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INSPIRED IDEAS: Life is sweet

10 ways to enrich your life

Is happiness something you can find, like a lost glove or the perfect cake recipe? Experience seems to suggest that a state of happiness is, in fact, something that each of us has to create for ourselves. Devoting more time to personal fulfilment, knowing how (and when) to relax, keeping mind and body in harmony, and spending time with your loved ones, are regularly cited as great ways of keeping the inner beans jumping. If you don’t yet know what makes you happy, here are some inspired ideas for pursuing new experiences or creating a better balance in your life – you’ll soon find out what works for you.And if you don’t give it a go, you’ll never know just how much happier you could be!

1 GET A PET

It has been proven that sharing your life with a furry, feathery or scaly friend can reduce your physical stress levels and promote a feeling of calm. Dog owners, especially, feel the emotional benefits of sharing their lives with an animal companion. Beverley Cuddy, the editor of Dogs Today magazine, says: "Why do dogs make us happy? Dogs are like emotional Elastoplast. For 100,000 years they have been our best friend. Since their traditional jobs working on the land have all but dried up, they have found a new vocation, which is to prevent us humans from being lonely. All the scientific information is there to show that we are much more healthy around them: our blood pressure drops, we're more likely to survive a heart attack, our children will have fewer days off school. Dogs turn our houses into homes and make the lonely world into a much warmer place. It's now the dog's job to make us happy. When your dog looks you in the eye that's a love that can't be bought." For more information about the benefits of dog ownership see www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

2 LEARN TO SING

No, we're not suggesting you sacrifice yourself to the merciless glare of the X Factor judges - that way happiness does not lie, unless you have skin like a rhinoceros and the determination to match. But finding your voice, be it a booming bass tone, a mellifluous mezzo soprano, or merely a pleasantly reedy warble, is a truly liberating experience. Singing is a personal characteristic that, when indulged, lifts your spirits and expresses your feelings; it gives you focus and boosts your confidence in public and, on top of all that, it exercises and relaxes more muscles in the body than you might think. So why, then, do we not encounter happy people bursting into song all over the place? The truth is, most of us are unsure of our singing skills. Check your local phone book for a personal singing coach or an amateur choir that welcomes new members. If you want to turn your quest to sing into a big night out, try one of the many chic karaoke bars springing up in the UK, such as Lucky Voice in Soho, where you can book a booth for up to 10 people, down a couple of cocktails and then gloriously recreate Bill Murray's finest moment from Lost in Translation: all together now, "I'm special - soo speshaaall"...

3 GET WALKING

You don't have to rely on an aeroplane heading for distant shores to escape your daily routine. Just pull on a pair of walking boots and stride forth. Sharon Woods, spokesperson for the Ramblers' Association, says: "What other activity than walking stirs the soul so easily? What else lifts the spirit, boosts the body and frees the mind? No other pastime wraps life's simplest pleasures of fresh air, nature and beautiful views in so perfect a package, providing the perfect recipe for happiness." In England and Wales there are at least 140,000 miles of public footpaths, so it's no exaggeration to say that walking could change your life - you'll certainly never run out of inspiration! In addition, Britain has 13 National Parks and 41 areas of outstanding natural beauty. If, however, you feel happier in an urban setting, you can be equally inspired by walking there, taking in the history and architecture, or following river and canal paths. Try walking through the City of London at the weekend when it's all but deserted: hidden away among those gleaming temples to finance, such as Swiss Re's Gherkin, are some exquisite churches, historic inns and houses whose aesthetic charms will delight you. www.ramblers.org.uk

4 VOLUNTEER

Knowing that your efforts have helped to improve someone else's life - in however small a way - is guaranteed to give you a warm and happy feeling, as well as take your mind off your own gripes. Got time on your hands at weekends? Like to make yourself useful but don't know how to get involved? A good starting point is TimeBank, a government-supported organisation whose excellent website shows you just how many different opportunities there are for helping out locally, nationally and globally - you can pitch in at any level. If your view of voluntary work is standing on the high street shaking a collecting tin, bear in mind that it can be anything from planting vegetables or running a children's play scheme, to stewarding at a massive charity concert or fundraising for global aid organisations such as Oxfam. It can also mean making new friends and acquaintances among other volunteers and when the day's graft is over, those who work hard often like to play hard, too! 2005 is the Year of the Volunteer, and a Mori poll conducted in the UK revealed that the celebrity most likely to inspire Britons to do some voluntary work is Sir Bob Geldof. Imagine if you pulled off an incredible feat like Live8: now that would make you smile! www.timebank.org.uk

5 DECLUTTER

A Hindu spiritual leader once proclaimed that there are two very simple ways to find happiness: "Minimise your needs and live in harmony with your surroundings." If that's not a way of saying you should get rid of all that junk cluttering up your spare room, I don't know what is. Britons are a nation of hoarders, and the presenter of BBC's Life Laundry series, Dawna Walter, says this is a deeply unhealthy habit. "Clutter holds you back¿ we change during our lives and so it's important to acknowledge that we can have different interests and different people in our lives and can get rid of old things." Evidently the average Briton could easily shed around one-third of their personal belongings. How about you? Are you in possession of too-small clothes that you're hoping to fit into again once you've shed a few pounds; a broken lamp that could, with some re-wiring and a new shade, be fixed; an old chair that you've been planning to re-upholster. As Dawna so bluntly says: "It's never going to happen!" So, sort out your storage, file that messy heap of paperwork, or simply put your wardrobe in order. Once you see how easily you can take control of the small messes in your life, bigger challenges are far less intimidating. ‘The Life Laundry: how to de-junk your life' by Dawna Walter (BBC Books)

6 GET HIGH

The next time someone tells you to rise above your gloom, why not do exactly that and put some serious space between yourself and the earthly factors that are grinding you down? The British Parachute Association cites " excitement, exhilaration and limitless challenge" as the best reasons for communing with the skies, so why not give it a go and see how the ultimate adrenaline rush can alter your perspective and make you feel glad to be alive? Although skydiving is a world-class sport, the majority of it in this country is done for fun. Most "first" jumps are made from around 2,000 to 3,500 feet with a static-line parachute, which opens automatically as soon as you leave the plane. If you're feeling more adventurous, try an accelerated free-fall from 12,000 feet, in which you will free-fall through the air for 45 seconds before opening your own canopy at 5,000 feet. Tandem parachuting sees the jumper harnessed to an experienced instructor and knowing that they, not you, are responsible for managing the parachute means you can relax and enjoy the 15-minute ride. People who have tried this for fun will tell you there really is no experience like it. You'll land with a big smile on your face and a surge of pride in your accomplishment. www.bpa.org.uk

7 ESCAPE THE CITY

Man and machine in perfect harmony can be a beautiful thing, but to fully appreciate how exhilarating driving can be leave the city limits. Make sure your car is of the comfortable, spacious variety and head for the south-west of England, where a few days driving on miles of rural roads will take you past some of Britain's finest landmarks - manmade and natural. Gloucestershire's pride is the Cotswolds, where you can meander through chocolate-box villages. Continue on through the Forest of Dean and southwards, via the Georgian elegance and Roman remains of Bath, to Wiltshire. Stonehenge looming up from the horizon is a sight everyone should see. If classic English church architecture is something that makes your heart soar, you're in the right region: Gloucester, Salisbury, Wells, Exeter and Truro cathedrals await. Driving towards the coast never fails to bring on that holiday feeling, and when you hit Dorset, you're officially in an area of outstanding natural beauty and home to the world-famous Jurassic Coast. The Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks are beautiful in a bleaker, wilder sort of a way, bracketing the road down to Cornwall where - after marvelling at the biospheres of the Eden Project and the twisting lanes - you will, finally, run out of land! www.visitbritain.com

8 BE PART OF A TEAM

Life's victories feel that much sweeter when you're sharing them with others - the same goes for the tough times, too, of course. The Independent's own agony aunt, Virginia Ironside, offers a pertinent example: "Today, we have many unrealistic expectations of happiness. You only have to watch I'm a Celebrity... Get me Out of Here! and listen to most of the contestants declaring that - starvation, arguments, hideous challenges notwithstanding - it was the happiest time of their lives, to realise that involvement with other people, pulling together as a team, being part of a community, however vicious, makes for fulfilment and fun." So, rather than competing with those around you, why not get in step with them instead? It's easy to build teams in every aspect of your life: arrange a day every month when, come hell or high water, you and your colleagues go out for a proper lunch together and don't talk about work; find a sport that you like - football, cricket, netball, hockey or rounders in the park - and join or set up a team that plays for fun at weekends; set up a car pool with neighbours who drive the same route to work, schools or shops; identify the film-buffs among your friends and acquaintances and put the word out by e-mail that you're keen on regular cinema nights - chances are you'll always have someone to share your popcorn.

9 LAUGH

The medics say it's as good for you as a 10- minute workout, and clearly it's much easier to achieve than a tricky, tummy-stretching yoga pose, so what reason could you possibly have for not attempting to exercise your diaphragm and boost your endorphins by laughing 100 times every day? Admittedly, laughter in the workplace is not appropriate for everyone - you may be a librarian, for example - but that is no excuse, because most of us get some daily down time where we can flex our funny bones. The journey to and from work can be made infinitely more entertaining if you switch on your car radio or invest in a portable digital radio and tune in to one of the stations that specialises in vintage or cutting-edge comedy: everything from classic episodes of Round The Horne to the bone-dry routines of Jimmy Carr can be found there. It may even encourage you to become a regular at comedy club nights, and who knows, you could progress from listening to heckling to getting up in front of the mic yourself (it's amazing what can happen when you do something "just for a laugh"). The best comedians are those who retain their childlike qualities, and if you're feeling in need of cheer but can't find a stand-up comic in the neighbourhood, then small children are a guaranteed source of laughter - especially if they're your friends' offspring and you're not the one having to wipe paint off faces or jelly off wallpaper at the end of the day.

10 LIFE COACH

Aren't we lucky? We live in an era that gives us greater life choices than were available to any other generation, especially in the workplace. We're better educated than our parents, we have more freedom, as well as heightened expectations of the rewards life can bring. So, how come our stress levels and sense of dissatisfaction are higher than ever? Why are we not happy? According to top life coach Fiona Harrold, author of The 10- minute Life Coach, this freedom is both a blessing and a burden. "No longer is work a necessary evil that puts bread on the table and allows us to be ourselves only at weekends - we can have great careers, endless opportunities for advancement and bigger salaries, but it's how we manage our choices that determines happiness. It's our responsibility to make them work for us. The secret is this: do what you love, love what you do." Sounds too simple to be effective? Everybody, says Fiona, knows what they want to do in life, even if they say they don't. "Sit down with a life coach and they will help you to identify the things that you really want. A good coach can do that very quickly, and then together you'll figure out the best way forward. The minute you identify your goal and resolve to find ways of achieving it, is the moment you start to feel happier." Find out more about lifecoaching at www.fionaharrold.com or see our next life coach column in The Sunday Review 21 August.

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