Today is the day that the UN has designated as World Happiness Day to mark a changing consciousness away from material acquisitiveness and towards a new way (some might say it is actually a return to an old way) of achieving happiness.
Happiness, can be defined in many different ways. There is the hedonic pleasure that one can experience from eating an ice cream or the heady rush of buying a Ferrari and showing up your friends. Economists, psychologists and neurobiologists would all argue that these are not the things that evidence suggests will provide lasting happiness. Humans have an innate ability to adapt and as we obtain more luxury, we become accustomed to it. Like a drug, it takes more and more ‘stuff’ to give us the pleasure that we used to have. We can never be satiated.
And so, what is a better measure of lasting happiness? In his seminal book on the subject, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard defines happiness as:
“…feeling good – enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained. By unhappiness, I mean feeling bad and wishing things were different”
Layard goes on to argue that happiness – at both the individual and societal level – boils down to the search for a few essentials: status, security and trust. Without a consistent set of values, rights and responsibilities, and without understanding what brings about lasting happiness, the pursuit of this definition could lead to mayhem, with our drive for status and security resulting in – Oh, let’s be extreme here – the richest 1 percent of the world owning more than the rest of us combined. Or, our drive for security, in a world where relationships are necessary but people cannot be trusted, could result in – again, just to be extreme – the building of walls at country borders, the increasing surveillance of the populace and a growing attitude of “us versus them.”
Can you imagine a world like that?
Yes, I think in 2016, we all can. And so, if what we want is status, security and trust in order to be happy, how can we go about building that? In honour of World Happiness Day, I offer you 5 ways I believe we can use the principles of the practices of this site to begin to build a happier world, starting with ourselves:
1. Appreciate all you have: We all have a need for status. But status that is based on comparison is a zero sum game. If I have a better car than you do, I feel better, but you feel worse. There can be only one winner, and there must be a loser. And what happens when a third party comes along with an even better car? My status is gone as it transfers to the neighbour. Comparison offers only temporary happiness, at best.
Our sense of ‘status’ comes down to a sense of ‘abundance’ when we dig beneath the surface. One way to achieve this sense of abundance is to allow ourselves to experience and appreciate all that we already have. We can appreciate the material possessions we have, the experiences we have had and continue to have, every day. We can appreciate the skills and education we have acquired. And, we can appreciate all the love and support that our relationships provide. When we begin to look around and appreciate all we have, whether our car is a newer model than our neighbour’s loses any meaning. We have abundance, simply because we have a car that gives us transportation and comfort.
2. Pay attention to the positive: Neuroscience and psychology posits that humans have a negativity bias which has been important for survival. In order to run from wild animals, to shelter from storms and to last out the winter starvation, primitive humans had to scan the environment for risks to our lives. This is a pattern of a very old part of the brain which is much less required, for humans adapted to modern city living. Our negativity bias, however, remains. Unless we become aware of our tendency to catastrophise and paint everything in a negative light, our mood can suffer from our thinking. Whether people are trustworthy or not, whether we feel secure and whether our status is under threat are facts that can be objectively determined, but our mind has a bias to think and spot threats.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and certain types of meditation help train individuals to challenge their automatic thinking and, where appropriate, to replace outworn negative thoughts with more positive thoughts.
With growing evidence from neuroscience, we see that the more we train our brain to make new pathways to more measured and positive thought patterns of realistic optimism, the quicker we can short circuit our pessimism and become happier individuals. Noticing positive thoughts and the emotions that they engender is another practice that can help build and strengthen these neuropathways.
3. Nurture relationships: Research shows that those with strong bonds of trust, loyalty, security and love tend to live longer and are happier individuals. In all studies, across disciplines, strong relationships are the most commonly cited factor that is crucial to lasting happiness.
There is a lot of pessimism in the press these days about the self centredness of our culture, of the disposability of relationships, of the replacement of dating and intimacy with hookups on Tinder and Grindr. Okay, this may well be a fact. But, not everyone is participating. I know this, because I am not. And I suspect that where there is one…there are others.
Love, I would suggest, is not something we ‘get’ from someone else. Love is something that comes from inside of ourselves. We make the choice to be loving or not. How others respond to it is, in many ways, not our business. What is our business is to be a person of integrity, to be trustworthy, to be curious about others and life in general, to be consistent and compassionate and to be loving. We must be what it is that we want to see in our world.
“Won’t we be used?” I hear someone ask. Perhaps. But we also have a responsibility to choose how we spend our time, and with whom. When we find someone who acts with integrity, who is trustworthy, curious and consistent, who is compassionate and loving, we ought to invest more of our time into that kind of reciprocal relationship.
And most of all, we must build a strong relationship with ourselves. If we build our own characters so that we are persons of integrity, curiosity, consistency, compassion, and love, we will (I guarantee you this) enjoy our own company. And, by being comfortable in our own skin, we will attract others out of mutual regard and reciprocity, rather than need.
Maybe we won’t end up with the hottest girlfriend on Tinder or the stud from Grindr. But we will have a circle of friends and companions, and hopefully a partner that fulfills our human need to love and to be loved; to hold and to be held.
Be patient. Be consistent. Be the catalyst. Those wonderful people are not living behind the sofa. It takes time and effort to get out and meet people – many people – until we find a few with whom we connect. We are more likely to meet them if we are engaged in activities that align with our values than simply ‘mixers’.
Building relationships takes time. I have built friendships with a handful of people that have taken 20 years or more to nurture. Sometimes people will come and go from our lives, and that is fine, too. The key is to keep making and nurturing relationships with ourselves and others that are likely to fill our deepest needs, and not our immediate urge for gratification.
4. Be Kind and Do Good for Others: Research from the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that altruism makes people feel good. Being kind, paying it forward, doing acts of service, and volunteering all make us feel good. And, they do more than make us feel good, individually. They make the recipient feel good as well. Being on the receiving end of an act of kindness makes the recipient much more likely to be kind and altruistic, in turn. One act builds a virtuous circle of kindness and builds social capital in our communities, creating the trust and security we all require, to be happy.
5. Make a Life of Meaning and Live in Alignment With Your Values: In the past 50 years, our lives have become far more secular than they used to be. Just a generation ago, church attendance was a regular feature of weekly lives and, whilst people tried and failed to live up to the values of their religion, individuals had an organising set of principles around which to live their lives. Living in alignment with a set of spiritual values gave meaning to life.
Coincidental with the decline of spiritual values has been the increase in the drive for status. It leads me to suspect that status is a maladaptive attempt to fill the void. How then, can we find meaning in our lives?
A values exercise can be a helpful beginning. How many of us have really taken the time to sit down with a set of values and choose our top 5 values and then prioritise those? And how many of us have taken the time to look at how we spend our time and determine if we are living in alignment with our values? Even if we have done these exercises in the past, periodic review is important, because life changes often bring about values changes and life pressures can mean we spend more and more time not in alignment with our values and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with life, as a result.
It is incredibly simple. And deeply powerful.
Let’s say that my top 5 values are: Beauty, Truth, Legacy, Nature and Family. I may choose to spend more time volunteering with a conservation charity to ensure a legacy of the beautiful natural world, and I will spend time camping with my children. If my job requires me to lie to customers, I will become unhappy very quickly and either want to leave or go off sick with stress. My life will certainly not be a happy one and my family will suffer, which will make me even more unhappy.
Once we have done a values exercise – thinking through our top values – we can begin to organise our personal and professional lives around the things which we hold dear. Living a live aligned with our values gives meaning to life.
There are many free tools online to aid in values identification. An example can be found here.
I hope you’ll give these 5 techniques a try over the next 365 days. If you do, I believe the world will be a happier place, because of you, on World Happiness Day, 2017.