Ask just about anyone and they’ll tell you what they want (what they really, really want). A bigger house? Maybe. To find a partner? Sure. To see their parents again without having to talk them through the finer details of working Zoom each (and every) time? You betcha.
Ultimately though, we just want to be happy.
But ask just about anyone to tell you what exactly that really, really means and they’ll tell you, well, they really don’t know.
Across the ages everyone from Hippocrates to Freud, Martin Luther King to Abraham Lincoln and even Tony Robbins to Pharrell Williams (clap along – if you feel like a room without a roof of course) have thrown the question out there too. What is ‘happy’? And how do we find it?
I’m glad to say that in recent years, science has moved the case even further forward. Whilst traditionally psychology and psychiatry have been about what’s going wrong and how we fix it, now more so than ever we’re adding equal focus to what’s right and how we build it.
Whilst ‘happiness’ is variably defined across the literature, that one little thing that we’re all after can most aptly be pinned down to sitting in the green light of the emotional spectrum most of the time. What it definitely doesn’t mean is a life without challenge, frustration, lows and loss. It’s not normal to feel happy and #blessed all the time. Happiness is a general sense of wellness and wellbeing. An overarching sense of place and purpose and contentment, even if the traffic’s diabolical and it’s really truly “just one of those weeks”. Happiness is (importantly) separate from joy, which refers to a much briefer dopamine driven hit. Longer lasting neurochemicals and psychology appear to be our best bet at nailing down what it means to be happy, with feelings of gratitude, purpose, connection and contentment coming out on top.
So who exactly are these ‘happy’ people then? And how do I cut myself off a slice of that pie? Well, while one size definitely doesn’t feed all, we now know much more about the building blocks of happiness than we did before.
Some of the earliest theories around what leads to happiness honed in on hedonism as the golden ticket. Ancient Greek philosophers posited that “regimens of the flesh” might hold the lasting key to happy, and prescribed “ample sex, good wine, delicious food and relaxing solitude” as an ancient IKEA kitset for feeling good. Sadly (or not so sadly depending on your vices), simple joys and pleasures are poorly correlated to feeling good in the long term. Turns out the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ is a very real thing, with research showing that momentary pleasures and wins often pump us up for a brief time before sliding back down to baseline.
Later philosophers outlined that happiness might lie more in seeking purpose, connection and using our unique strengths and virtues. As it turns out, this one seems to be much more on the money and while science shows that some level of pleasure/joy driven highs alongside lows is important, it’s a life of meaning, purpose and connection that really rams things home.
Variables such as genetics, age, location and even climate do all have an impact. The good thing? These are small, and smaller still compared to some of the other things we can do to slice off some happy pie. A common question is whether money equals happiness. The science here is again reassuring, with research showing income and financial gain only correlate to higher happiness level to a cut off point. While happiness does increase with salary up until a point, when our bank balance is enough to get by with the basics for living and securing our safety, research shows there’s no link to more money resulting in more smiles.
[As an FYI, the same study found that an annual income of US$105k was the happiness sweet spot.]
Far and away one of the strongest correlations to living happier is living more connected. Research shows that strong and open social links offer big boosts when it comes to our overall happiness. Cultivating relationships with family, friends and partners is key to a happy life. Those who feel supported and able to share their true feelings with others openly often come out on top on this one. And it’s good to know that the lab backs quality over quantity – even a small number of strong social connections makes all the difference. It’s high time we throw that Insta follower count aside.
Those who feel a greater sense of control and internal direction over their choices, changes and lives are shown to be generally happier overall. An ‘internal locus of control’ in psychology-speak is one in which a person feels that they can exert an influence over their lives and what happens to them. Science shows that this packs a punch when it comes to boosting happiness, and so going with directions and choices for our lives that line up with our real needs, true skills and sense of purpose seems to be the way to go.
Making time for activities and talents that connect with us on a deeper level is consistently shown to correlate to that big ol’ smile emoji. Whether it’s exercise, sport, artistic endeavours, music or (to be honest) whatever floats your particular boat, making regular time for states of ‘flow’ and provides a key ingredient to a happier, more fulfilled, life.
Even the hardest of work and most trying of times can still coincide with happiness when there’s a real sense of meaning and purpose behind that final product. Research shows that those who attack life with regular reminders of purpose are those who feel happier. Working out and writing down our purpose overall, but also the wider meaning to annoying jobs, difficult times or struggles can actually help lift us long term.
Gratitude is another repeat offender when it comes to what ranks highest on research backed correlates to happiness. Turns out the science of happy is that gratitude grows happiness, and that happiness in turn grows gratitude. Those who regularly practice reminding themselves of what there is to be thankful for are more often than not those who are found to score highest on happiness levels. Get into the swing of reflecting on these and writing it down daily; finding even simple things to feel thankful for is a solid way to turn that frown upside down
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” An old Chinese saying that is actually holds its roots in some pretty serious science. Yes, helping others makes you just as happy as the recipient.
Social Science & Medicine reports that those who perform volunteer work on a weekly basis are anecdotally 16 per cent more happy than those who don’t participate in any work at all. And MRI tech has been used to back up the anecdotal research, with ‘giving activites’ igniting the same brain receptors stimulated by food and sex. Essentially, altruism is the one of the ultimate uppers… for you and those around you.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, chat to a medical professional and reach out to a support hotline: