Are you happy?
Do you want to be?
Happiness is the modern world’s holy grail, at least, it is in the Western world (there’s evidence that some cultures actually have a ‘fear’ of happiness).
But what is happiness? And how, practically, can you become happier?
And can you, as a friend suggests, ‘Choose Happiness’?
What is happiness?
Personally, I’m not even that keen on the word ‘happiness’. Perhaps because it’s over-used, a cliché, unsustainable.
A word I’ve always liked to aim for is ‘contentment’.
There’s something beautiful in the phrase ‘bone-deep contentment’ that conjures up images for me of autumn evenings by the fire, lying on the lap of a loved one, reading a book, with hot chocolate within reach…which immediately tells you something about what happiness might mean to me.
Do you have something – an experience, an activity, a person – that comes to mind when you think of happiness?
We can find contentment, happiness, harmony – all these different kinds of sparkle – in many varied areas and ways.
I have two favourite books that review the happiness research and make practical suggestions as to how you can improve your life. There’s a wonderful (but hard to get, sorry!) little book, The Rough Guide to Happiness, written by a psychologist, which gives you a run down on all the different theories of happiness out there. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through them all now.)
And then there’s The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Ruben, a delightful and engaging book about her year of happiness research and experiments. I highly recommend both of these if you just want to increase your happiness levels even a little bit.
But I’ll share just two models that I think are useful in increasing the amount of happiness in our day to day lives.
Seligman’s Five Aspects of Happiness (PERMA) Model
Martin Seligman’s positive psychology model suggests that there are five different aspects that can increase our happiness (see his book Flourish for more ):
This is the warm fire and the hot chocolate in my example above.
It’s about sensual gratification – delicious food, the touch of different fabrics on your skin, the crunch of autumn leaves, the smell of coffee.
As I write this, my little daily pleasure is swinging in my hammock on a breezy day in Thailand, watching the sea and the sky.
Pleasure can be what springs to mind for most of us when we think of what makes us happy, but it’s only part of the story.
This is also known as ‘flow’, the concept most researched and written about by the wonderfully named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
Flow is a state of complete absorption in a task, where we are immersed, single-mindedly, in something that is both enjoyable and challenging. It’s a motivating and energising feeling, contributing to happiness, as when we’re in ‘flow’ we have a feeling of spontaneous joy.
I feel the most flow when I’m writing, but I can also feel it when I get stuck into a project where I’m creating anything – materials for a workshop or a course for example, or, when I tried out art classes, creating my little masterpieces definitely involved the feeling of flow.
For introverts and extroverts alike, our relationships, our social connections, are a key part of how happy we are.
Studies seem to vary as to how many close relationships are best for maximum happiness (5-15), and how often you should connect with them (I recently read some research that fortnightly contact was the minimum, but I cannot for the life of me find the link – you’ll just have to trust me!), but investing time in the people we love and feel closest to seems to be a very core part of happiness.
And that goes for introverts too: you’re just more likely to enjoy seeing people individually than in large groups.
Who am I? Why am I here?
People who feel that their life has some sort of meaning – supporting charitable causes, doing God’s work, helping others, developing themselves – are happier. Meaning is created by seeing ourselves as part of something bigger – cosmic order, living a ‘good’ life – the list here is endless.
People who genuinely find in themselves the ‘thing they were meant to do,’ and do it (popularised by Joseph Campbell and his precept ‘Follow your Bliss’) are happier.
This is about setting goals and achieving them.
Again, these goals will differ from person to person, but the idea is to set goals and move towards them, pursuing success, mastery and achievement. You might be learning an instrument, achieving a goal like writing a novel or getting promoted.
Or it might be smaller goals; for example, I write ‘morning pages’ (1000 words of free writing) about 28/30 days each month.
With all of these, a key aspect is that each of the five aspects differs for every one of us.
What brings me pleasure, engages me, the people with whom I create relationships, the meaning I have found in my own life, and the goals I set for myself are likely to be very different from yours. But starting to think about these five ideas, and making sure we actually have some coverage of each of them in our activities can really help increase happiness in our lives.
Mortifying ourselves and never seeking out pleasure, for example, is just as unhelpful as being so goal focused you forget to nurture the relationships around you.
If you’re interested in learning more, you can watch Seligman’s Ted Talk (‘The New Era of Positive Psychology’) or buy the book, Flourish. He’s a pretty impressive psychologist (yes, I’m geeking out a bit here!).
Gretchen Rubin’s Four Stages of Happiness
Gretchen Rubin’s book bursts with lively and honest examples of her experiments in creating a happier life. It’s a great read, and I loved the whole book, but wanted to share one concept here, which is about how we experience moments of happiness.
Rather than happiness being a single event in time, she suggests that we can extend the happiness to be an experience with these four stages.
1. Anticipate with Pleasure
Look forward to events. My Mum’s not keen on surprises, and her reason is that she gets a lot of pleasure out of looking forward to events.
For happy experiences like a date with a romantic interest, or a holiday, anticipating the experience will extend the pleasure. In fact, for many of us, the planning of a party can be the most pleasurable part.
2. Savour the moment as we experience it
Although these events can pass in a flash, savouring the moment helps not only in the moment, but also when we’re remembering the experience (see 4).
Being mindful and present, paying attention to the experience, is a big part of extending happiness.
3. Express happiness (to ourself or others)
Sharing the happiness with those who’ll be receptive – ideally in real life, not just on social media – increases the amount of happiness we feel about an event.
4. Reflect on a happy memory
The happiness doesn’t have to finish there. Just think about wedding albums, and the way we often enjoy going back over photos from our past. We can also reflect on the experience, and the very act of reflecting can call up the happy feelings we felt in the moment.
With these four stages, we can amplify or minimise any happy event, depending on how much attention we give it.
So can you make yourself be happy? Do you really have a choice?
Sometimes, when we’re in the middle of a crisis, we can feel like there’s no choice in how we feel.
But have you ever had a row with someone, and then watched a film?
Been distracted by a comedy, laughing, even when you don’t feel like it?
Sometimes, I think, we want to wallow, and we listen to sad music. A friend was telling me about his sister who re-watches her favourite ‘weepies’ to engage with those emotions if she’s feeling sad.
I’m not, of course, talking about depression here, but I do think that sometimes we forget there is some level of choice around our feelings. Feelings are transitory, they do change – sometimes frequently.
When we focus on happiness, for example, by balancing the levels of PERMA in our lives, or reflecting back on a moment that created happiness in our past, we can tip the balance in favour of happiness.
A Personal Take
A close friend and I, both of us having had our ups and downs over the 10 years we’ve known each other, often finish our emails off with the final paragraph “Things making me happy:…”
It’s a beautiful practice, taking in gratitude and sharing the love. You might see it again here on the blog, as I’d love an opportunity for us all to regularly share what’s creating happiness in each of our lives – from the tiny to the huge.
So then. Things making me happy this month:
- New albums from Passenger and Jason Mraz
- Shoulder stand and Cobra pose in my yoga practice
- Getting my site out into the world, connecting with inspiring new readers
- Impromptu meetings over fragrant cappuccinos
- Being ‘in flow’ on another project
- Comfy sofas and armchairs
- Listening to the rain on the conservatory roof
- Being able to watch the leaves change in the UK
Even in our darkest moments, we can usually find, perhaps not sparkle, but a tiny glimmer of something positive.
I would love to know what’s making you happy at the moment – please comment below.
It will make a truly beautiful set of comments to read – and hopefully something that can bring that happiness to others in turn. If you’ve never written a comment on a website before, this is the place to start!
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