“That cardigan was absolutely hideous,” he exclaims in his soft Irish accent. “It was grey and overly crafted, a thick, horrible knit with four horrible brown buttons on it. A badly fitted fashion disaster at its worst. It seemed very en vogue for a therapist at the time. When I first meet clients, they’re often shocked by my appearance. People don’t expect to meet a human being, but if you build trust you’re halfway there. I’m a human face, not a robotic stereotype.”
We’re in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown and Owen is educating us all about happiness from the safety of his own home.
He’s a man of many talents, having trained as a psychotherapist and spent 25 years in the NHS.
He started in palliative care and is now a mental health clinical lead.
In 2018 he published his first book, Ten To Zen, about finding calm and happiness.
Now, in timely fashion, he’s brought out Ten Times Happier to help us all improve our mental health, let go of the past and live a brighter life.
“It’s not a book of magical fairy dust,” he warns. “I just want to give an open, common sense view of happiness.”
“People get in the way of their own happiness and they can’t see how they do it. We only get one life and our time here is limited, so we have to make the best of our journey.”
Ten Times Happier is a no-jargon approach to improving our wellbeing.
Owen picks out 10 sticking points in our lives – including the past, regrets, worry, blaming or comparing – and offers advice on how to turn things around in four simple steps.
“There is no definition of what happiness is but most people know when they’re in a better place in their lives,” he explains.
“Often we struggle so much with our internal world that we block happiness without realising.”
“What I’m trying to do is unblock all the stuff that gets in the way, whatever it may be.”
Improving your mindset, he says, is a bit like going to the gym. It’s all about commitment – otherwise you won’t see any change.
“This is no quick fix. What I hope this book does in each chapter is identify what the problem might be. Once you’ve found the problem I’ll help you understand why you might be struggling and show a way forward,” he says.
“Therapists can’t solve the problem, but we can support you. It’s your choice to change your life. The sense of freedom at the end is incredible – and you’ve got the tools to go forward.”
Owen has dedicated the book to each of his clients and tells their stories with care while revealing his own struggles.
His biggest inspiration has been the people he spent time with in palliative care.
Owen helped to make people feel as comfortable and calm as possible as they reached the end of their lives.
He learnt about regrets in life and what people wished they could change.
“I remember a girl in her thirties who developed a cough and was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Her world turned upside down overnight,” he recalls.
“It was my job to get her stable enough to go on her last holiday. She talked constantly about how differently she would live her life.”
“When you work with someone who is facing mortality head-on, there’s a wisdom there that you can’t recreate.”
“That lady was forced to rethink and see life through a different lens. I would be rocking up for work with my ordinary, everyday problems like worrying about the dog or what mortgage I was going to get.”
“When someone is faced with a life-and-death scenario they’re forced to strip through all of that and get to the stuff that matters.”
Owen knows how difficult it can be to confront the past and let it go.
He spent his childhood in Belfast during the Troubles, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in which violent riots, bombs and gun battles spilled into the streets, killing more than 3,000 people in total.
A gay Catholic, Owen was bullied at school and battled with his sexuality.
He trained as a priest and took himself to France to try to cure his “illness” in the holy springs of Lourdes.
“I owe it to people to give them the truth about my story, that I’m not some perfect guru.”
I get what you’re struggling with and if I haven’t experienced it, I’ve heard it,” he confesses.
“When I left Northern Ireland I realised how much the Troubles impacted my life.”
I was so hard-wired to be in threat mode I dropped to the floor at a theatre when I heard a bang.”
“I remember the sense of liberation I felt coming to London, going to my first gay club and not feeling like I had to sneak through the back door.”
“That’s when I stopped, reflected and realised that my life wasn’t easy at all.”
While training as a therapist, Owen began to explore and understand the things he struggled with himself, such as a desire to be constantly good and feeling unable to make the smallest mistake.
“Now I know I am human and it’s ok to get things wrong.”
“I tried to create certainty in my life when I left Northern Ireland. Now, when things change, I have to navigate around it.”
“We all have a huge period of uncertainty ahead of us and that evokes an anxiety that I have to be aware of.”
“The good thing is I can see it now for what it is. I know how to move into it rather than run away,” he says.
As we grapple with a different kind of life away from friends and family, working from home and missing out on holidays, Owen is making the best of the present and finding positives in every day.
“I’m grateful for having a home and having safety, for my supportive partner and my little Westie dog, Kate.”
“Dogs haven’t got a clue what’s going on right now, so she keeps me centred and balanced,” he smiles.
“I keep my routine as much as possible. I still work with my clients over Skype and keep in contact with friends.”
“I meditate every day and I go out for a walk. It’s taken a world pandemic to make us stop and think about the good things in life.”
Therapy doesn’t deserve the bad press it still tends to get, but it really shouldn’t, Owen adds.
After all, happiness takes a lot of work.
“People think it’s all about lying on couches.”
“Actually, talking to another human, exploring your life and working towards a solution can create hope and freedom and that can only be a good thing.”
“If you strip away the taboos, finding a therapist can be truly life changing.”
• Ten Times Happier: How To Let Go Of What’s Holding You Back by Owen O’Kane (HQ, Harper Collins).
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