A girl smiles and waves jubilantly at the photographers. She’s 13 years old, with mousy hair tousled by the wind. With one hand she’s clinging onto the brick monument she’s just clambered up, her white pixie boots a little scuffed from the climb. In her other hand, she carefully clasps a packet of cheese and onion crisps. And she’s just saved the world.
In the springtime of 1987, the popular local newspaper, The Bedfordshire Times, splashed a photo of that grinning teenager across their centre pages. Usually their big story was of a cat rescued by firemen or the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new shopping centre. But that week, the sleepy English town had been the focus of national interest. After years of political arguments, scientific controversies and local protests, a large nuclear waste company, ominously called Nirex, had announced they were cancelling plans to build a nuclear waste ‘deep storage facility’ in the town.
The local families who had fought so hard against the nuclear dump were taken by surprise. In a flurry of overnight activity, they built a small brick monument at the site where Nirex had been planning to store tonnes of radioactive waste. Then, as the photographers watched, the families began to accept their success and cry, hug and celebrate. The young girl in the photograph had been swept up in the emotion and scrambled up the bricks. No one really minded the scuffmarks or spilt crisps, because most of the people there also felt like climbing, shouting and punching the air. Small folk aren’t supposed to beat big corporations, and everyone was a little dazed.
I’m the girl. And thankfully my mum kept the news-clipping and had it framed for me. Today it hangs above my desk, and whenever I look up at it, I can vividly remember that moment. I was still a normal teenager, at least on the outside. But that photo captures the moment that my life changed. Because that was the first time I truly experienced how good it is to make a difference. Up on those bricks, with my dad’s steadying hand on my ankle, I felt like a superhero who had saved the world. Since that incredible flash of joy, I’ve had years to read a veritable mountain of books on the value of having ‘purpose’ in your life. Each of them analysing and trying to pin down that experience. Why does it feel so good to do good? Why do so many successful people leave high-flying careers to pursue purposeful work that helps others? I believe most of the books miss an important feedback loop in making a difference. They assume that ‘purpose’ is almost an indulgence, or a spiritual need. But in a world which feels totally overwhelming, where fear and worry can leave even the most successful people sleepless and anxious - taking positive action builds a sense of control. And that sense of impact and ‘rightness’ has a tangible physical and emotional value. In a world of fear, being a hero can save your life.
I know it saved mine. The journey from fear to action transformed me completely, and set my feet on a lifelong path of positive action. Two years before the waving photo in the paper I had been sitting hunched on the school bus. I was quiet to the point of social withdrawal, barely literate and so anorexic that once a week I had to be officially weighed by a doctor to stay out of hospital. That morning I was clutching a badly-printed neon flyer (well, it was the 1980s) from the ‘Bedfordshire Against Nuclear Dumping’ community group. I had picked the flyer up from the floor, and in my world of angst, the idea of ‘being nuked’ felt like the last straw. I wanted to cry with helplessness and sense of injustice. But rather than withdrawing further, adding the nuclear threat to the ever-increasing list of things to fear, instead I pestered and cajoled my parents into taking me to an anti-dump campaign meeting. There we all learnt about the lack of safeguards and secret testing already started at the dumping site. After overcoming my initial shock that 'big and important people’ were allowing such things, I decided to stick with the local families challenging the company, helping out by making banners and making tea for two years. With my parents at my side and my little sisters playing in the corners of draughty parish halls, we planned our push back. I even did my homework, digging around in the library trying to work out what nuclear waste actually was, and why someone wanted to bury it near my school.
My parents had initially worried that being involved in such a frightening issue wouldn’t be good for an impressionable young teenager. But those two years of campaigning proved more positive and life-affirming than anything the doctors who were treating my anorexia could do. It was also the hardest work I’d ever done and it seemed like it would never end. Knocking on neighbours’ doors to explain what was happening; endless meetings; spending hours each weekend at the protest site holding banners and waving to passing cars, beeping their horns in support. My initial enthusiasm slowly hardened into a dogged determination to simply keep going.
And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, we won. The company issued a terse press release saying that they were cancelling the plan to bury nuclear waste in our town, or indeed anywhere. The bad media coverage and public criticism had just been too much. Maintaining that pressure over time had been hard work for everyone in the campaign. I’d spent my weekends and evenings stuffing envelopes and making phone calls to politicians. I’d also learnt to negotiate with adults, and discovered that even overwhelmed and exhausted grown-ups can be motivated by a wide-eyed kid, innocently asking, “But we’re still going to win, right?”
On reflection, my parents were right: it was a risky lesson for an impressionable teenage girl. By my 14th birthday, I was a hardened optimist. And firmly believed that if something in the world needs to change, then by staying cheerful and working hard you can change it. Of course, my hometown’s win against the nuclear dumping company wasn’t global news. Saving one community wasn’t really like saving the world. And although I had been a plucky little campaigner, the ‘Bedfordshire Against Nuclear Dumping’ campaign had proper leaders and officials. But as I sat atop that monument, with a pounding heart and a packet of crisps, I felt like a true hero. That’s the feeling I’ve been researching, writing about and recreating, ever since.
I’ve dedicated my life to this search because that first experience of trying to change things for the better, unquestionably changed me for the better. As the years passed, I came to realise that trying to make a difference had changed my own life in incalculable ways. That might sound like a grand claim, but the science of purpose and positivity would agree there are extraordinary benefits of trying to do good, just waiting for those who try.
The 13-year-old in the newspaper photo looks healthy, independent and optimistic. She’s a girl who goes to libraries and understands the rewards of hard work. A happy kid who anyone might guess had the chance of a good life ahead of her. But that wasn’t how I’d started out. In the celebration photo, you can see almost no remnant of the 11-year-old on the school bus who was terrified of 'being nuked'. It’s shocking to me now to remember how vulnerable I was before I joined the campaign. I know, in my heart, that if I hadn’t turned my attention outward, if I hadn’t found a way to make a difference, then my life would not be filled with the excitement and happiness that I now enjoy. And I’m constantly thankful that I learnt the power of positive action before it was too late.
It’s those two words – positive and action – that form the heart of this book. They are the two essential elements in the formula for a happy hero. Together, we’ll explore what they mean, and how to capture their power, even if it’s a long time since you felt the passion and purpose of a teenager.