“I salute you,” the prison officer said to me. “Despite everything you are going through you are still able to smile and joke. I wouldn’t be able to last one minute in your situation.”

Over the years I would hear many prison officers, in both the UK and the US, say similar words to me.

“It’s because I believe in God, and the Hereafter,” I would tell them.

“My belief in God reassures me that there is great wisdom behind whatever I am going through, even though I don’t know what it is…”

“And my belief in the Hereafter reassures me that whatever I have lost, or whatever wrong has been done to me, I will get it back. So that is why I smile.”

Over the 11 years that I spent in prison I learned that in addition to a belief that is in your heart, there are three practical things that you can do that will bring a smile to your face, regardless of what you are going through.

1.Start your day by counting your blessings

The two years that I spent in solitary confinement in an American “Supermax” prison were the most difficult two years of my life.

Being locked in a small cell for 23-24 hours a day, in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, not knowing when, or if, you will ever see your family again.

Being strip searched and shackled every time you left your cell, the shackles remaining on even in the shower.

Attention-seeking inmates screaming and banging on the walls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, causing you chronic sleep deprivation.

When I would wake up every morning, after I had prayed my Fajr (dawn) prayer, I would sit on my prayer mat and look around my cell.

And one by one I would thank Allah (God) for some of the blessings that He had given me. I would whisper the blessing and then say thank you for each one.

Thank you, dear Allah, for allowing me to live another day.

Thank you for making me fit and healthy.

Thank you for giving me a bed.

Thank you for giving me a slit in the wall from which I can see the sky and the birds and the trees.

Thank you for running water and a flushing toilet.

Thank you for giving me books to read and pens and paper to write with.

Thank you, because today I am one day closer to my freedom than yesterday.

Thank you, dear Allah, for everything.

By the end of this routine I would be so happy that I would feel as if I was the king of the world. I had everything, what did I have to complain about?

Many things can bring you pleasure but happiness is something that emanates from within you. This is why celebrities and billionaires frequently commit suicide, despite having everything one could imagine.

The key to happiness is to start your day by being grateful for what you have, not to dwell upon the things you do not have.

2. Bring a smile to the face of someone else in distress

Of course, I am human. I would also have my bad days, the difficult ones, ones in which I would struggle to find hope.

Anyone who has been in prison and tells you that they never had any bad days is not being honest. Neither with you, nor themselves.

On my difficult days I would seek out and try to cheer up someone who was also having a difficult day.

If I could not communicate with another prisoner, I would cheer up a prison officer. Several prison officers, the good ones, used to share their personal problems with me, ones that they would not dare share with their own colleagues.

Girlfriend problems, marital issues, health matters, financial worries…

I would say something to cheer them up, a word, a quote, or a story. And in doing so, it would cheer me up.

Whenever you help to bring a smile to the face of a person in distress, you benefit from it before even the person you helped.

3. Laugh

At times during the two years I spent in solitary confinement in the US I would be lying on my bed in my cell, laughing my head off. I did not have a TV and I was not listening to anything.

I think the prison officers would actually think I was crazy, or delirious, or had cracked. I was just laughing about funny things that had happened that day.

No matter how bad things got, I would try to see the funny side of everything. Especially in those instances in which I had the choice whether to laugh or cry. I would always laugh.

Once I was transferred on a security transfer to a prison on the other side of the country and put in segregation. I was put in a filthy cell, my family didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know what was going on.

In the morning an officer came to my door to give me breakfast. I made the cardinal sin of asking him what time exercise was. The face he made at my question was the face of someone who had not eaten any fibre in their diet for the last seven months.

I laughed about that face for the next few days until I was taken out of the segregation unit.

Yes, try to see the humour in everything. Life is tough enough as it is without you having to deprive yourself of a bit of humour and laughter.

The other benefit of laughter during hardship is that if someone is deliberately causing your suffering, like what happened to me, then your laughter causes them pain. Yes, your laughter is a way of getting back at your tormentor or tormentors.


“When life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show that you have a thousand reasons to smile.”

Can you share below some practical things to make you happy while suffering?

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