Television: In a flap about flippers? Take a leaf from Maureen Gaffney’s book

The psychologist’s self-help series is as sincere as teaching extras from ‘Flipper’ to talk is barmy

The girl who spoke to dolphins: Margaret Howe at the house in the Virgin Islands in 1964. Photograph: John Lilly Estate/BBC

The girl who spoke to dolphins: Margaret Howe at the house in the Virgin Islands in 1964. Photograph: John Lilly Estate/BBC

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

The most sensational thing to happen on TV this week – it made the front page of six newspapers – is that Eamon Dunphy used the F-word twice before realising he was on air during a punditry session on 2014 Fifa World Cup (RTÉ Two, Tuesday). So it’s a slow week for television, or maybe for the World Cup – I’m mostly not watching, although it’s hard to avoid – if Dunphy’s swearing and, on the BBC, Phil Neville’s boring commentary style and Thierry Henry’s cardigan are making the news.

Before I tune into How to Be Happy (RTÉ One, Monday), I can’t help thinking that the summer scheduling of the psychologist Maureen Gaffney’s two-part series is a little unfortunate. Deepest, darkest November would seem more appropriate. But it’s a smart, well-considered and competently delivered concept. The first programme is framed in a lecture style, with Gaffney, a brilliant communicator, talking to her audience. This is interspersed with personal experiences from contributors – let’s face it, talking about being unhappy, on telly: that’s brave – and expert opinion from US psychologists, who all have eerily soothing, talk-you-down-from-a-ledge voices.

How to Be Happy is pitched firmly in the self-help category, without the mawkish preaching but with the same sense of bossy empowerment. And a head-sorting series is a welcome alternative to the fatty glut of programmes dealing with weight loss. “It pays to take happiness seriously,” says Gaffney, because there’s scientific evidence that happy people live longer, healthier lives. The secret to happiness isn’t about how rich or good looking you are: it’s mathematical. To be happy you need three positives for every negative in your life. To figure out how many positives you have, count the simple things you can be grateful for. Or, as was sometimes said in simpler times, count your blessings.

Building a happy marriage is trickier. The secret is a ratio of five positives to one negative, but Gaffney’s no-nonsense style makes it all seem blindingly obvious and attainable. The participants in the lecture hall go off with happiness-inspiring homework. They must each week write down three positives in their life, meditate – “it’s not just for hippies,” says Gaffney – and practise random acts of kindness. Easy so.

There was a classic moment in the 1970s BBC show That’s Life, fronted by Esther Rantzen, that involved a dog that could “say” sausages – simpler times indeed. You had to buy into the show’s exuberant daftness to hear the mutt say it instead of regular breathy barking. It was huge at the time. I think of that while watching the superb documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (BBC Four, Tuesday).

In the early 1960s a respected American scientist, John Lilly, has the idea that he can get dolphins to talk, as they’re great mimics and have bigger brains than humans. The space programme is in full swing, and someone decides that if Lilly can get dolphins to speak English it will be handy when we need to communicate with extraterrestrials. So, with Nasa funding, he builds a house on the Virgin Islands with a ground-floor pool and sets about teaching three limelight-friendly dolphins – they have been extras in Flipper – to speak.

Things quickly turn countercultural when a young assistant, Margaret Howe, decides to flood the upper levels of the house so that Peter the dolphin can come up and live with her while she teaches him.

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