Island Life by David Slack

No Fidgeting

Yesterday at our local gym Simon Poelman was doing leg exercises. While he walked around on his hands, for God's sake. I'm not as steady as that on my feet. Olympic decathletes can make you feel a bit inadequate.

I told him one day that he made me feel as though what I was doing was pretty feeble. He said that really wasn't the way to look at it, and he's right, of course. Some of us have the potential to be athletes, some of us just aim to stay as fit and healthy as we can manage when we're hopelessly un-co. That would be me.

Still, here I am, another birthday tucked away this month and therefore another anniversary for the old heart attack. Stop me if you've heard this before, but that's an episode in my life around which my thinking continues to pivot. A few months after the big event, I came home from Auckland Cup day for drinks with some friends. I'd taken a hammering by, I don't know, Sea Swift, I suppose. One of them said that was a bit of a hiding, mate. I said The way things went this year, I'm just glad I was here to blow it.

Of course, It wouldn't really be fair to the family to throw dough around each day as if it were your last, but I do think you should make the most of things while you can.

I'm a bit worried, then, for our good friend Mr Gordon King, who confessed a week or two ago that he sees the balance of his allotted time on earth as one long sad saga of fidgeting until death. There should be some penance to pay for being such an unredeemed Ann Coulter fan, but I'd hate to think that he'll find his days reduced to - if this story at Psychology Today is, in fact, a reliable authority on the nature of fidgeting unto death - "taking drugs, masturbating a lot, or engaging in mindless entertainment." Of course, that would be his own business. I wouldn't presume to deny anyone the impulses of their libertarian leanings. Privacy of your own home, a consenting adult and his own rubber chicken suit, etc.

What really interested me about the story is that it was exploring the Positive Psychology movement. This is a kind of development of that happy old tune Accentuate the Positive. The idea is that there's more to psychology than just cataloguing the thousand and one ways in which we can screw up. What about finding out how we can optimise the parts we get right? Why settle for happy when you can upgrade to blissed-out?

So the story asks: Can the average person learn to be happier? It introduces us to a book by a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman. In Authentic Happiness, he shows you some ways to cultivate your personality strengths and work up an optimistic approach to life.

Knowing your strengths, he says, makes it easier to achieve more meaningful forms of happiness. Your choices are: the pleasant life; the good life or the meaningful life.

The pleasant life is where you do the fidgeting. You may be happy for a bit, but at some point, he says, most people look in the mirror and ask Is this all there is?

The good life is what you get when you're deeply engaged in work, family life or other activities, and to be fair to Mr Pundit, you get the sense that he's at least that evolved.

But if you want to supersize the deal, you go for the meaningful life. That's when you get devoted to an institution or a cause greater than yourself. It might be family or friendship; it might be charity or religion. The common factor is the act of giving. It could change your outlook.

To get yourself started, you might try the gratitude visit. That involves picking a person in your life whom you'd like to thank, someone who has meant a lot to you. You write them a letter. After you've written it, you call them and ask to visit. When you're face to face, you read them the letter.

Would I do that, I wondered? Not too bloody sure, actually. But then I realised that, in a way, I had, just a couple of weeks ago.

We had a 70th birthday party for Mum at our house. And because she said it would be nice to have some speeches, we had some. The thing about a speech, I've often reminded people in the speech-writing workshops I teach from time to time, is that it's a great chance to say thank you to people - to say some things you might not otherwise say so readily. And I believe this to be true. I still can't see myself doing the letter exercise, but I was happy to do more or less the same thing in a speech.

So that's what I did. I reminisced and joked a little and then I talked about how much Mum and Dad had done for us as we grew up and how selfless they'd been, and still are, which, of course, is exactly what Professor Seligman would call a meaningful life.

It felt pretty damn good to be able to say so.