what status we derive from being observed in a fashionable milieu. All well and good. But nothing to do with the grub. If the food is good, it tastes good whether it’s at home or in SW1.
 
But it does behove one question for those of us trying to think hard about the role of the home. To what extent should we seek to mimic that ‘cultural experience’ at home – for a fraction of the cost?
 
Does shrewd home-making rely on a monthly menu which picks out red letter days? If money is tight, does lighting a couple of candles at the dining table really recreate an evening with Raymond Blanc? Obviously not. Part of eating out is the adventure of ‘going out’. However, there is still something to be said for apeing the conventions of fine dining – at home.
 
This is not to suggest hiring a maitre d’ to work the front of (your) house. But a bit of spit and polish, breaking out the candle-sticks, foldling a couple of napkins, some music; all can help a dinner stand out. And there might still be money left for a summer break.

Spring Clean Traditions

-By Joanna Roughton

I love this time of year. And, if it could speak, I think my home would say the same thing. Because, after the dark months of mud, wind and rain, our house is opening up again – as assuredly as the daffodils.

daffodils
It has been a long winter. Our home has not flooded, as so many in the West Country have. The worst injury it sustained was the surgical removal of a couple of roof tiles by a particularly nasty south-westerly. But the volume of water has made keeping a tidy house difficult, if not impossible. Dogs and children prove to be excellent vessels for the transference of water from without to within!

Historically, this was the time for the Spring Clean. Often it would take place over a weekend and, crucially, involved an entire family; not just Mum. These were the days before vacuum cleaners and central heating. Then a home, after months of short days and cold nights, would be coated in a thick film of dust, produced by open fires and candles.

Windows and doors would be thrown open, curtains or drapes taken down and washed, soot and grime helped out of the house by a March zephyr.

There was a linkage made with some spiritual housekeeping too. Indeed, within the Orthodox church calendar there is still to be found ‘Clean Monday’, a day at the start of Lent which seems to make a link between a spotless conscience and a spruced-up home.

171379170But in recent years the Spring Clean seems to have fallen from fashion, supplanted by ugly, timeless phrases like ‘deep clean’; an emergency service offered to failing hospitals that have succumbed to infectious spread, or restaurant kitchens condemned by health and safety officials. A friend, who commercially lets a second property, recently parted with a lot of cash to a domestic agency for a ‘deep clean’ after her tenants did a moonlight flit, leaving an awful mess behind.

In short, it has become transactional, not social. The idea that the act of coming together, over a weekend or the whole of a day – as a family – to do nothing more dramatic than clean house, would strike many people now as a burdensome waste of time.

This strikes me as a shame. We all live in a house, so we all ought to have a stake in its wellbeing. And sometimes an orderly home requires a root and branch shake-up. With quotidian family commitments, it is not often we get the chance to get behind the fridge with a mop, or think collectively about whether it’s time to replace those frayed curtains.

More than that, there is something to be said for a Spring Clean as one of those chronological punctuation marks that we need to help us recognise the passage of time. Because magazines, newspapers and TV programmes constantly talk-up the virtues of ‘de-cluttering’. As such, it has become an ever-present, year-round pre-occupation.

Apart from anything else, this induces a sense of guilt. “I really must  go through that garage today and head to the dump.” Well, yes, you probably should. But isn’t it easier on the heart if we know that there is a day or two in March when the house will be blitzed – for no better reason than tradition?

Mothering in the Work-Life Balancing Act

-By Joanna Roughton

The Home Renaissance Foundation is now a think-tank. This is an ongoing process. It is also wonderful. Because studying the home – putting factual flesh on the bones of intuition – is how to win the argument in an increasingly crowded public space for ideas.

No better example of what I mean came last week. The Department for Education – not always a friend of the family – published a big study it had commissioned. The research examined the attitudes of working mothers.

Few areas of home life excite so much controversy and strength of feeling. So this is an area of debate where data, hard facts and the empirical experience of real people carry particular force.

And what were the findings of this study? Here is how the Daily Telegraph reported them: “Middle class women are deserting the workplace in droves to look after their children, an official study shows.”

Golly. That is some claim. Surely the irresistible drift of policy in recent years has been to propel women into the workplace – and away from the home – with inexorable energy. Tax and benefits steer mothers back to the career coal-face. Government ministers laud women who climb the greasy pole of the professions, and diminish the efforts of homemakers.

But here is a study which challenges some of the fundamental strictures of the, frequently, one-sided discourse about the work-life balancing act.

It found that six out of ten working mothers would go part-time if they could, and four from ten would give up work altogether, in order to spend more time with their children. This is a powerful antidote to the prevailing mindset of the mainstream media, which regularly cites stellar achievers, CEO’s and the like, as exemplars of working motherhood. In reality, these women are exceptional. Wonderfully gifted, but not typical.

Many women do not crave a place on the board. Unlike most men our sense of worth and status is complex and generally not so brittle. It often derives as much from what we do at home, as what we are perceived to have achieved at work. And anyway, those top jobs are a rarity. Should we really be surprised that more than half of working mothers would jack it all to become care-at-home-mothers? Not really.

Just as fascinating from this Department for Education research is what we learn about the  motivations of women. Among those who had given up work to look after their offspring full-time, a majority of respondents said their decision had nothing to do with money.

This really does undermine and bely the casual assumptions of the commentariat, that women are forfeiting a career because childcare is too expensive, or that the sums no longer add up because the Exchequer has axed child benefit.

These mothers were baldly stating that their actions were divorced from hard cash. They simply did not want to pay a stranger to bring up their children. This sense of giving primacy to the very act of mothering may make some old-school feminists uncomfortable, but there it is, in black and white, in the sound social science of a copper-bottomed study.

In a single year, it found the number of families relying on formal childcare has fallen by a tenth, a dramatic reduction in such a short space of time. Admittedly, these were women with relatively high-earning spouses. But even so we may yet look back at this as a tipping point. The bland assumption that a smart woman craves a career first and children as an afterthought is now in some serious jeopardy.

It’s a Wonderful Life

In the best film ever made, Frank Capra’s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, the hero is desperate to leave home. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, wants to explore the world like many of his successful friends.
But, as you know from watching the movie every Christmas, George never quite makes it. The Buildings & Loan, set up by his father to help the poor buy houses, needs him. His witless uncle needs him. The town of Bedford Falls needs him (lest it be dominated by a tyrannical old miser and renamed Pottersville).
My thoughts turned to George Bailey when reading that more and more young men are now living with their parents. Much has been written about why this is happening to the so-called ‘boomerang generation’ – who leave and come back. Similarly, lots has been said about the ‘sandwiched’ parents who provide the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to children who cannot quite achieve escape velocity from the family orbit.
These concepts are almost always considered negatively. And indeed there is something unsettling about young men who – usually for financial reasons – do not fulfil that arc of manhood with all its rites of passage (including setting up their own family home).
And yet, as George Bailey reminds us, there can be something redeeming about a grown-up child who chooses – sometimes against their better judgement – to stay close to the family nest.
Indeed, it has long struck me that one of the strange ironies of modern life is the sheer effort parents expend to secure an outcome which often renders them miserable.
Increasingly, parents stump-up huge amounts of cash for tutors and private schooling to wring the last ounce of academic performance from their child. For what? So their prodigy can go to university many miles away to get a degree that will allow them to take a job which will probably require them to work anywhere, including abroad.
Of course, this is one of the oldest paradoxes in parenting. We love our offspring so much that we move heaven and earth to launch them into the world (even though that may mean they will effectively be lost to us).
But I wonder if the sands are shifting irrevocably here. Certainly, many young people now question the merits of a – sometimes – meaningless higher education. They baulk at the student debt. They wonder if it might be better to get stuck into the world of work without leaving home for a distant campus. When George Bailey saw his friends return from college, they did so in cadillacs. It tends not to be like that now.
So does this release some of the pressure on parents? Does it provide a justification to the instinct to retain a child’s presence, rather than submit to the cool logic that betterment comes with dislocation? Well, I would definitely not argue the merits of children living in the family home indefinitely. A well-run home can flourish with adult-children around, paying their way, doing their share – while saving up money for their own property. But there is a natural life-cycle to such an arrangement. When our children find a spouse of their own.
Yet, how many parents are there out there who – like George Bailey’s matchmaking mother – seek to keep their child in the neighbourhood? Surely the answer is the vast majority of those parents whose home life is harmonious. This is not about seeing our children as friends from whom we cannot part (good parenting is to be a parent first, and a friend second). But it is to acknowledge that the family can exist beyond the home, within the locale. Again, I accept this will seem incompatible with the aim of helping our offspring to ‘get on’. Perhaps, though, many parents would be happy to see – like George Bailey – their child get on a little less, if that meant being around more.