Anita Robinson: Important to find contentment in a world of constant striving

Struggling to get to the gym for that 6am sunrise yoga session?
Struggling to get to the gym for that 6am sunrise yoga session?

Why does practically every newspaper and magazine find it compulsory to publish a slew of self-improvement features in the first bleak weeks of a new year, when money and waistbands are equally tight and our basic animal instinct is to hibernate on the sofa on a diet of comforting stodge and do nothing till the days lengthen?

I read these well-meaning articles not tongue-in-cheek, but mouth crammed with leftover festive nibbles and the last few chocolate orphans that nobody likes in the Quality Street tin. But I’m not happy.

Let me draw your attention to an alarming development that may have escaped your notice. While there used to be just grim dietary regimes guaranteeing astonishing and rapid weight-loss, the self-improvement business has expanded. Now it’s all-encompassing ‘wellness’ and no aspect of body, mind, mood or attitude escapes prescription. This holistic approach is described as “a sensible, achievable path to a healthy, happy new year.” Really? It smacks me of Nanny State gently chiding her overweight and irresponsible children with well-meaning but faintly patronising statements of the obvious.

It’s true that many of us are podgy, under-exercised, stressed, anxious, unfulfilled and vaguely dissatisfied with life, but we resent having our collective conscience prodded with a pointy stick.

Nanny State is very keen on healthy nutrition. A ‘quick salad’ tossed together by the new queen of clean eating Gwyneth Paltrow, contains six ingredients, seven for the dressing, two of which I’ve never heard of, and requires the use of three kitchen implements I do not possess. Listen Gwynnie, I don’t want coul ‘oul’ salad when it’s sleeting outside.

As for veganism, currently enjoying a ‘moment’, if not longer, I prefer to sink my teeth into a nice lamb chop, pink, sweet and juicy. Alcohol figures large on the ‘give it up’ list. What’s the point of ‘dry January’, except for people heartily sorry they over-indulged over Christmas? Abstention during Lent would at least garner spiritual Brownie points – and the weather is kinder.

Nor is January optimum gym-joining month. I can think of nothing more dispiriting than being a lardy-lump among fitness fanatics, buff, but sweaty. Anyway, you know you won’t stick it. Ditto spin, zumba, pilates or yoga classes. I went to yoga. Once. I fell asleep out of pure boredom.

Talking of sleep, my biological clock seems to work backwards. Nanny recommends darkness, silence and an ambient temperature. My bedroom’s lit up like a fairground, with the radio tuned to World Service and BBC News 24 on mute on the telly. My ‘quality’ sleep happens inadvertently in the afternoon or early evening when I sit down to watch a much-anticipated programme. I’m out like a light within minutes.

Nanny’s very keen on the benefits of the ‘great outdoors’ as a panacea for anxiety and stress. I have it at the back of the house – a large tract of natural woodland handily accessorised by a multiplicity of bird life, squirrels, foxes, an arthritic hedgehog, a carpet of bluebells in spring and a blaze of colour in autumn. Viewed through the double-glazing of my kitchen window, it’s very soothing to the spirit - without getting wet, cold, or both.

As the pace of our lives grows ever more hectic, a word that has fallen out of our vocabulary is ‘contentment’. We’re constantly striving. ‘Enough’ is never enough. Discontent breeds negativity; negativity breeds gloom and gloom begets despondency.

My formative years were spent reading ‘improving’ books, like ‘Pollyanna’ – a rather tiresome little girl who saw good in everything and never allowed disappointment or failure to faze her. She was almost relentlessly glad and constantly surprised by joy. I realise today in adulthood, what she had was ‘the power of positive thinking’, long before the phrase was ever coined.

Now, decades later, scientists at University College London have proven that a positive attitude towards all aspects of life enhances every physical and mental element of our being, keeping us healthier, stronger and more active as we age.

Hmm... that’s one New Year resolution we could all adopt.