In 2011 the UN formally recognised that quantifying progress should be about more than just charting economic growth. Increasing human happiness and well-being is also hugely important. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that recognised happiness as a “fundamental human goal” and called for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples”. The following year the first ever UN Conference on Happiness took place and the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that would see an International Day of Happiness observed annually on 20th March. The theme of this year’s UN International Day of Happiness is Share Happiness – focusing on the importance of relationships, kindness and helping each other.
Ten Keys to Happier Living
We all live in a human community and of course it is a lovely and generous thing when we share and spread our happiness, however, we cannot spread that which we don’t feel. Happiness as a concept can feel like an elusive thing that we’re all chasing, a feeling that will come if we get the right job, go on an amazing holiday or meet the right person for example. However, as much as we often look for happiness outside of ourselves, it is something we can foster from within and sharing it only serves to help it grow.
Action For Happiness (an organisation that coordinates the UN International Day of Happiness) recognises that the path to happiness is different for everyone, however, having reviewed the latest research in the area, they have identified Ten Keys to Happier Living which are likely to positively impact everyone’s well-being.
Reflecting the importance of external and internal elements to human happiness, the first five keys are grouped as GREAT (Giving, Relating, Exercising, Awareness, Trying Out), focusing on how we interact with the world around us on a daily basis. The remaining five keys are grouped as DREAM (Direction, Resilience, Emotion, Acceptance, Meaning) and these relate to ourselves and how our inner life informs our attitudes to life generally.
Giving to others – out of pleasure as opposed to under pressure – is good for our health and happiness. The act of giving to others activates the reward centres in our brains, making us feel good and encouraging us to continue giving. The ripples from an act of kindness can reach far beyond the people directly involved, positively impacting those around us and those we give to.
There are so many ways to give to others. Each of us has an amount of time, talent and resources to share with others. Whether it’s minding a friend’s children for a few hours, making time to listen to a stressed colleague, or volunteering to help out a local charity or community group – each of us can play a part in spreading happiness through giving. Check out www.randomactsofkindness.org for some ideas to get you started.
Human connection is core to our happiness. As social animals we have a need to bond through our shared experiences whether positive or negative, give (and receive) support in challenging times and essentially feel understood by others. It’s no surprise then that our physical and mental health is impacted by the quality and quantity of our relationships with others, whether they be family members or work colleagues.
Sometimes we can take those closest to us for granted. The quality of our relationships really matters to our happiness, so nurture them by investing effort. Don’t assume to know what’s going on with someone, ask them and really listen to what they have to say. Plan some one-on-one time with a friend or family member to connect away from the distractions of day-to-day life. Make memories by enjoying positive experiences together – it could be anything from a street party with your neighbours to a walk or picnic with some friends.
Our bodies and minds are connected and a sluggish body with low energy levels has a knock-on effect on our mental state. Emotions are dynamic, they have an energy and exercise offers us on opportunity to channel that energy and express it physically e.g. going for a run when angry about something or taking a walk in a beautiful place when we’re not in great form. The very act of exercising releases endorphins in the brain which help to lift our mood.
The good news is that you don’t have to engage in Olympic athlete levels of training to feel the impact of exercise on your mental health and happiness. Simply moving more can bring about a change, e.g. use stairs instead of lifts, get off the bus a stop or two earlier than usual, use your lunch break to go for a walk, reconnect with a sport you love or even just play chasing in the garden with the kids in your life.
Modern life can move at a fast pace causing many of us to feel as though we are hamsters on a wheel, unable to distinguish one day from the next. It is no wonder then that so many of us feel that there must be more to life, that we’re missing out on something intangible.
Living a mindful life where we intentionally take notice of the present, helps us to stop dwelling on our past or worrying about our future, allowing us to improve awareness of ourselves and the world we inhabit. This practice has been shown to reduce stress and promote happiness.
There are many ways to learn about and practice mindfulness e.g. apps, classes, books etc. To get us started think of mindfulness as comprised of the following two elements; being intentionally attentive and aware of what is happening in the present, being non-judgemental – we are simply accepting what it is we notice.
Try and take some time today, even just five minutes, to sit with both feet on the floor and take note … your breathing, the feeling of the floor beneath your feet, your body in the chair, the sounds you can hear around you, how you feel in yourself etc. Take some time to be aware and attentive every day and notice the benefits.
Learning and trying out something new is great for our brains and by extension our happiness. By engaging with new ideas, we stay curious and interested in the world around us. Giving something new a ‘go’ also fills us with a sense of achievement, boosting our self-confidence and developing our resilience as we try to get better.
Of course we can learn Italian or take an art class, but there are also plenty of things to try out in our day to day lives that will boost our overall feeling of well-being e.g. learn how to do one new thing on the phone, try some new food, look-up a word you don’t really understand and then use it before the day is out, the options are endless!
Feeling good about the future is important for our happiness. We all need goals to motivate us and choosing ambitious but realistic goals gives our lives direction, followed by a sense of accomplishment when we achieve them.
Whether short term or long term, goals are a means of turning our values and dreams into reality. Happiness doesn’t just happen – it comes from thinking, planning and pursuing things that are important to us. Scientific research shows that setting and working towards goals can contribute to happiness as much as achieving the end result.
Set yourself a goal and take a step towards it, perhaps that means making a phone call, filling in a form or getting your runners on. The road to every goal is made up of smaller short term goals linked together. Once you set your long term goal, break it down into smaller daily or weekly goals that will help you get there. Try to ensure that your goal is challenging but achievable, as trying to accomplish the impossible is simply setting yourself up for failure.
It’s unrealistic to expect that we can all be happy all of the time, and if we were we would miss out on developing some vital life skills. Chief among these is resilience. The word comes from the Latin resilio which means ‘to jump back’ and it can help to think of resilience as our ability to bounce back from stress or trauma. Times of stress or disappointment often happen to us and are not of our choosing, however, we can choose how we react and what our attitude to adversity will be – this response has a significant impact on our well-being.
People often think resilience is something we either have or we don’t, but research shows that it can be learned, just like many other life skills. This is often easier said than done, but coping through a difficult time can give us the strength to be more open and take on new things as we learn that we can bounce back.
Think back to some times of adversity in your life and reflect on how you coped. See if you can identify a pattern or tactics you employed to help you manage and think about which strategies worked better than others. Try to recognise elements of the situation that were within your control and assess how much of your effort was focussed on those, versus things you had no control over. Doing this exercise should help to inform your response to the next stress or disappointment you’re faced with.
It is important to acknowledge that sometimes resilience is about seeking support, not just battling on regardless. As you reflect on how you coped with tough times in the past, ask yourself if you could have sought help or support sooner/at any time.
Regularly experiencing positive emotions – such as joy, gratitude, inspiration and pride – creates an ‘upward spiral’, helping to build our resources. There’s also evidence that positive emotions are contagious and when we feel good it can have a knock on effect on those around us. By doing things that make us feel good, we can do others good too. It’s important to make the distinction that this isn’t just ‘having fun’ or being spontaneous, we need a healthy balance between enjoying the moment and doing things that bring meaning and fulfilment in the longer term.
Our emotions affect our long term well-being and research shows that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones enables us to become more resilient.
There are lots of ways to foster positive emotions and many of them are very simple. Start by doing something you know you love, that brings you joy e.g. listen to your favourite music, spend time with your friends, go for a run in your favourite place.
Make an effort to look for the good in people and situations – this might mean that you stop yourself from criticising someone and make an effort to notice something you like about them instead. Focus on all the good in your life by keeping a notebook where you jot down the things you’re grateful for at the start and/or end of each day – if you’re ever struggling to retain an optimistic outlook, you can refer back to this and remind yourself of the positives in your life.
None of us are perfect, but dwelling on our flaws makes it much harder to be happy. Turning down the volume on our inner critic and ramping up compassion towards ourselves, increases our enjoyment of life, our resilience and our well-being. It also helps us accept others as they are.
Accepting ourselves ‘warts and all’ means that we are familiar with our strengths and weaknesses, but that we work with rather than against ourselves to arrive at a place where we feel good about ourselves and our worth, while being aware of our limitations.
Be aware of how you talk to yourself – would you speak to someone else like that? Replace negative self-talk with a more compassionate, understanding voice. List the things about yourself that you like. If you’re struggling with this, ask a trusted friend or colleague what they perceive as your strengths and this should give you a good platform to build on. Make an effort to notice the things you do well, however small and try to love you for you – don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides.
You may have heard the phrase, ‘the meaning of life is a life with meaning’ and certainly research backs this up. There is a very human need in all of us to connect to something bigger than ourselves and people who have meaning or purpose in their lives are happier and experience less stress and anxiety.
Meaning in our lives is a completely individual thing and as such is different for each person. If you’re struggling to identify what it is that gives your life meaning, ask yourself “why am I here?” and see what comes up. For some people meaning may involve a religious or spiritual belief, for others it may be parenting their children, or caring for nature and the world around them – whatever it is, having meaning is key to happiness and well-being.
If you’re not sure what your ‘meaning’ is, it can feel a little overwhelming to undertake a quest to find it, so instead try doing some small things and see where they take you e.g. take some time to consciously think about which activities, people and beliefs bring you the strongest sense of purpose and passion. These are things to prioritise in life and are most likely the things which give your life a sense of meaning.
As a child you may have heard the saying that happiness is like jam; it’s hard to spread it around without some sticking to yourself. So on this UN International Day of Happiness why not get stuck in; spread some happiness around and feel the joy that brings to you and those around you. Share these 10 keys to happiness with your family, friends or work colleagues and see what you can do to make the most of what you can control to improve your happiness and well-being.
St Patrick’s Mental Health Services’ Support & Information Service is a confidential telephone and email service staffed by experienced mental health nurses 9am-5pm Monday to Friday with an answering and call-back facility outside hours. You can contact the Support & Information Service by calling 01 249 3333, or email firstname.lastname@example.org