It’s the small choices we make every day that shape our lives, a psychologist and happiness author tells THEO PANAYIDES
Dr Jessamy Hibberd stands onstage at the Filoxenia Conference Centre in Nicosia, quoting Cavafy. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind,” she tells the assembled audience. She hasn’t brought too many visual aids – a slightly irrelevant photo of herself at 13, a few slides with useful buzzwords like ‘Empty Time’ and ‘Thoughts Aren’t Facts’ – the main attraction being the account of her own stumbling journey to happiness, or at least greater happiness.
“Do not hurry the journey at all,” she recites, approaching the end of a poem which she feels is a perfect summary of what she’s been saying. She’s slim, 37, with a frank, square-cut face and a beaming smile. “Better if it lasts for years,” she goes on, and her voice starts to shake a little now, “so you are old by the time you reach the island. Wealthy with all you have gained on the way / Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.” Her voice breaks. Emotion flows. The talk is over.
This is at TEDx University of Nicosia, an event titled ‘Game Over. Play Again?’ which drew a dozen speakers and performers, mainly from the UK and Cyprus. The audience is predominantly young, which is par for the course; TED’s motto is ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ – meaning, implicitly, new ideas, those which have not yet spread, casting the audience as eager disciples tasked with going out into the world. Those assembled are presumed to be modern, tech-savvy, urbane, high-achieving. The speaker before Jessamy is Oliver Burkeman, a Guardian columnist based in Brooklyn, who makes passing reference to “events like this, where smart and ambitious people are gathered” – yet the tone is also reassuring, making the smart and ambitious people feel better about themselves.
It’s odd, in a way, all these authoritative speakers giving people licence to relax. Experts like Oliver and Jessamyn are secular sages for the age of the smartphone, keepers of life-hacks and other keys to unlocking the modern world. Burkeman’s column in The Guardian is titled ‘This column will change your life’; similarly, if you plug Jessamy Hibberd’s name into Amazon you’ll find a half-dozen bestselling books with titles like This Book Will Make You Happy (only the last word changes from book to book, the five other titles being Mindful, Confident, Calm, Sleep and Feel Beautiful). She was featured in the Daily Mail earlier this year, offering “six daily habits that are scientifically PROVEN to make you happier”. Yet Oliver’s message at TEDx was basically that we ought to chill out, stop stressing about all the things we’re not doing and focus on things we are doing – and Jessamy’s talk came with a similar slant. “My motto now is that ‘What you do every day is what makes the biggest difference’,” she informed the audience from the stage of the Filoxenia. “It’s small steps that lead to the biggest changes.”
This philosophy is relatively new for her. Indeed, it’s something of an irony that four years ago, when she was writing books promising to make people happy (to be fair, the titles were her publisher’s idea), she was living quite a different lifestyle, focused more on goals and achievement. The catalyst was the birth of her second child, a daughter (she also has a six-year-old son and another, 20-month-old daughter), adding an extra layer that forced her to make some changes. “I became very focused on meaning after I had my daughter,” Jessamy tells me, sitting in a nearby conference room after her talk, “and what makes a meaningful life, and I did a lot of research around that”.
“I think for a long time it’s been [our belief] that success is work-focused,” she goes on, “and that it’s – you know, a good thing to say you’re in the office till 10pm. I don’t agree with that. I think you can do really good work, and I hope that’s something I do – but I don’t need to give five days of my week over to it. It’s about finding a way that fits for you.”
There’s a lot of her conversation contained in those sentences. The emphasis on “research”, which she often cites to make her point. The talk of finding what fits for each person – not just in life but also, for instance, in the strategies she uses with patients. Above all, the mention of her well-rounded week. “A clinical psychologist is my main work,” explains Jessamy, “so I work with people experiencing common mental-health problems like anxiety and depression. My work is one-on-one with them, I do two afternoons in London and then, on Wednesday, I do Skype calls at home. And then Thursday and Friday I’m with my three children” – not in London but Brighton, where she lives with the kids and her husband Jack – “and have my other role as a mother with them”. I think back to Oliver Burkeman’s talk, in which he wryly spoke of “that mythical state known as work-life balance” and compared it to the yeti, or Abominable Snowman – a fabled beast, much talked-about but never captured, its alleged sightings infrequent and unverified. He’s obviously never met Jessamy Hibberd, and the hairy Himalayan monster she calls a lifestyle.
It sounds like a charming fable: well-known professional and bestselling author learns to “slow down” after becoming a mummy. I guess that’s not wholly inaccurate – but it gives the wrong impression, for two reasons. First, there’s nothing ‘slow’ about her Thursdays, Fridays and weekends: “Those days aren’t calm,” not with three children and frantic schedules (her six-year-old is even taking lessons in computer coding; kids these days, eh?). Second, there’s nothing very Zen about Jessamy herself. Are you quite an easy-going person, I ask, or secretly driven? “I think I’m not-so-secretly driven.”
She talks fast, so fast she sometimes trips over her words. “I’m not very good at sitting still,” she admits. She’s active, obsessively punctual and doesn’t waste time, husband Jack (who works at a beer brewery) being apparently the anchor in this relationship. “If we’re going for a train, me and my husband, I know what time the train I want to get is, and I quickly rush to get it – whereas he’s liable to get a sandwich, get a coffee, if he misses it who cares”. One gets a sense that her life-change of the past few years came as a kind of epiphany – the realisation “that I don’t have to rush from place to place, you know?… That it doesn’t all need to be time-filled”.
The notion of ‘empty time’ is a big part of the current lifestyle; “All of the research shows that those who have empty time are much more productive, and work much better”. Then again, her own empty time isn’t vegging out in front of the TV (“Vegging out in front of the TV is definitely a good thing but it’s not empty time, because your mind is engaged,” she claims) nor does it come through, say, meditation. Much of it comes through being active, running a five-kilometre ‘parkrun’ every Saturday morning or walking around with her music on – though of course it can be almost anything, “walking a stop on your commute rather than getting the Tube” or taking a moment to look out the window on the train instead of perusing your phone. A more introspective type could find ‘empty time’ just by staring into space; for Jessamy, however, emptying the mind often goes hand-in-hand with exhausting the body. “If I’m stressed, going for a run really helps”. She’s that kind of person.
Some might say she’s just a privileged woman who was lucky enough to achieve her professional goals early on and (apparently) doesn’t need to worry overmuch about money. This, however, is missing the point. First of all, money isn’t everything: “I’ve worked in the poorest boroughs of London and the richest boroughs of London, and the problems that people experience are not about wealth. Of course, wealth makes it more comfortable if you’re going through that – but the difficulties in their life are no different”. Secondly, she herself admits (in her talk) that “every box on my checklist was ticked” four years ago – a doctorate in clinical psychology, her own private practice, a loving husband, two amazing kids, and her books as well – yet “the feeling of contentment wasn’t there”, which was why she sat down and tried to look deeper. Her insights into what makes us happy haven’t come because of her success, but (paradoxically) in spite of it.
Above all, Jessamy Hibberd is a practical person. She’s not academic, never has been; at school she was “an average student, never the first to hand in homework” (she preferred riding and gymnastics). Even now, her tastes aren’t especially highbrow: she likes Coldplay, “very cheesy music” like (yikes!) Justin Bieber, Donna Tartt when it comes to novels. She likes tennis, running, walks on the beach with the kids, “outdoorsy stuff” in general. This kind of temperament lends itself not to grand unified theories of happiness but plain, practical measures – her ‘small steps’ theory as mentioned above, the idea that the choices we make every day shape our lives, step by little step. “I think we all trick ourselves that there’s going to be this kind of answer, [with] everything being great, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. It can just be the simple stuff you do”.
Take, for instance, the six “scientifically PROVEN” tips she supplied to the Daily Mail, including things like ‘visit a friend’ (relationships are “the key indicators for well-being, health and happiness,” she tells me) and ‘get up straight away when your alarm goes off in the morning, instead of hitting the Snooze button’. Take her reluctance to make sweeping statements, and the very practical insistence that everything is “person-specific”; the one plea she always makes to patients with depression, she says, is to come back and tell her what strategy is working for them and what isn’t working – because everyone’s different. Take her secret to parenting (offered with the usual caveats about not presuming to tell other people how to raise their kids), which is simply to look at things realistically: “I recognise that, when they’re being difficult, it’s not like a personal insult to me. It’s just how kids are”.
I won’t say I got very far in connecting with Jessamy Hibberd as a person. She and Jack have to get to the TEDx post-party, and besides she doesn’t need to reveal herself to me – she’s just spent 20 minutes opening her heart to a packed house! It may also be that she’s more of a natural sponge, like all good psychologists; I note the way her initial expression is blank on first meeting, as if waiting to respond to my own energy. Still, there’s a strong impression of a dynamic, down-to-earth, compassionate woman – don’t forget she spends most of her week counselling anxious, unhappy people; it takes mental strength to remain so chipper – who’s still rather driven and goal-oriented, even after the life-change. It’s just that her goal is different now: not just achievement, but a life in balance.
Cavafy was right: it’s the journey, not the destination. Modern life makes that hard to discern sometimes, just because it’s so busy; we can access reams of data in seconds, and communicate with the other side of the world. No surprise that many people long to relax. No surprise that Happy, Sleep and Calm were the most successful in Jessamy’s This Book Will Make You… series. No surprise that TEDx, for all its world-changing ideas, often operates as a kind of verbal spa treatment, reassuring high-achiever types that it’s all right, you can take your foot off the accelerator sometimes, it’s about the small, simple things as much as – or more than – the lofty ambitions.
“My goals do not define me. I do not suffer in my pursuit of them, and they are not some kind of test of my self-worth,” proclaims Jessamy earnestly from the stage of the Conference Centre. “My life is now,” she tells the assembled TEDx-ers, and sounds like it comes from the heart. “Being with my husband. Hugging my kids. Being in a room with any one of the amazing people I have the privilege to work with. Working on new ideas. Catching up with my mum and dad. Giggling with friends over a glass of wine. Walking along the sea front where I live. Running in the park. Being here with you.” The crowd eat it up.