Is happiness overrated? Liadan Hynes finds that in fact it will make you live longer. But you need to work at it.
Being happy has never been harder. Thanks to the neverending showreel of perfect lives a mere finger’s swipe away on our phones, our peace of mind is under constant threat. We work harder, are more socially isolated, and are more likely to locate the source of happiness outside of ourselves, in the material world, than ever before.
In her book Flourishing, psychologist Maureen Gaffney outlines the benefits of happiness: happy people enjoy better self-esteem, live longer, have more friends, better love lives, more satisfying careers, and earn higher salaries. And happiness isn’t just a selfish, self-indulgent, pursuit. Happy people are contagious, they have an uplifting effect on those around them. They are also more likely to be socially conscious and to volunteer.
Levels of happiness
“I would say that there is still a widespread misunderstanding of what happiness is,” Gaffney, who identifies three levels of happiness, explains. “At its simplest level, it is a matter of having positive feelings. We come equipped in our brain with a kind of basket of positive feelings; a capacity to love, to enjoy ourselves, to be grateful, to be contented, to be interested in things, to be hopeful, to be inspired, to be awed. When we feel any of these, we define that as a feeling of happiness.”
At another level, explains Gaffney, “vital engagement” in life is essential; “when what you’re doing interests you, and you think it matters.”
Finally, there is the sense of having real meaning and purpose in your life. This may not bring you in-the-moment happiness explains Gaffney. Doing things for your kids which are ultimately beneficial, if stressful at the time. Looking after an ailing relative. Working extra hard on a project. “You’re not exactly happy when you’re doing it, but you feel it’s important, and that it’s going to make a big difference to your life,” she says.
Work at it
Happiness takes work. Simply thinking positive, or the ‘tyranny of positive thinking’, as it has been described, is not sufficient. “The problem is,” Maureen explains, “that positive and negative emotions aren’t equal. Negative is stronger.” To stay on an even keel, we must achieve a ratio of 3:1 positive-to-negative emotions throughout the day, even more than that if we are to be very happy and to flourish.
“You can’t leave your happiness to chance,” reflects Gaffney. “You can’t just adopt a passive attitude that if the day goes well, great, if it doesn’t, ‘what can I do about it?’ It’s not the power of positive thinking, it’s nothing like that. It is really a strategy to reengineer your brain out of the way it normally functions. Even very minor bits of positivity in your day can have a disproportionate affect; putting a smile on your face, despite feeling pretty rotten inside.”
A matter of balance
Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute and author of the Little Book of Hygge, which examined the reasons why Denmark is the happiest country in the world, makes a living out of studying happiness.
For many people, Wiking explains, happiness is finding that balance between pleasure and purpose on a daily basis. In tracking the patterns most common in happy people, Wiking has identified a number of commonalities. One universal trait is that they are “happy with their relationships. If we have somebody in our lives we can rely on, somebody we connect with, we can share our hopes and dreams, worries and concerns with, that is a fairly good predictor for happiness.”
Happy people, Wiking explains, find activities that demand their full attention, which bring them entirely into the moment, so they experience “flow”. For Wiking, it is skiing, and swimming in the local public pool. Self-employed people tend to be happier, he says, due to a stronger sense of purpose, increased freedom, and an ability to create a better work-life blend.
A happy childhood
How our parents treat us in early life has a huge influence on developing our inclination towards happiness. “At each and every stage of your life, how your basic needs are met has a huge bearing on your happiness,” says Gaffney.
Wiking’s mother died when he was quite young after a difficult struggle with cancer. In speaking of her death, he has qualified the situation, saying he was lucky to have had good friends and family to help him at this most difficult of times. It is the reaction of a resilient person, someone inclined towards happiness. “The experience of having been loved unconditionally from a young age (by my mother), I think that fills you with a long lasting sense of resilience that surpasses time,” reflected Wiking when I put it to him.
The happiness of resilience
I sat with a group of girlfriends recently discussing happiness. ‘Do you think you really know anyone you would describe as actually happy?’, one friend wondered. Me’, I thought. This may be surprising, because my marriage ended last year. Throughout the entire thing though, I knew that I would cope, and that ultimately I would be fine.
That is not to suggest that it was not devastating. Of course it was. But I knew I would be okay again sooner or later. More than okay. Happy. I put that down in large part to a well of resilience I have to draw on thanks to a very loving upbringing.
Also, I worked at my happiness. Did yoga. Took up meditation. Went to counselling. Made sure I saw close friends every few days. And as it was all happening, there were still other parts of my life that continued to give me great happiness. Being a mum. Being self-employed. Things that give me a sense of purpose, autonomy; all high on Wiking’s check list of a happy person. And now, I am happy. Not always, of course, but overall.
Gaffney uses the phrase flourishing under fire. “It is the happiness of resilience,” she explained when I described my situation. “When you survive something really upsetting in your life, that was a big blow to you, the very fact of surviving it, coming out intact, you feel ‘I never knew I had that in me’. It’s just an incredible vote of confidence in yourself, and I think that makes people very happy. It gives them a very profound sense of confidence in themselves, and hope for the future. Because you think ‘if that didn’t beat me, nothing will’.”
Life is not the pursuit of happiness as the ultimate goal. Ironically, understand this and you may find yourself at your happiest.