10 Ways to be Happier Today

162 - happinessFeeling a little glum lately ?

You’re not alone. The long and cold month of January can be a struggle for a lot of people, once the festive fun of Christmas and the New Year is over, and real life, real work, real problems and real bank balances return.

In addition the further north you are the less daylight you see over the winter months, with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) being a real, but often unacknowledged, problem for up to ten percent of the population.

The depressing effects of the winter are very real in northern climes, not just due to the reduction in sunlight, but also because we tend to get less physical activity and social interaction, due to the poorer weather and darkness. We also often pick this time of year to try and reinvent ourselves with New Year resolutions and promises of healthier lifestyles, which can just put us under further stress !

As I’ve written before, happiness is a hot topic at the moment, as any lunchtime spent browsing in a bookshop will confirm, which is probably as much to do with the current austerity as anything else, but it does open up a conversation about all sorts of interesting things – including community relationships, work-life balance, materialism and consumerism.

If you could do with a few mid-week and mid-winter suggestions to cheer yourself-up then look no further, but remember just reading about how to be happier isn’t actually going to help – if we want to change we’re actually going to have to DO something.

1 – Get a Bit More Exercise

Our modern sedentary lifestyles mean that we spend most of our days just sitting – changing locations from our car, to our desk , to our sofa. There’s plenty of research showing that exercise has a significant positive effect on mood and can help reduce depression. Even short amounts of regular exercise can help, boosting self esteem, shifting our mental focus and encouraging social interaction, with exercise outside also making the most of what little sunlight there is. In addition physical exercise causes your body to release endorphins, which give rise to feelings of well being, pain relief and relaxation.

2 – Brighten Up Your Environment

Our physical surroundings also play a significant role in affecting our mood. Making a change and brightening things-up, or even just a bit of decluttering or cleaning, can have a tremendous positive effect – as it not only reduces visual reminders of things left undone, or still to do, but also helps us begin to exercise more control over our environment, which is an important aspect of our wellbeing. Increasing the amount of light available might also be a good idea, especially if you are prone to SAD, perhaps try a spot of DIY light therapy.

3 – Get Out of the House

When its dark and the weather’s miserable it can be easy to get into the habit of never leaving the house. Make an effort to get out more – to public spaces like cafes, or just to have a short walk around. As well as helping provide a bit more exercise and social contact, regularly changing our environment is shown to have a positive effect on mood, as new visual surroundings stimulate our interest and tend to distract our focus away from ourselves.

4 – Get Organised

Having control over our lives is an important part of our wellbeing, and with increasingly complex and fragmented lifestyles, a sense of disorganisation, chaos, or having too much to do, can all contribute to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Taking small, definite steps to get things more up to date and under control can often bring a sense of satisfaction and progress, and reduce triggers for negative thoughts and concerns, such as thinking about unpaid bills, piles of washing or long lists of things to do. Getting more organised will also help free-up more time to spend doing things you enjoy.

5 – Change Your Thinking

It seems almost silly to suggest one of the ways we can be happier is to just ‘try to be happier’, but it’s actually true. Being more aware of our own mental life, and taking more control to discourage negative streams of thought, is considered an important element in reducing depression. Known as mindfulness, it’s no more than attempting to be more consciously aware of our patterns of thought, and seeking to interrupt, and not dwell on negative concerns or outcomes.

6 – Get More Sleep

As I’ve written before, lack of sleep is well known to have a significant negative effect on our mood. Research has shown that when people are limited to less than six hours of sleep per night they become more stressed, more irritable, more angry, more sad and more mentally exhausted. Our busy modern lifestyles and the ubiquitous presence of screens and entertainment mean sleep is one of the things we often sacrifice . . . If we want to be happier, we should get more sleep !

7 – Let Go of the Bad Stuff

It seems obvious to say it, but being constantly reminded about ‘the bad stuff’ tends to make us miserable. Unfortunately most of the news we see tends to be ‘the bad stuff’ and we can easily become unduly influenced by world events, the state of the economy, crime and political developments we’re unhappy about etc. Of course I’m not advocating we disconnect from the world, but it might not be a bad idea to balance these constant sources of negative news with a few more positive ones. There’s plenty of good stuff happening out there as well, and being a bit more aware of it might help us feel more positive about the world.

8 – Have More Fun

When we feel a bit down it’s easy to loose touch with many of the things that give us pleasure or that we enjoy, like hobbies and social events, and taking steps to reconnect with the things we enjoy can help us have more fun. Even making plans and arranging dates in the diary, for a holiday, trip, cinema visit or meal out, or even just a get together with friends, as something to look forward to, can have a positive effect. You might also want to invest a bit of time in watching, listening to, or reading some comedy – smiling and laughing produce a powerful effect on our mood and sense of wellbeing.

9 – Do Something for Someone Else

If we want to be happy, there’s a balance to be struck between doing things for ourselves and doing things for other people. If we feel we are always working for and trying to please others, then perhaps we need to concentrate on ourselves for a while, but for many of us shifting our focus away from ourselves and our own problems, and doing something to help others will probably be beneficial. Thinking about, and more importantly doing things for, other people provides connection, purpose and control, and also creates a sense of gratitude as we put our own problems into perspective.

10 – Spend More Time with Friends

Studies into improving happiness have looked at a large range of factors and methods, including many of those listed above, but consistently one factor is judged to be more important than any of the others. If we want to be happier, it seems, we should spend more time in the company of people we like.

Photo by JustTakenPics, via Flickr

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The Higgs Boson of Happiness

So after an attempt at a catchy title, where am I going with this ?

Lovers of good science (and good writing) will be pleased to know I’ve decided against attempting to suggest any tenuous similarity between ‘the Higgs Boson providing mass to particles’ and ‘happiness providing substance to life’.

I’m going instead to suggest the tenuous similarity between scientists searching to understand the Higgs and Happiness – doing experiments, gathering evidence, and now thinking they’ve pretty much found the answer to both.

Of course all good metaphors break down at some point, this one rather sooner than most – but it was fun while it lasted.

While the search for the Higgs Boson is a success for both inspired theoretical physics and skilled engineering, the research to understand the basis of happiness may have the potential to be far more understandable and useful to far more people, at least in the short term.

Our happiness is important. Happy people are healthier, have better immune systems, are more productive, are less aggressive, have better mental health, are more socially engaged and ultimately live longer.

WHAT IS HAPPINESS ?

While science has only recently begun considering happiness – philosophers, politicians and (not least) self-help gurus, have been pondering the question for a lot longer – everyone has a view:

Happiness is a way of travel, not a destination - Roy Goodman

Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony – Gandhi

Happiness is health and a short memory - Audrey Hepburn

Happiness comes not from wealth and splendor, but tranquility and occupation – Thomas Jefferson

There is no happiness in any place except what you bring yourself – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happiness isn’t real unless shared – Christopher McCandles

WAYS TO BE HAPPIER

When it comes to how to be happy there is also no shortage of good advice available. Numerous books, websites and study programmes will suggest any number of the following are likely to increase your happiness:

Focus on the Present Moment

Be Grateful for What You Already Have

Foster a Sense of Optimism

Working Towards and Achieving Our Goals

Do What You Like – or at Least Like What You Do

Get More Physical Exercise

Force Yourself to Smile and Laugh More

Just ‘Choose to be Happy’

THE BEST WAY TO BE HAPPIER

All the above suggestions are probably good advice, and most of the time would stand a good chance of making you happier. But the thing about happiness, is that it’s ultimately subjective. We’re all complex mixtures of our genes, upbringing, experience and circumstances, and there’s simply no single definition of happiness, or secret to attaining it that will satisfy everyone, all of the time.

After all if it was that easy we would have ‘nailed it’ as a species long ago.

But the latest scientific research indicates there is something we can do.

And it fortunately accords with our personal experience and common sense – which all seem to agree that there’s one thing above all others that makes us happy:

Spending time with, and doing things for, people we like.

There’s no question that the greatest levels of happiness are associated with spending time with people we like – note that this may well be our family, but not always . . . it turns our some of us actually find this more stressful than being by ourselves !

The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says: “it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time in the company of people we love and who love us”.

It’s a finding that hardly seems like rocket science, after all if we think back to when we ourselves were happiest, we were probably with someone else.

But it is something we perhaps don’t act upon enough.

Many of us spend more and more time virtually with our screens and technology than in the company of our real friends. Also numerous surveys show as we become more time pressured as we get older we loose touch with our friends. A lot of people aspire to moving to remote, isolated large houses should they become wealthy – detaching themselves from friends and associates in the process !

Discovering the ‘fundamental happiness particle’ might not be as impressive as discovering the Higgs Boson . . . but for most of us, if it results in a few more evenings spent together with friends, then it might ultimately be more meaningful.

 

Photo by Gnomet, via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – The Greatest Gift that I Possess, Jam Tomorrow, 10 Ways You Can Have Enough Money and Stuff, The Fishbowl of Happiness, It IS the Winning and Loosing that Matters

Happy Monday

Sometimes it’s good to do something different.

There’s a lot of urgent and serious problems in the world, and sometimes we need to be confronted by the reality of situations if we’re to be motivated enough to change them. Yes, we should care – but it’s not healthy to let our concern drag down our mood.

Depression and generalised anxiety disorder are the second most commonly diagnosed medical conditions across most of the rich world (after hypertension), with typically 1 in 10 people experiencing depression every year.

Mental and emotional exhaustion can creep up on us in our overloaded and hectic lives, and it’s often those in caring roles and work who are most at risk of burnout and depression.

We should be mindful of our own mood, and make sure that we keep on doing things to lift our spirits and recharge our emotional batteries.

Today, the first Monday in May, is a public holiday in the UK – one of the so called ‘Happy Mondays’. Whether you’ve got today off where you are or not, why not do something different ?

Shake things up, break the same-old same-old and do something different to remind yourself how fun life can be !

Photo by Jessica Tam, via Flickr

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The Secret to Happiness

Courtney Carver is author of the blog Be More with Less, and describes herself with “I have been too busy, too tired, too full, too stressed and too overworked for too long and I am changing my ways.” Courtney also runs the One Million for Good site, selling limited edition fine art prints in support of good causes.

I’d like to tell you a story…

A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world.

The lad wandered through the desert for forty days, and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.

Rather than finding a saintly man though, our hero, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity: tradesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious food in that part of the world.

The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man’s attention. The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn’t time just then to explain the secret of happiness.

He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours. “Meanwhile I want to ask you do do something,” said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.”

The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was. “Well,” asked the wise man, “did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?”

The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.

“Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,” said the wise man.

Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the tasted with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.

“But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?” asked the wise man. Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.

“Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you.” said the wisest of wise men. “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon”

The Alchemistby Paulo Coelho

This little story with a very big message from one of my favorite books begs the question, “Can we appreciate the beauty that surrounds us while staying focused on what is most important.”

Simplicity answers the question with a resounding “Yes!”

When life isn’t simple and you have to constantly think about

  • debt
  • shopping
  • catching up
  • spending
  • competing
  • appointments
  • health issues
  • falling behind
  • family conflict
  • clutter
  • stuff

then there is no time to appreciate the beauty or protect what is most important to you. There is no time to be happy.

Imagine dumping everything in your life that is meaningless. Everything that you don’t do for love. What would be leftover? It’s time to prioritize the “leftover”. Somehow those most important things, those things (which usually aren’t actual things) get shoved back behind all of the things we are “supposed” to be doing, buying, reading, worrying about.

This isn’t permission to shirk your obligations, but an invitation to put the most important thing in your life today at the top of your never ending to-do list. While everyone will have a different thing at the top of the list, clearing out, or making a plan to begin clearing out clutter/debt/meaningless stuff should be close to the top until it’s gone.

That said, even before you are debt free, clutter free, or free of whatever stands in the way of you and a happier life, prioritize the precioius oil in your life and start living, start enjoying immediately.

There is no doubt that clearing clutter will give you the time and space you need to fully embrace life, but you don’t have to wait for an empty drawer to get started. I know you think you will be happy when you are debt free, or happy when you fit into your skinny jeans, but I can tell you with great conviction that it’s time to be happy right now. You can be happy anytime.

You know me better to think that I am suggesting that you run around with a crazy smile on your face and rainbows shooting out of your pockets, but once you believe that happiness is possible, regardless of your current circumstances, things will start to change.

You will change.

Your life will change.

You will be happy.

Happy reading recommendations

What makes you happy right now?

Photo by Jonathon Benson via Flickr

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The Fishbowl of Happiness

This post is a journey between two TED talks.

If you spend much time browsing in bookshops like I do, you’ll probably have noticed there’s an ever increasing number of books promoting voluntary simplicity, slowing down, downshifting, thrift, returning to the ‘good life’ etc.

They all have slightly different ideas about what aspects of modern life we should be suspicious of, and what we can do to go about living simpler, more authentic and fulfilling lives. I quite like many of these books, which I think often contain good advice (though often inter-spaced with a lot of waffle and self-justification), but it seems not too many of them seem to consider why adopting a simpler lifestyle seems such an attractive proposition for many of us.

One of the reasons is anything but obvious: we have far too much choice to be happy.

We have more options open to us than ever before – what to eat, what to wear, what we do, where we work, where we go on holiday, what we watch on TV, what music to listen to, how to manage our health, what sort of lifestlye we want. It’s stressful to decide, and if we’re to make confident decisions we need to have done our research beforehand. We all constantly run the risk of discovering we’ve chosen badly and missed a better option or opportunity.

Henry Ford famously described the available range of  his cars with the phrase “you can have any colour you want so long as its black” (though he probably never actually said it). Later when we were able to exercise a little choice, our cars also began to make statements about us – a badge of our identity as consumers, a further layer of choice, meaning and complexity.

But we are now faced with so many choices on a daily basis that we are overwhelmed, anxious or even numbed by the prospect. We might make the wrong choice, or a sub-optimum choice. Are you on the best energy tariff ? Best mobile phone tariff ? Did you pick the best handset available ? Is your browser the most secure/user-friendly ? Do you have the optimal level of insurance cover ? What are you going to watch on TV tonight ? Have you set the recorder for everything you might want to watch ? What music are you listening to ? What great new bands are you missing out on ? What books (or blogs) are you reading ? Is your food or clothing as ethical as it could be ? Have you got the best deal on your next holiday ?

Postmodern life and in particular the internet is responsible – we simply have so much information and so many options available to us. What should be liberating and empowering tends to have the opposite effect and becomes stressful, exhausting and depressing. The psychologist Barry Schwartz describes walking out of a jeans store after an hour of trying on different pairs of jeans, and although he was wearing the best fitting pair of jeans he’d ever worn in his life, he felt worse about them than any pair before . . . he describes the various reasons why and examines the negative consequences of being surrounded by constant choice in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More“.

He also makes the observation that the rich world is surrounded by too much choice, which makes us unhappy, while those in the poor world have far too little choice.

But if too much choice is making us unhappy, what should we do ?

The answer is simple: lower our expectations and learn to be happy with what we already have.

Does this really work ? Can we do this ?

Yes, according to psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In his TED talk Daniel describes the evidence for his view that we all can ‘synthesise happiness’. Synthetic happiness is what we tend to ‘fake’ in order to make ourselves feel better when we don’t get what we want, as opposed ‘real’ happiness, which is how we feel when we do get what we want. The common perception is that synthetic happiness isn’t properly real – just a story we tell ourselves to hide from the truth of disappointment.

In his talk Daniel describes Moreese Bickham, who spent 37 years wrongfully imprisoned in Luisianna State Penetentary, and upon being released said “I don’t have one minutes regret. It was a glorious experience”, and others who appear to have ‘synthesised’ happiness, to avoid facing a disappointing reality.

But recent clinical research indicates that ‘synthetic’ happiness is every bit as real, and that we can therefore become genuinely happier simply by telling ourselves that we are . . . and if we consciously limit our ambitions and lower our expectations, we are likely to find ourselves becoming genuinely happier and less dissatisfied with our lives, and by not constantly striving for more, become more likely to help improve the lives of those most at need in the world.

“Live simply so that others may simply live” - variously attributed to both Mahatma Gandhi, and Elizabeth Ann Seton

Photo by Bitterjug, via Flickr