What makes you happy?

Happiness, that elusive goal which is in fact very much within everyone's reach. Complex scientific research has been done on this, but the answers might be more simple than you think. And there is a clear link between happiness and health.

The one million dollar question especially during lockdown, right? I like a good challenge, so I am about to tackle answering this all important question. Being locked up with loved, and not-so-loved-ones, really makes you think. Whether you are highly stressed out because you are moving from one video conferencing meeting to another, or multiple conference calls a day, or you are at the other end of the spectrum trying to fill in all those endless hours sitting at home alone, without being able to see friends….the answer to the question for me is actually quite straightforward.

I have watched people (virtually, of course) slowly lose their mojo during the past weeks. I have also spoken to some who are calm and happy right now and enjoying every moment as much as they can, feeling grateful for what they do have. From the one who is home with a partner they no longer want to be with, to one who is savouring every minute with grown up children who will be fleeing the coop soon. However, in all of this, one person sticks out in my mind every time I think of happiness, that is a 3 year old. In all the photos, videos and online chats she has a wide smile and is the embodiment of what I believe would be the picture of happiness if I had to put an image to it. What is her secret?

Some of you will now skip to the conclusion. However, let me tell you something before you do. Those who stay on reading this might be closer to the end result. Yes, that’s right.

There are two main reasons for this. According to research carried out at Berkeley, the more we strive for happiness, the less likely we are to achieve it. I will expand on this below. Also, bear in mind that being able to stay in the moment, without rushing, without anticipating the future, is usually at the top of most lists on how to be happy. Again, I will discuss this in more depth later.


But what is happiness?

First, though, we need to define happiness so we are all talking about the same thing.  Easier said than done since it is difficult to articulate even for scientists in this field of research. Happiness appears to be elusive in so much as it is subjective.

On a physical level, what happens in your brain and body is that four specific neurotransmitters are released. These are Seratonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin (commonly referred to as the “love hormone”), and Endorphins (released when we exercise). You already have two clues there.

Your muscles in your face move (think of a smile, laughter…), your immunity levels increase thanks to the increase in white blood cells, your heart rate increases (and consequently your Blood Pressure drops), your breathing speeds up, your tear ducts are activated.

Simple, right? Well, not quite! Different cultures display “happiness” differently, too.


Interpreting our own emotions


Can you confidently distinguish between your emotions? Anger, anxiety, hunger or illness are not as distinct as we assume according to studies carried out by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist at Northeast University in Boston, Massachusetts. The results of her studies are in direct contrast to Darwin’s theory of the Emotional Fingerprint” (where each emotion creates a specific combination of facial expressions, body language, and other physiological manifestations, such as a sweaty palm or increased heart beat).

The latest scientific research does not draw such a clear cut distinction. There is plenty of overlap in manifestations for the different emotions. It is also important to note that the way we interpret our body’s signals depends entirely on context and circumstance. In addition, it can easily be shaped by our expectations and directly feeds into whether we actually feel excited or anxious.

Feldman argues that we learn how to interpret these signals from parents, family, friends, social context, culture, television, books… whereas in fact, hunger, fatigue or illness all produce the same signals as anger, anxiety or sadness.  Think of the fact that many people, especially women, tend to get angry when in fact they are hungry, which has resulted in a new word being coined in English to describe the phenomenon “hangry”. Can you always tell the difference without pausing to think?


The pursuit of happiness and the “doing nothing works best” theory


One of the first ever scientific studies on the pursuit of happiness was conducted by Dr Mauss, University of California at Berkely, working alongside Maya Tamir, Nicole Savino and Craig Anderson. The conclusion it reached was that the more primed a person is to reach a certain level of happiness, the less these people reported feelings of being happy compared to the control group.  Maybe the famous Italian, Il dolce far niente, loosely translated as “the sweet art of doing nothing”, should be closer to our model to achieve happiness (FYI Italy ranks 36th on the UN’s World Happiness Report in 2019).

Although, how you choose to look at a situation (yes, it is a choice which perspective you use) plays a very large role.


Having the right perspective


In an article printed at the beginning of the year the results of a published scientific study on this is were very clear. The authors had proved that it is possible to be happy (or perhaps the word content would indicate more permanence and be more apt) almost all the time. Other feelings are useful and should not be suppressed. Anger, fear and even anxiety have their role in making us move forward and out of our comfort zone.

The choice to see a glass half full or half empty is ours and ours alone. You can say (or think) “I miss going out all the time. I am stuck at home.” and replace it with “I am safe at home and staying healthy will mean I get to see my loved ones again”. You can also think like my friend “We are all at home and I can enjoy being with my grown up children, I don’t know when or if I will ever be able to do this again in my life.”

The original article talked in more general terms about expectations, and not setting ourselves up for “failure” (ie not meeting the level of expectation). However, current events have taken the concept of perspective to a whole new level.

Right now the best strategy is to focus on the everyday tasks. If you cannot do anything about a certain situation, why worry? It will just add to the stress. There is a silver lining to EVERY SINGLE situation.  You just need to be open to see it.


Scientifically based recommendations


A healthy diet, regular exercise, and looking after your body in general are the top 3 recommendations by Feldman’s and many other studies. No new concepts here.

Mindfulness (a fancy word to describe the state a three-year-old constantly lives in, see below) and meditation help to be aware of the signals and pinpoint the physical origins of the emotions. For example, is your stomach upset because you have a peptic ulcer or because you are so stressed it has gone into spasms?

Another, more unusual, recommendation is to have a good emotional vocabulary. Consider how many times you have heard someone moan that they are depressed? I am willing to bet that if I had a cent for every time I heard that I would probably be living in a big mansion by the seaside in the Bahamas by now! In fact, clinical depression is something quite distinct to what the speaker usually means, as those who are actually clinically depressed will testify.

You might be sad, disappointed, bored, unmotivated, feel let down or dejected…. But not depressed, not technically. Similarly, instead of saying you are happy you might like to pinpoint the exact emotion: joyful, blissful, content, inspired, energised, fulfilled, appreciated, loved….. and the list goes on.

A deeper understanding of the situation you are in will follow, and instead of leading you to reach for the cake, chocolate or other comfort food of your choice, it might instead become the starting point of your journey towards greater self-awareness, and thus finding a more enlightened path towards that elusive goal.


The Harvard Grant study and happiness

A final point to consider is highlighted by this 75 year old study of Harvard undergraduates, which included such case studies such as J.F.Kennedy. The study sought to answer the question of how early life experiences affect ageing and health over time. The result was not what they expected. In the words of the director of the study “our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health” more than high cholesterol levels at age 50. So your level of happiness will also determine your level of health, not just now, but in your golden years. Food for thought!


So how do you achieve happiness?

Based on all the research and studies, it would be better for me to reformulate my initial question. What makes you feel joyful/calmer/ more relaxed/ content/ understood/ fulfilled/upbeat…..? Add your own, or delete as appropriate.

Keep busy. I don’t mean frenetically working 12 hours a day, or doing all those things that social media articles constantly try to make us feel guilty about. I am referring to all those posts along the lines of “if you aren’t reading that book, or learning a new skill now then the problem was you all along, not time”. Guilt has no place in happiness. The devil makes work for idle hands, the saying goes. Too much time to brood over the bad will lead to no good.

The good news is that as we age, the ability to extract more pleasure out of ordinary experiences also increases. This may explain why your average teenager and the 20 somethings appear to be struggling more. Spirituality and/or religion help, as do loving relationships, surrounding yourself with positive things and people.

Or simply do what a three year old does….play (boardgame anyone?), create, sing, dance, show enthusiasm and curiosity for new things (e.g. cooking with only the available ingredients in your pantry might lead to new recipes, learning to use new video chats might become a handy skill in future…).

The difference between a three year old and an adult is one. The adult, regardless of the level of responsibilities and worries about life in general, does not generally apply the principle of Carpe Diem (remember the film with Robin Williams?). The toddler does it naturally, to an even shorter time frame. Toddlers have no concept of time except the moment they are in. There is no past, or a vague idea of it, and no future (even three minutes from now), there is just a present moment. This is exactly the basis of the principle of Mindfulness which has become so popular.  LIVE IN THE MOMENT. All they understand is whether or not their carers are present and available. They need to be kept entertained but are grateful and content with little.

 In the uncertainty of the present moment, when nobody knows when this crisis will be over, when or if we will be able to return to a “normal” life anytime soon, only two things should be on everyone’s mind: staying healthy and the relationships we care about. Nothing else matters.

Carpe Diem.

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