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The most important thing to realise about being happy is that it is “how” not “what”. Things will not make you happy. Affluenza – coined as the dogged pursuit of “more” is particularly prevalent in Western societies and will often be pursued at the risk of “overload, debt and anxiety”. An awareness of this behaviour can stop us from falling into its clutches – more does not make people happy and Professor Leper of Stanford University found, paradoxically, too much choice actively makes people unhappy. Happiness won’t arrive, it has to be cultivated. Only behaviour and its consequences will make you happy. Being happy requires you to work your “how” muscles and to be aware; you need to consciously focus on the good things and not the bad. This is not to bury your head in the sand, some things need to be faced up to, but you need to focus on those things you can have agency over.
To be happy you need to concentrate on the following
1. Worry only about things you can change. Do as much as you can and then park it. Accept you have done the maximum and then leave it alone. We are not in control of everything!
2. Be pro-active not reactive. If something bothers you, tackle it don’t complain about it. Reactivity is a form of passive/aggressive behaviour – you will never resolve anything just go on being annoyed. In this way, you deny your ability to tackle things which can add to feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Act to change things you don’t like or in turn, forget about them. Resentment or annoyance only affects the person feeling these.
3. Get outside, preferably in nature with trees, flowers, birds, animals – all of these make humans happy. If you can’t, then bring nature to you – a plant or a window box. A view of trees or nature from a hospital bed has been shown to speed up recovery.
4. Contact – we all need human interaction but you must be available for this. If you walk around looking at your shoes you won’t see when someone nods or smiles at you. Make overtures to other humans – say hello on your walk or comment on the weather – be friendly and this will be returned by most people. Join a group, smile, get involved; care about something or someone.
5. Realise that small things are actually the big things. It is the patchwork of small events and comforts that make up our life. A conversation here, a cup of coffee, a glimpse of a robin, the scent of roses, fresh rain on the grass, a hot bath, a good book, a friendly wave. (Add your own small joys). These are the fabric of life but to realise their full impact we must acknowledge and recognise this – work your happiness muscles!
6. Belonging. Humans need to belong to something, to feel part of something bigger. This can be your family, a religious group, a volunteer programme, a book group, your friends, your office, your community, your country. Being part of a community is good for us and embeds us in our life and gives us purpose.
7. Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. If you think you have nothing, imagine a hurricane takes everything you have and you are naked and alone. Now recognise that is not the case and that you do have some things. Gratitude for what we have and a recognition of that is good for our mental health and makes us happier. Keeping a gratitude diary for a month, where you note three things to be grateful for at the end of each day, has been shown to improve depression and raise happiness.
8. Limit your exposure to social media and news channels. Too much of either has been shown to raise anxiety levels and reduce happiness. Watch comedies and feel-good films and read books with happy outcomes, play music that makes you happy.
9. Look after yourself. If you put the wrong fuel in your car it will run badly. If you miss its service or MOT it won’t run well. Humans are the same. Feed yourself well, get enough rest, take regular, moderate exercise, do things or mix with people who make you laugh – think radiators not drains in terms of who you befriend. Some people are just not a good fit for our personalities and that’s OK but we need to limit our contact with these people.
10. Be kind to yourself and others. Lose that critical voice in your head that tells you off or calls you an idiot. Instead cultivate a nurturing voice, one of encouragement and kindness – the way you would talk to a friend, a beloved pet or a small child. Recognize that life can be hard and kindness goes a long way towards mitigating that.
None of these will guarantee your happiness. We are living in difficult and turbulent times. However, it is well known that what you pay most attention to, is what you will get. Trying not to do something will mean that you concentrate on the negative – try not to think of a pink elephant and it will occupy your thoughts. Try to diet and you will think of food all day long. Give up drinking and you will long for a glass of wine. However think of being healthier or adding fruit to your diet or noticing three positive things in your neighbourhood and that’s what you will focus on. Happiness needs attention in order to flourish. Exercise your “how-to” happiness muscles and you will benefit for as long as you choose to invest in this behaviour.
The 10 Vital Happiness Rules | Psychology Today
Much has been written about how the physical distancing and isolation measures in place to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have increased loneliness. While this is undoubtedly an important way in which the current pandemic is affecting our social lives, there are others worth considering.
One of these pertains to the effects of fear on social relationships. For many of us, the pandemic has been associated with at least some fears—the fear that we, or our loved ones, will contract the virus; the fear that we will pass it on to others, especially those most vulnerable; the fear that our livelihoods will be affected; and even the fear that can be associated with unwittingly failing to follow unrehearsed social rules (e.g., stay sufficiently far from others, not shaking hands). National reports indeed confirm that feelings of fear, or anxiety, have been unusually high and pervasive in the last year. How might fear affect our social lives?
Social scientists have long demonstrated that fear can lead people to come together in an effort to gather strength and resources to combat or overcome what is feared. Studies have found, for example, that survivors of the 2005 London bombings showed impressive solidarity, stopping to help one another despite the strong fear and distress they were experiencing. In a similar vein, we have seen many examples of communities coming together to support their members in coping with the COVID-19 threat. The mutual aid website, established precisely to facilitate community support of those in need during the pandemic, currently lists 2,060 aid groups in the UK alone. This type of behaviour is beneficial to those who receive help, but also to those who provide help, and indeed helping—or the sense of connection and efficacy it engenders—is one of the ways people are advised to combat anxiety.
While it is comforting to reflect on the positive social consequences of such a distressing feeling as fear or anxiety, it is also important to consider the boundaries of this relationship. Specifically, although coming together has been shown to result from fear, fear can also pull people apart. Most obviously, people will try to distance themselves from those whom they fear, and they often fear those they do not know. For example, people from different racial, religious, or national groups often fear one another. Fear might even cause people to derogate others they would not normally be afraid of, just because they are somehow different or unfamiliar (often referred to as an outgroup)—such as when attacks on individuals with disabilities increased in the UK after a series of terrorist attacks.
Less obviously, however, even incidental fear—or fear that does not directly link to judgements being made—can increase social distance or decrease empathy for others. For example, hearing a scary noise, or watching scary images (or perhaps thinking about the threat of COVID-19), can reduce the empathy one feels for the pain experienced by an outgroup member—i.e., an empathy bias. That is, our ability to draw together with others in the face of threats is both rooted in a sense of common fate and identity and constrained by group boundaries.
Many politicians intuitively know this and build fear into their rhetoric to encourage social tribalism. And they are wise to do so, as messages inciting fear are twice as effective at polarising votes as messages without fear. However, the implications of empathy biases for social policy are not always understood, in particular when it comes to the limitations of relying on the goodwill of communities to address social needs. It is heartening to see so much good and voluntary work being done by communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and one might be tempted to see this as a pure demonstration of human kindness. But where there are communities, there are both insiders and outsiders. As such, responses to threat are bound to favour some, and neglect or even disadvantage others, often those who are the least privileged. So, what current scholarship suggests is that we are bound to leave some people out of our helping efforts.
Acknowledging this is an important step towards preventing further inequality. Goodwill goes a long way, but if we are to be truly kind, it is important to acknowledge the pervasiveness of our biases and to develop measures that proactively prevent, monitor, and address social inequalities, which also touch our most seemingly altruistic efforts, such as helping others.
This article is co-authored with Matthew Richins, Ph.D., who carried out his Ph.D. research on empathic biases under my supervision. Matt has worked for Public Health England and is now a Principal Psychologist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), UK.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.