In this article we look at the positive emotion of happiness as it has been studied and practised, by discussing things that happy people do that we might be able to learn from.
The good news is that with some practice and effort, it is possible to learn to become happier despite our tendency to have a “happiness set-point.”
It’s important to point out that this article is not about mental health, nor is it a substitute for professional care and support for people dealing with a mental health condition. It is purely for educational and informational purposes.
If you have any concerns about your mental health you should make an appointment to discuss these concerns with your GP in order to access the best help for you.
- People interpret happiness in all sorts of ways but ultimately the person best placed to determine your own happiness is you.
- The Subjective Happiness Check in the Evergreen Life app measures how you see yourself overall; as a happy person or a sad person
- This is important because happiness can be modifiable by up to 40%.
- The Subjective Happiness Check is a way to check your base-line happiness level and monitor the effect of any changes.
In our previous wellbeing survey, happiness was identified by our users as being the most important aspect of their overall wellbeing.
Studies involving 275,000 people have demonstrated that happy people have stronger immune systems, suffer less pain, are physically healthier and generally live longer. They are more creative, are better leaders, more likely to marry and have those marriages be fulfilling, and they are more likely to be successful. Happiness is as beneficial as giving up smoking for longevity in healthy populations.
There may be underlying medical, physical, or psycho-spiritual reasons why we might be not be happy. Happiness is influenced by poor diet, environmental toxins, pathogens, physical and psychological trauma as well as social isolation, to name a few. Without addressing these underlying factors a person’s ability to feel happier will be limited.
What people have said about happiness
Mahatma Gandhi “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen Master and Spiritual leader) “Many people think excitement is happiness... But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”
Dali Lama (Spiritual leader of Tibet) describes happiness as more of a state of satisfaction, a neutral experience encompassing peace of mind, warm heartedness, reduced distrust, and a sense of sameness with fellow man. Happiness comes from within, and there is a lot to be happy about.“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions”.
John Lennon "When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life."
Ed Diener (Dr Happiness) used the term “subjective well-being (SWB)”5 to describe the academic study of happiness (because it sounded more scientific!).
According to Diener happiness is a state in which there is:
- Frequent pleasurable feelings
- Infrequent painful feelings
- A sense that life is good
How can we measure our happiness?
Diener also says that people are happy if they think they are happy; or at least, each person is the best judge of whether they are in fact happy or not. And that the ultimate judge of happiness should be “whoever lives inside a person’s skin.”
There are lots of ways we can arrive at some measure of happiness. Most simply, we can ask questions like “Are you happy”? or “How would you rate your happiness on a scale of 1-10?” or “How happy were you yesterday?”
In a 2019 World Happiness Report, the UK was ranked 15th of 156 countries (Finland was no. 1). People were asked to think of a ladder where 10 was the best possible life, and the worst possible life was 0. They were asked to rate their own current lives on a scale 0 to 10.
We have chosen to use the Subjective Happiness Scale developed by Prof. Sonya Lyubomirsky because it measures how you see yourself overall. Whether you see yourself as a happy person, or a sad person. Using the scale as a personal barometer you can discover your baseline happiness level. It’s a starting point from which to notice the effects of any changes you might choose to try either from the list below or something else, for example, a dietary change.
According to Prof. Lyubomisky, 40% of happiness can be modified and it is possible to become happier with intentional activities (the things we do). This compares with 50% of happiness that is genetically determined and only 10% due to life circumstances.
What we can learn from happy people in order to become happier
Acts of kindness
People who volunteer or care for others are happier and less depressed. Caring can involve volunteering as part of an organised group or club but it can be as simple as reaching out to another person. Paying it forward. Happy people are often first to offer help to others.
Counting your blessings is one of the strongest predictors of happiness. This can be easily achieved through keeping a gratitude journal. This is best done once a week; more often than that does not improve happiness.
Holding on to feelings of resentment only serves to help us re-live those negative experiences. The decision to forgive others releases us from this cycle. However, like anything else, it takes some work to become good at it.
Happy people devote a lot of time to their friends and family. People who have one or more close friends they can rely on in times of trouble are happier. Active constructive responding is the ability to show genuine interest in what others have to say. It’s easy to mentally disengage from what others are actually saying in an attempt to come up with what to say next. Responding encouragingly is a powerful way to cultivate positive feelings and nurture your friendships.
Regular exercise is linked with improved mental well-being and a lower incidence of depression. The highly regarded Cochrane Review, in an analysis of 23 studies on exercise and depression, concluded that exercise had a moderate effect on symptoms of depression.
Recently there is much interest in the gut-brain axis, suggesting that what we eat and the bacteria that live in our gut are able to communicate with our brains which may have beneficial effects on mood and cognition.
If we are deeply involved in an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state called "flow". This is also known as being “in the zone” and examples include when playing sports, teaching, or playing an instrument. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an expert in the study of happiness, people are happiest when in a state of “flow”. When fully immersed in what we are doing time seems to stand still.
Happy people often show commitment to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g. fighting fraud, building a better world, or making things). This sense of purpose can lead to increased levels of happiness.
Happy people are more positive. In her book “Positivity” Barbara Fredrickson suggests rather than force positivity, she preferred to use mottos such as “be open”, “be appreciative”, “be curious”, and “be kind.”
Happy people savour life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment. Happy people are more likely to participate in spiritual or religious practises. Happy people are often known for having a reason, meaning or purpose for things they chose to do.
Years of research shows that human beings are happiest when they are engaged in meaningful pursuits and predicts life satisfaction more than the pursuit of pleasure.
Take control of your happiness
40% of happiness can be changed and we can choose to be happier irrespective of our starting point. Much of what we do, we do on autopilot in an unconscious, habitual way. Any change to improve happiness will take practice and will not always be easy.
It’s important to point out that this article is not about mental health, nor is it a substitute for professional care and support of people dealing with a mental health condition. It is purely for educational and informational purposes.
If you have any concerns about your mental health you should make an appointment to discuss with your GP in order to access the best help.