Finding your happiness

Everybody wants to feel happy and at peace. But what are the best ways to find and sustain happiness in 2022?

The most popular course in the history of Harvard University is, famously, a course on positive psychology. The New Zealand government made a commitment to measuring “gross domestic happiness” and allotting a national wellbeing budget in 2019. You can now download happiness apps, listen to happiness podcasts and take part in happiness workshops all around the world. 

Clearly, we want to be happy. And just as clearly, we’re not sure how to be – there’s a market for all those how-to guides and meditation apps.

But as we adapt to living with Covid, we could all use a little extra help feeling our best. I chatted to a couple of happiness experts to get the scoop on how to find, grow and sustain a sense of personal happiness and was surprised to find it’s simpler than you might think.

What is happiness?

According to Google data, happiness has become more and more of a concern in the past 15 years. In 2020, more people Googled “happiness” than ever before in the search engine’s history – reflecting both how badly we wanted to be happy, and how unhappy we felt during Covid.

But what is happiness, and why has it become such a hot topic in recent years? Is happiness a state of euphoria, or a steady sense of contentment? Is it about the big picture (feeling broadly happy in your job, your relationships, your hobbies) or the small details (accumulating little moments of joy)? And if the pursuit of happiness only took off as a trend in the early 2000s, why was that? Was it just the machinations of capitalism, building a new industry to prompt more consumer spending (buy this yoga mat, buy this meditation app, buy these books)? Were we unhappier than ever?

Karlyn Sullivan-Jones, Kiwi counsellor and author of the forthcoming book Be Inspired!, defines happiness as “an emotional state of joy and satisfaction”. She suggests it’s about creating everyday joy: “Happiness is a combination of unique little things that bring contentment, excitement, gratitude and love.”

Similarly, Fleur Chambers, meditation teacher and creator of the “Happy Habit” app, says happiness is a combination of big picture contentment and day-to-day little things. She suggests it’s taken off in the modern era not because we’re unhappier than ever, but because we can measure happiness so much more scientifically.

“With the growth of the fields of neuroscience and psychology, we’ve finally got evidence that says it’s possible to grow happier through your actions,” she says. “Just as we can get physically fit, we can get happy fit.”

The wellbeing budget

Meanwhile, the New Zealand government equates happiness with wellbeing. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government instated a “wellbeing budget” in 2019, with the aim of ensuring government spending bolsters citizens’ health and life satisfaction, rather than just economic growth. Ultimately, it asserts, we have the evidence now to suggest focusing on happiness will benefit New Zealanders.

The government’s focus on happiness reflects the fact that we’re both more able to do something about it and more uncertain about the future than ever. As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, explains, the modern era’s happiness obsession is the result of two factors.

First, there’s our era’s general prosperity, which frees us up to think hard about questions like “Am I satisfied at work?” and “Do I have the life I want?” Second, there’s the looming uncertainty of the future, with scary factors like climate change pushing us to focus on what we can control: our own happiness.

The truth is, we probably all have a slightly different understanding of happiness and why it’s such a buzzword today. But at its simplest, it can be perhaps boiled down to feeling contented – not euphoric, but steady and positive – most of the time. What’s crucial is that it’s a state most people strive to attain: happiness is desirable, across different cultures and income brackets.

Why be happy?

But should we be pursuing happiness? Some science suggests doing so obsessively can actually make it harder to be happy.

A University of California, Berkeley study found that people who rate happiness as an important factor for them enjoy pleasurable moments less while they’re happening.

Additionally, a 2018 study from the University of Toronto found that encouraging people to think about improving their happiness actually elicited a kind of panic, related to running out of time. When researchers asked participants to list 10 activities that could boost their happiness, the reminder of all the things they weren’t doing already to be happy made them realise how little time they had to feel happy.

Two American researchers even found that certain popular “happiness interventions”, like gratitude journaling and performing a conscious act of kindness, may be better in moderation.

One study showed that students who counted their blessings once a week experienced a boost in happiness – but those who counted their blessings three times a week actually decreased slightly in happiness from their baseline level. Why? Having to keep a gratitude journal too regularly can feel like a chore, rather than an enjoyable activity.

In short, our obsession with happiness may be making us less happy – and we might be happier if we stopped focusing on attaining happiness altogether. 

But perhaps it’s about redefining where we can find happiness. As Fleur Chambers suggests, it’s a mistake to think of happiness as some ultimately attainable state.

“Most of us are in the habit of chasing happiness. I’ll be happy when I lose five kilos, when the pandemic’s over, when we get a puppy… whatever it is. When we get in the habit of chasing happiness, we lose the capacity to be in the wonder of the present moment, but happiness can only be found in the present moment,” she says.

Happiness as resistance

No matter how much we struggle to define it, we could all use a little extra happiness right now, as we adapt to a world with Omicron in it. Seeking out happiness even when things are tough is a form of coping.

We all know how life-affirming it is to have a positive experience, however small – think of the pleasure of sipping a delicious coffee. But knowing how to get back to a place of happiness can also make it easier to weather difficult times.

“I think of it as your inner tool kit,” says Chambers. “You’ve got to know the basics of how to soothe your nervous system and offer your full presence over to the small moment. Being able to do that enables you to embrace your whole life, even the parts that caught you by surprise.”

What’s more, just as there is evidence to show obsessing about your happiness won’t make you happier, other studies show that actively thinking about your happiness could help you feel cheerier.

One study from Bristol University found that first year students who had completed a “science of happiness” course were more upbeat than their peers who had not taken it. The course involved learning about the science of happiness, carrying out practical happiness-boosting tasks (like chatting to a stranger) and reflecting on their mental wellbeing.

How to boost your happiness

Actively boosting our happiness – without obsessing over it – seems like the way to go. So, what’s the best way to boost personal, day-to-day happiness?

Sullivan-Jones and Chambers were unanimous: happiness comes down to being present in the moment, identifying and enjoying what gives you joy and maximising balance. In a nutshell, they advised, find happiness in the everyday, rather than always chasing it. So – how?

Build meaningful relationships

Even if you’re not a people person, cultivating close, fulfilling relationships is key to happiness. Healthy relationships with loved ones help keep you grounded – providing someone to celebrate your wins and cheer you on when the going gets tough.

Sullivan-Jones stresses that it’s not about having a huge network of connections, just a few really good ones sustained over time. Even connecting with one other person – or pet – can relieve loneliness and release happy hormones.

Chambers says that building meaningful relationships is about trying to be more present in all our interactions.

“When people communicate, they’re often either judging the other person, waiting to offer their opinion or waiting to see if their opinion of others was confirmed,” she says. “Letting go of the ideas and judgements we have about people when we interact with them is really powerful.”

Another facet of supporting meaningful relationships is knowing when to put yourself first. You are responsible first and foremost for your own wellbeing, not pleasing other people. Sullivan-Jones suggests letting go of expectations and focusing on what is meaningful to you. A positive affirmation – like “I am doing this for me” – can help.

Get involved in your community

It’s well documented that performing random acts of kindness releases oxytocin, the “love hormone”, which boosts your mood. Meanwhile, the effective altruism movement – which encourages giving time and money to help others do good – is credited with increasing the happiness of its proponents. Co-founder William MacAskill, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, even credits effective altruism with alleviating his depression.

In short, doing good in your community does you good, too. Whether you volunteer your time for a tree-planting effort, donate to charity (especially in a way where you can see the output of your contribution), coach a kids’ sports team or host a coffee group, giving back to your community helps you feel those warm fuzzies.

As Chambers points out, it’s about feeling valuable and included. “It could be as simple as volunteering at school,” she says. “Whatever it is, it creates a sense of deep connection and feeling like you’re contributing, which is a key determinant of happiness.”

Be mindful

Both Sullivan-Jones and Chambers highlight the importance of being mindful and savouring the small details. Anchoring yourself in the present is extremely good for your mental health – not only because it stops anxiety from spiralling, but because it is associated with a sense of purpose and engagement. Being present in the moment stops you from dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.

The easiest way to practice mindfulness doesn’t involve any special skills – just paying attention to your senses. Sullivan-Jones suggests spending thoughtful time in nature. “I usually go walking down by the river, with my dogs,” says Sullivan-Jones.

“I stop and smell the flowers, I watch the river flowing, I listen to the birds or the wind in the trees. This is my number one mood-booster!”

Chambers says being outdoors is also her top mood-booster. “Nature offers you a way to slow down and offer your full, warm-hearted presence over to the small moment,” she says. This kind of moment is useful for putting your day in perspective.

For Sullivan-Jones, being mindful is also about goal-setting. She recommends creating a vision board to help create a picture of what happiness looks like for you. Cover a large piece of cardboard or canvas with images and words that inspire you – it could be pictures from magazines, quotes you find meaningful, photos or anything else you like. What do you want more of in your life, big or small?

When I did this exercise, I realised I want my life to include more sea swims, long dinners with friends and knowing better how to cope when I get anxious. Once you’ve realised what you want, you’re in a much better position to get out there and pursue it. 

Balance work and leisure

One major key to happiness is knowing when to switch off from work. No matter how much you love your job, you need a break from it to reset, so you can come back to it with renewed energy and enthusiasm – and if you hate your job, it’s important to get away from it!

Chambers notes that it takes a lot of diligence to switch off from work, particularly if you have a stressful job or are working from home, so it’s important to be intentional.

She advises introducing a physical stop point between the end of the workday and the beginning of leisure time: think doing 25 star jumps, closing your computer and putting it in a cupboard, taking five mindful breaths or walking the dog round the block.

The second key to successfully switching off is noticing when you’re thinking about work during your leisure time. “When you notice your mind coming back to that email, you need to say to yourself, actually, I get to choose where I place my attention,” says Chambers.

“Right now I’m going to place it with the dinner I’m about to eat – not with that email that upset me earlier.” Doing so takes practice, she says, but it pays off a hundredfold. “Don’t forget that you deserve this time off.”

Get physical

Your mental health is surprisingly connected to physical factors – in particular, to the chemicals in your brain. There are four main “happiness” chemicals, which boost your mood in different ways.

Dopamine, or the reward chemical, is released when your brain is expecting a reward – you may get a hit from certain foods, sex, shopping or just ticking an item off your to-do list. Quick ways to get a dopamine hit? Achieve something, however small, or eat something delicious.

Oxytocin, the “love hormone”, is released during labour, breastfeeding and sex – but also following gentle skin stimulation, such as when you’re stroking
a dog or having a cuddle. To boost your levels, try having a warm bath, playing with a baby or pet or hugging a friend.

Serotonin, a mood stabiliser, controls bodily processes including sleep and anxiety. You can up your serotonin and calm your mood through physical activity such as swimming or running, meditating, spending time in nature or sun exposure.

Finally, endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, are produced through exercise and make you feel positive and energetic. To up your endorphins, try working out, watching a comedy and getting your laugh on or sniffing “euphoric” essential oils such as lavender.

More broadly, your physical health is key to your mental health, although punishingly hard exercise isn’t the be all and end all. Chambers has suffered from chronic pain for several years, which has stopped her from being able to move her body as actively as she might like – but she’s been happy anyway.

“There are 1.5 billion people in the world who experience chronic pain, and I think it’s dangerous to say that you can only be happy if you have good physical capacity,” she says. “However, don’t we all feel better when we’ve stretched, or taken a few deep breaths? We hold a lot of tension in our body and moving even gently can help.”

Sullivan-Jones adds that it’s not all about exercise, either – you can also support your happiness through eating well, getting good sleep and making sure you relax.

Practise gratitude

Although obsessively keeping a gratitude journal may feel like a chore, practising some gratitude is a great way to lift your spirits. Doing so helps you appreciate what you have, and extract twice the pleasure from it: first, in experiencing whatever you’re grateful for, and second, in remembering that experience. 

“Practicing gratitude increases your feeling of happiness and helps to create hope for your future,” says Sullivan-Jones. “It increases your resilience, making you feel less depressed or anxious.”

One of the best things about gratitude – and positive psychology more generally – is how easy it is to practise. “Practical people can do it, spiritual people can do it, people who like exercise, people who like stillness… everyone can take the time to have a moment of gratitude,” says Chambers. “It’s free and doesn’t take long.”

Sullivan-Jones suggests starting with a positive mantra you can recite when you need a pick-me-up – something like “I am grateful for my healthy body”, or “I am grateful for my wonderful children”. After just a few repetitions, she suggests, you’ll start to internalise the message. And adopting a gratitude mantra at night of five things you’re grateful for can also help you get to sleep.

Spend money wisely 

They say money can’t buy you happiness. But spending it wisely can make your life easier and more enjoyable. Research from Harvard Business School, shows that spending your money on outsourcing tasks you find unpleasant can seriously improve your sense of wellbeing.

Time-saving purchases – like buying takeaways for dinner so you can spend time with loved ones, or employing a cleaner so you can reclaim your Saturdays – can boost your mood and save you stress.

That might seem obvious, but most people tend to value time over money, particularly in this day and age, where we tend to equate busyness with success and there’s an unspoken sense that success means juggling everything by yourself.

Additionally, professors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton offer five principles for happy spending in their book Happy Money: buy experiences, not things; make your favourite things into treats again (which might mean cutting back for a while); buy time; pay now and consume later (so you have something to look forward to); and invest in others.

Don’t expect to be happy all the time 

Most importantly of all, experts are unanimous on one point: you shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time – it’s just not possible. 

“Happiness is not this feel-good place devoid of any uncomfortable emotion,” says Chambers. “It’s about having a deep sense that whatever life throws at you, you’ll be able to respond well.”

Some experts even go so far as to suggest a little bit of pain is necessary to overall happiness. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that the most satisfying lives involve challenge, struggle and fear – not just happiness.

“We don’t only seek pleasure, we also want to live meaningful lives,” he explains in a recent article for The Guardian, “and this involves willingly experiencing pain, anxiety and struggle. We see value in chosen suffering.” It’s this impulse for meaning that leads people to run marathons and have children – rather than just laze about scoffing chocolate.

So, how can you feel happier? Try to enjoy life moment to moment – get outside, move your body, connect with loved ones, practise gratitude – but don’t get hung up on making every second perfect. Know how to calm your body and mind, and cultivate relationships with people who will support you through hardship.

Have a list of things that always lift your mood – a walk with the dog; ice cream with the kids – so you know what to do when you’re feeling blue. And above all, trust the rhythm: life is ever-changing, and happiness will come back around.

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