Blog, News & Events

How I learned to be unhappy – and who I have to thank

My book, Vodka and Apple Juice, as well as being a hilarious tell-all tale about life behind the curtains of the diplomatic world and rollicking good armchair travel story about Poland (if I do say so myself) has just a few useful things to say about how to be unhappy.

I was talking to 6PR interviewer Chris Ilsley for a podcast, about some of the people I’d met in Warsaw, many of whom end up, in some form, in the book.

I met some wonderfully kind, friendly, and generous people in my time there. But I was talking about the rest. The ones who had everything you could want, materially, in life. And who were miserable.

The kind of people who came back from the south of France, having spent a month looking for the perfect village to retire to, saying things like, ‘You simply can’t get anything for less than a million (Euro), and even then you’d have to spend another million to even make it livable.’ The kind who threw a tantrum because the painter had painted their temporary home – an exquisitely-appointed palace they lived in free of charge – a shade that they didn’t like. The kind who saw a young girl, working the street, and made fun of her shoes and hair for being unfashionable.

They were mean and nasty and – the word that came to mind the most – bitter.

Chris asked me, during the interview, ‘What do you think made some people like that?’

It’s a good question.

These people – almost all of them were women – were rich, but I don’t think that’s what made them that way. Their husbands were also rich, and they (with a few exceptions) weren’t like that.

They weren’t like that because they weren’t working, either. I met other people who weren’t working, and they (we) weren’t all like that either. What made these people different?

What I decided was, as I said to Chris: ‘They had nothing much to do with their day except eat smoked salmon and drink champagne.’

Which is another way of saying that, as far as I could tell, these people are like that because when they wake up in the morning, they have nothing, really, to get up for.

That ‘thing’ that makes you want to get up can can be anything, I came to think. Painting a picture. Writing a poem. Going to work. Spending time with children. Yoga. It doesn’t  seem to really matter. It just seems, to me, that it has to be something that is important to you.

I’m not talking about something you want to achieve – and I think it’s an important distinction to make. Fellow WA writer Holden Sheppard wrote a very insightful post about how the things you feel you need to achieve get in the way of the things that make you feel good.

It’s great to have goals, don’t get me wrong. I just think that if we choose them poorly, they can actually get in the way of being happy. Because we tend to measure achievement in number terms. The number of dollars in your salary, the number of promotions you’ve got, your Insta likes. Those things are useful, and they can give us other things we crave and that are important – stability, security, assurance. But – I don’t know about you – but to me, they, alone, aren’t what I get up for.

Then there’s this post. It probably won’t achieve much. Heck, I’ve I’ve seen my reader stats – I know it won’t achieve much! But it’s been a nice way to spend a Sunday morning, and a nice way to connect with another writer, which I also value. So for me, it’s been worth spending time on.

Worth getting up for.

So in many ways, I am incredibly grateful to those mean, bitter women. They showed me how to be unhappy. In doing so, they taught me an awful lot about how to be happy: By trying to approach life in the opposite way. And showing me that if you don’t, you end up … like that.

Something tells me that if they knew that, it wouldn’t make them any happier.