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How to be Happy

Published : August 17, 2015

Such arduous times as the present mark a period of reprioritising and reflection for many.

Yet how does parting with a pay rise, material possessions, or luxury holiday affect us and our happiness? What really makes us happy when stripped bare?

By Alexandra Wilson


Recent social and scientific studies assert that happiness correlates with an array of common factors, yet most profoundly, in the words of Aristotle, that “Happiness depends on ourselves.” Unfortunately, there is no formula to follow, nor a complacent approach to take on our road to contentment. We are all assigned, if you like, a personal pin code, a balance of any number of factors which represent the key to a happy life.

On first thought, my pin consists of the lilting sounds of crystal ocean, two sets of footprints in sugary white sand, a shady sun bed, and a coconut cocktail in hand. Wakening from my fantasy however, I realise not only how unoriginal I am, yet how shallow and purposeless such a life would be.  According to progressive psychological theories, my belated indifference to the idea of a sunny beach for life, is a sure indication of what does and doesn’t make us happy.

Pleasure, you see, accounts only for a portion of the happiness picture. In the line of positive psychology (the scientific study of optimal human functioning), life satisfaction consists of three orientations of experience. Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the positive psychology field identifies these as pleasure: experiencing fun and pleasantness, engagement: experiencing commitment to a rewarding activity, and meaning: experiencing a sense of internal connectedness and direction.  

Interestingly, engagement and meaning were found in a study of American and Australian samples to be more positively correlated with life satisfaction than was pleasure. In simple terms, we are likely to gain more happiness in the long run by being fully immersed in charity work, or raising our children, than we are from the taste of chocolate, or regular rides on a rollercoaster.

Of course, pleasure, engagement and meaning imply different experiences for every person, and  according to Dr Timothy Sharp, aka Dr Happy, Founder and Chief Officer of the Happiness Institute,#(Jane - see end of article for reference) “One of the first things we all need to do to achieve happiness is define what it means to us, as individuals.”

Coming to terms with what makes us happy is no laughing matter. Perhaps the wise words of Greek philosopher Thucydides best summarise the real challenge of pursuing fulfilment, “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom, courage.” Confines are often imposed upon our happiness, and we must be brave enough to recognise, amend or expel those aspects that cause distress and sadness. We cannot always blame chance and circumstance for bumps in the road as ultimately, we are responsible for our own satisfaction with life.

In considering that there is a level of courage involved in achieving happiness, I must hark back to the story of a friend who always understood and was never ashamed of the choices he made. In hindsight, this must have been because of his self-assurance in the activities and experiences that, for him, lent themselves to authentic happiness.

At school, although constantly surrounded by a crowd of friends, Andrew operated independently, seeking out his passions with or without the support of his parents, or the disparaging comments of peers. It was always obvious that these passions revolved around the arts, yet to what extent, no one could ever have predicted. Sneaky trips to the theatre and a bevy of tattered scrap books bursting with sketches now take the form of professional projects and exhibitions in Berlin.  After travelling extensively, supporting himself via very unglamorous jobs, and persevering in adverse living situations, he is now the subject of great attention in European art circles. I have to assure you that his high level of happiness, with the exception of inevitable ups and downs, has plateaued throughout the entire journey.

Extrapolating from Seligman’s positive psychology, I find Andrew to be prime proof of the theory that meaning, engagement and pleasure comprise a picture of happiness. Meaning in his vocation of art, engagement, in constantly immersing himself in the enjoyment and gratification of his passion, and pleasure in seeing and experiencing the beauty of the world.

Was he always destined for success I wonder? Evidence points to the affirmative. According to University of California psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Happy people like Andrew are “More likely to enter novel situations, interact with other people and pursue new goals.” This premise supports her theory that happiness and the experience of positive emotions often precedes measures of success.  Substantiating her hypothesis further is research that shows people in a good mood are more likely to proceed to the second round of job interviews than their neutral counterparts, and that happiness is associated with curiosity, broadened attention and interests. Dr Sharp concedes, “If we’re happy in ourselves... we’ll indubitably be more productive and more successful.”

Those who experience monetary success, however, are not necessarily the happier for it. All the money in the world, by principle, cannot buy happiness once we cross a modest economic threshold. The biggest smiles do not belong to those with the heaviest pockets, rather to those who possess internal peace and tranquillity, optimism, and gratitude. These attributes, often enmeshed with religion are invaluable to the happiness economy whilst material wants tend to lead to perpetual dissatisfaction.

Although I myself am no stranger to retail therapy, the concept is blown out of the water by the discovery that materially oriented people experience pain that extends beyond the unfulfilled desire to possess. The yearning to acquire possessions transcends into a melting pot of sour emotions such as envy, and irritation, whilst an infinite number of material goods will never suffice wants and expectations. Conversely, an experiment undertaken by University of California  psychological professor Barbara Fredrickson proved that counting one’s blessings, relishing and remembering happy moments, and looking positively toward the future, brings significant happiness. One of her most successful experimental techniques, writing down three good things that happen each day, was effective in producing happiness for at least six months.

The idea that there is no ceiling on the house of happiness, that we can employ strategies to continually  grow in positive emotions is a subject of enthusiasm within psychological circles, says Dr Sharp, “Whereas traditional psychology aimed to help those who are distressed and dysfunctional move from minus 10 to zero (or what I’ve come to call okayness) positive psychology aims to help all people move further; that is, from zero to positive 10.”

He suggests that the following general strategies work for the majority of people seeking a happier life:  


Life Purpose: Having a clear sense of direction and goals as well as knowing what’s really important, as opposed to what others tell us is important or what seems to be urgent.

Healthy Living:  Eating well, exercising regularly and keeping active, as well as ensuring adequate sleep and rest.

Optimistic thinking: Positive, yet flexible and realistic thinking.

Good Quality Relationships:  Happy people have both more and better quality relationships.  Happiness is not just about feeling good it’s also about doing good; happiness is not a selfish pursuit but rather, one that involves loving and caring for others, being altruistic and generous. 

Focus on Talent: The ability to know and to utilise one’s own strengths as opposed to just trying to fix one’s weaknesses.

Having Fun: Living in and being able to enjoy the moment, practicing gratitude and appreciation.

In cause of enhancing happiness, rather than just relieving depression, many aspects of life that are often overlooked, become pertinent. We may, for example take our friends for granted, forgo time with family in favour of work, or fail to see the natural beauty that surrounds us; all of these tendencies completely undermining our potential to become happier.  In short, it is important to focus on the positive, whatever form it takes, and forget the negative.

As Dr Sharp asserts, (see Dr Happy’s Guide to greater happiness), one of the best ways to improve happiness is to recognise your strengths and talents, and realise them daily. These talents do not have to be university accredited, or real in money. In fact, higher education statistically has little positive effect on happiness, whereas extending interpersonal virtues of love, kindness and gratitude is strongly tied to life satisfaction. Sharing talents that involve these virtues, such as supporting a friend in their time of need, or giving honest compliments, is sure way brighten our own life and the lives of others.

The science of happiness tells us that in the company of others, almost every person is happier. The better and more plentiful our relationships are, the higher the chance that we will be happy within ourselves. A happy relationship though, is a balanced one in which trust and respect are mutually exchanged, where the joys of giving and receiving are experienced by both parties. Giving of ourselves in the absence of reciprocation however, is likely to result in low self esteem, dependence, and sadness.

Recovering from situations of mistreatment and abuse is a difficult passage, and a vital time to employ positive thinking in order to grow past the pain of ending a relationship, or to dispel traumatic memories. In the words of American writer Rita Mae Brown, “The key to happiness is a bad memory.” Yet drowning out negative thoughts about the past involves accumulating small positive thoughts, taking time to see the silver lining, and savouring moments of beauty and pleasure.

Achieving happiness, and greater happiness is obviously a gradual process, yet with the information at your disposal, the time is now! Life is here to be enjoyed, so starting today, I hope you will take every opportunity to enjoy it.

# The Happiness Institute is an organisation devoted to helping people find and utilise the skills that produce happiness. To find out about their services visit thehappinessinstitute.com

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