31 Oct 2020

Bill Bailey's secrets to happiness

From Saturday Morning, 7:05 pm on 31 October 2020

Popular UK standup comedian and actor Bill Bailey's a bit of a renaissance man - with interests ranging from music to bird watching.

Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey Photo: supplied

After appearing on TV shows including QI, Black Books, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Spaced, his latest foray onto the screen is as a competitor in the wildly popular BBC dance contest Strictly Come Dancing.

No surprise then that ballroom dancing is listed as one of 30-odd things that bring him joy in his new book Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide To Happiness: alongside scuba diving, laughing, wild swimming, sky diving... and of course crazy golf!

Bailey talked with Kim Hill about cultivating experiences that have added an enriching happiness to his life.

"I think one of the things that produces genuine lasting happiness - more than just a passing gratification or something which is transient or fleeting - is something which you can draw on later, when perhaps times are not great," he says.

"You can draw on that bank of contentment or attainment, it's something that adds to your self confidence or self-worth. Those are the things that really are the currency of happiness, I think."

After previously resisting many requests to be a guest on Strictly Come Dancing, Bailey agreed this year after the pandemic canned his touring plans. Despite an initial knee-jerk reaction towards participating in formal dance, he says it's been enjoyable.

"I have mocked it in the past; I said I'd never go on it, and said the only way I'd go on it is if my family was being held hostage and it was a condition of their release.  Then they did this really sneaky thing where they said 'oh go on', and I went 'oh alright then'."

"There was a huge gap in what I was going to be doing, and suddenly this presented itself as an opportunity. This pandemic has made us think of things in a different way. It's made us all take stock of our lives and our decisions, and what we're doing with ourselves."

Bill Bailey on the BBC's Strictly Come Ballroom, 2020.

Photo: Supplied/ BBC

"I could fret about not doing gigs, and stay in and paint butterflies and moths... I thought this is a way to learn a new skill and to challenge myself in a way that I haven't done in the past, and I'm actually loving it."

Attempting to move around the dance floor looking elegant, and to be up close to someone as a couple while dancing a sensual dance has been a concept that's previously made him feel uncomfortable and embarrassed.

"I've always been envious of that, and [taking part] actually just blows all of that out of the water; you have to embrace it, you have to be a bit more comfortable in your own skin. And I think now is a time perhaps I'm able to do that, and I'm enjoying it very much.

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Photo: supplied

"Dancing is almost like a bit of a mystery to me, it's an unknown landscape which I'm navigating now. And I like that it's almost like a new frontier I'm exploring, something that I've been a little bit cautious of.  It makes me a little bit nervous, dancing in front of people.

"It's incredibly tough, the regime these dancers have, the fitness levels - they're athletes. I've been training for 10 hours a day, and I get in and everything aches, every part of your body; hips, chest, waist, arms, wrists, ankles, neck, back, it's a full body workout, it's extraordinary."  

Scuba diving and skydiving have also been experiences Bailey says added a wider zest to life.

"You realise you're able to do something which you're scared by. You're able to face your fears.

"It's about confronting fears, confronting things that you've perhaps been putting off, perhaps talking to someone you feel awkward talking to, someone you've had an argument with or there's some block or barrier to it... confronting that, embracing that, getting over yourself."

Happiness is an elusive, mercurial amorphous concept; "It doesn't seem to be something you can quantify, or even regulate or measure". So he's fascinated by the United Nations Happiness Index.

"It talks about quite intangible things that you perhaps might not even imagine, one of the criteria is having people you can count on, people you can rely on; this is so important for the happiness of a nation.

"And Finland scores very highly on this and has been deemed to be the happiest nation on the planet for the last few years; Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, all these countries [score very well]. I think it's because there's less a feeling of them and us. There's less division, there's a greater sense of community, there's a greater connection with the land.

"And I think that's something we've lost in Britain, there's a sense that we're not part of it... we don't really have proper wild spaces, I think we've lost something. Part of my aim with this book is to encourage people to embrace wild spaces, to be outdoors in the wild more, to know a bit more about the wildlife and nature that surrounds us."

In the book Bailey talks about the importance of being there for another person, which gives an equal sense of happiness to having someone there for you.

"We are quite altruistic creatures, people generally want to help out. We do better as a species when we work together, when we help others. We're a product not so much of natural selection but of group selection, as a species we do much better when we work together.

"But those are the sorts of things that we just lose a little bit, with modern life we've become a bit more disconnected. Certainly with the last few months since the pandemic we've had to withdraw, we've had to live online and we've had to deal with solitude and the sense of isolation and the problems that brings.

"But the flipside of that is that the community has come together. In our street we've met neighbours, had conversations, we've been involved in getting shopping for the vulnerable members of our community and our neighbours, and helping out. It's brought out the better side of our nature.

"It's an awful thing that's happened... there's this thing that can kill you and it's out there, and yet we've managed to somehow reach out to people and it's brought out an enormous flowering of kindness."

Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey Photo: Wikicommons

Bailey says he's also pleased Strictly Come Dancing did go ahead, as Covid threatened it.

"For a long time it looked like it wasn't going to happen at all, because you're dancing with someone - you can't get much closer than that really - what are you going to do, have a 2 metre stick between you, just dance the samba 2m away.  

"All the ballroom dances you're right up close to someone, you're holding them; so you can't possibly do that unless you're in a bubble with the dancer."

Each contestant had to form a bubble with the dancer, including their own families.

Bailey's wife is in his bubble, but his teenage son who is still going to school, is not, despite living at home with them.

"He has to distance from us at home, keep himself to himself, make his own dinners eat  2m apart from us in our own home, come in and not really intereact with us.

"But of course he's a teenage boy, he's 16; so nothing's changed."