The subject of happiness is receiving a lot of attention at the moment, probably because a lot of recent studies show that modern living can be depressing.
What is happiness?
The Oxford English Dictionary unhelpfully defines Happiness as “The feeling of being happy.”
The reason for this vagueness is that happiness is different for every one of us. You probably like being happy, and you can probably think of a number of occasions when you have been happy. But what is happy?
The Greeks defined happiness in two main categories: Hedonia, or pleasure, and eudaimonia, or a life well lived. Nowadays psychology defines it as pleasure and meaning, with positive psychologists such as Dr. Martin Seligman adding ‘engagement’ to the mix.
Modern psychologists have used the three definitions above and created a scientific term for happiness called “subjective well-being”.
In measuring this across a number of ordinary people it was found that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes, 40% by our daily activities, and 10% by our circumstances. That means that only 40% of our happiness levels are really, truly, up to us.
How to be happier
Here are some of the things you can do every day to help boost your happiness levels.
Spend time with happy people
To a certain extent you can choose who you spend time with. Happiness is contagious, and those who spend time with joyful people are more likely to be happy in the future. So make sure you’re pursuing social activities with the people who make you happy, and don’t feel too bad for ditching the downers.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Introverts and extroverts find happiness in different kinds of social activity. If you’re an introvert you’ll find social stimulation enjoyable but draining, so don’t feel bad for calling it a night when you’re ready to go home. Extroverts gain energy from social stimulation, so invest energy in more nights out and sociable gatherings and your happiness levels will increase overall.
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer claims that resilience, not happiness, is the opposite of depression. In other words it’s how you bounce back from failure that determines your overall level of happiness. People take risks in life and sometimes those risks end in failure, but remember when you’re old and frail you’ll regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did.
Devote time to giving
Givers experience something called “the helper’s high”, a state of happiness felt through doing charitable work. The act of making a donation or helping someone triggers the reward centre in our brains responsible for dopamine-mediated happiness. The recommended time for happiness increasing voluntary work is 100 hours per year, or about 2 hours per week.
Lose track of time
Immersing yourself in an activity that is simultaneously challenging and meaningful can trigger a state called “flow”. This state causes you to get ‘caught up’ or ‘lose track of time’, which decreases self-consciousness and increases a feeling of achievement. To achieve this state the activity must be challenging, intrinsically enjoyable, and require a skill. Creative past-times are very good for this.
Good listening strengthens relationships and leads to more satisfying experiences. When you listen you open yourself to new knowledge and different perspectives, rather than blocking the world with your own words and thoughts. By listening you also demonstrate confidence and respect for others, you will also walk away from a conversation feeling like your presence served a purpose, a feeling that increases your overall well-being and feelings of happiness.
You’re more emotionally stable when you get good quality sleep. When you’re running low on sleep you’re more likely to experience lack of clarity, low moods, and poor judgement. This will lead to poor decision making, which will lead to feelings of negativity. Some of the worst incidents in human history have been linked to sleep deprivation, including: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the Challenger explosion, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the American Airlines Flight 1420 crash.
To find out more about how to get better quality sleep, read Dr. Raghoonanan’s Top 8 Sleep Tips.
Laugh out loud
Notice the small things that add up to make your day better, and laugh. Laughter has a similar effect on the body to repetitive exercise. Laughter helps us deal with stress and pain, so purposefully allow yourself a chuckle here and there, and you’ll feel happier in the long run.
Play the right music
Listening to music markedly decreases anxiety, but choosing the right music is important. Test subjects asked to identify happy or sad faces while listening to music were more likely to match faces that matched the ‘mood’ of the music. The fact remains that if you’re feeling stressed and anxious, playing your favourite happy song really does help.
Happiness and depression
It’s tempting to link happiness with depression and see one as the opposite of the other. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage (2010):
“The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness. Unhappiness serves a valuable purpose. The opposite of happiness is apathy, which is the loss of joy we feel moving toward our potential.”
Depression is often mistakenly linked with not being tough enough, which is why there’s a stigma associated with it. The fact is that it doesn’t matter how tough you are, depression can affect you because ignoring emotions sometimes backfires. Achor also says:
“The key to a good emotional immune system is being aware of your emotions and channelling the energy they provide toward constructive ends.”
This is especially difficult in a world where we’re bombarded with the positive versions of our friend’s lives through social media, and we find it increasingly difficult to be honest and constructive about negative feelings. A classic example of this is facebook’s decision to announce new relationships, but not announce break-ups. Now all you have is insight into a strange world where everyone is happy, they’re travelling all the time, enjoying crazy social lives, eating amazing camera-worthy food, they’re getting promotions, getting married, having babies, and losing out on… seemingly… nothing.
This is a construct and it’s not real life, which is why it’s important to see friends in person rather than relying on social media and the internet to keep up to date with what’s going on. If you are finding it difficult to cope for whatever reason, babylon has a team of experienced therapists available for sessions remotely. This means you can get the help you need wherever you feel most comfortable.