Firstly…. What is happiness?
I first started reading and writing about happiness in 2015 when I was searching for ways to help my anxious son find some form of normality. He was 9 years old, and couldn’t participate in school or clubs, play with his friends, or even leave the house sometimes. I was trying to help him find his way back to life as we knew it… To help him figure out how to be happy.
One of the first things I discovered was just how difficult it was to define happiness. The dictionary says happiness is “The state of being happy”. Not much help… Was that saying happiness is defined by its own self? It felt somehow elusive… And how could I figure out how to be happy, (or teach someone else how to be happy) when I didn’t even really know what it was!
There was also this idea that happiness was something we could feel once we had accomplished “something” [Success, fame, money, good results…. you get the picture.] knowing that once we had achieved that “something” we would often put a new “something” in the way of our happiness.
And then there was the idea that we tell our children… that they should just BE HAPPY NOW, with what we have… But How?
And what is it?
Well, in a nutshell, happiness is a habit, the combination of all the things we do, think and say, every day.
And how do we get it?
Here’s the thing: nothing outside of us will bring us lasting happiness.
Not people, not things, not money, not fame.
Our happiness has to come from us.
It turns out the reason why it is so hard to define, is because happiness is a subjective experience. What brings me joy, could just as likely make your skin crawl.
And that’s ok.
It is about choosing what is right for you, and rolling with it.
Happiness encompasses the satisfaction, contentment, fun and joy we find in being with the people we love, doing things we enjoy, accomplishing something we deem important and working towards fulfilling our purpose.
Happiness is a choice… our choice.
Why be happy?
“Well, there’s a good question!
It is becoming accepted that the happier you are, the better your life will be (sounds obvious I know).
Dr Christine Carter, the author of ‘Raising Happiness’ says that happy people are “more successful” and also “tend to be healthier and live longer”.
It turns out you can be more creative, intelligent, energetic, resilient, and have more friendships just from being happy! You’ll probably also end up better able to cope with stress, challenges and negative emotions when they show up.”
(Direct excerpt from Everyday Happy)
I see learning the skills and developing habits for happiness like tapping in your anchor points the way a rock climber does. Although they will not stop you from losing your grip and falling, they can stop you falling ALL the way down.
Where to Start
It’s not often we think about happiness as an actual ‘goal’… and often if we do it’s wistful and almost complaining ‘I just want to be happy’. In fact we often create a situation where we put being happy as the end result of reaching a specific goal, rather than the goal itself. “I will be happy if I can just…”
Frequently we think we will be happy with ourselves ‘after we lose weight’. What if we switch that to “my goal is to be happy with myself as I am”. Or what about instead of ‘I will be happy when I get through the next project, exam, or promotion’ to “I am happy going to school or work”.
By doing this, we are removing the condition.
And the interesting part? If we decide to be happy in our school or work, we are more likely to find success because we enjoy the process more!
Setting a goal for happiness
Setting a goal for happiness… (I sometimes call it making your Happiness wish) is about defining your version of happiness.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself happy… What are you doing? Who are you with? Where are you?
Like any goal, you are more likely to reach it if you make it something that is important to you as well as simple, and positive.
Remember change does not happen straight away, and there will be ups and downs, so don’t forget to celebrate the small wins along the way.
How to be happy
There are 5 core strategies proven to increase happiness.
Practicing gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to be happy. Gratitude is the conscious recognition of the good we receive in our lives, and can help us appreciate and notice what we have instead of what we don’t.
A great example of the benefits of gratitude is in our relationships. When we appreciate what others have done for us we can feel more connected, leading to stronger, more secure friendships and family bonds.
The longest running study on happiness at Harvard University found that strong, quality relationships have the most positive impact on our life long happiness. (Robert Waldinger. What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness)
This act of appreciating can actually start to train the brain to more automatically notice the positives… This is using the natural process of neuroplasticity, (where the brain responds and changes to everything that happens to us), in a purposeful way. Like anything, practice is key.
It’s important to note that being grateful only when things are good isn’t quite enough. Gratitude of the everyday kind, the things that we can easily take for granted is the real key to deep and lasting happiness.
It is also important, if possible, to find the blessings… the things to be grateful for in difficult situations as well.
Hint: Personally thanking someone for something they have given you, or done for you can make you and them happier.
Be kind to be happy:
“When you have the choice between being right, and being kind just choose kind” Wayne Dyer, Fearless Soul
I love smiling at people as I stroll past them… sometimes they look away, sometimes they look confused, and sometimes I receive a glorious smile in return. I never worry about the non returned smiles, as I know it is in the giving of kindness that my good feelings lie. Possibly the easiest way to give (and receive) kindness is with a genuine heartfelt smile.
Have you ever tried walking down the street and smiling at people as you pass them by? Have you had a complete stranger broadly smile at you? (It may have been me!) How do you feel? Do you look away, look confused, or smile back?
How does kindness make you happy?
Kindness towards someone is not only a gift to them, but also to you. Selflessly doing something for someone else takes your mind off yourself and your worries, giving you a chance to see your own life in a more positive light. It also increases the likelihood of others being kind to you.
There are so many ways to be kind…. giving time, gifts, prayer and even money are simple examples. Quite surprisingly studies have even shown that spending money on others makes us feel happier than spending on ourselves, (Berkeley greater good.)
In short, giving kindness can fill us with joy, make us feel worthwhile, give us a sense of purpose, and help us be more happy.
Exercise for Happiness:
Exercising has a whole host of benefits for the body and the mind. Aside from keeping us physically fit, healthy, and strong, regular exercise also helps improve our happiness. Studies have shown that as little as 15 minutes a day can help us be more happy. Exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, which naturally make us feel good, and is also a great way to reduce stress and anxiety by ‘burning’ off the stress hormones.
With increased exercise, you may also find yourself feeling more confident, creative and resilient, sleeping better, remembering more, and doing more with your day.
Exercising outdoors comes with added benefits of fresh air and spending time in nature.
As a young person I loved exercising… I was never naturally athletic, but I enjoyed the feeling I got afterwards. My favourite sport was rowing, and training with my crew was challenging and rewarding in equal measures. Now my sport is walking… I enjoy sharing a walk, and taking long walks alone. What sport do you love?
What exercise do you fancy trying?
Meditation for happiness:
Meditation in the traditional sense is not for everyone… I like to say meditation can be anything, and anything can be meditative. Yesterday we were peeling 8 bulbs of garlic, which was of course ‘boring’ and time consuming… but a great exercise in slowing down and being mindful.
Anything that stops the incessant brain noise and brings you into the present can be meditation. Staring into an open fire, playing an instrument, listening to music, even playing some video games!
Imagining can also be meditation. Also known as creative visualisation, it is daydreaming with the intention to relax, uplift or inspire. Meditation helps improve our happiness by bringing us completely into the present moment, preventing us from worrying about the past or stressing about the future. It can also allow us to imagine our happiest possible life.
This is an interesting one, as it is not necessarily about filling pages and pages of your journal with every single event of the day and all your thoughts about them. Who has time for that? And traditionally journal writing usually involves complaining about the day anyway. Journaling for happiness is simply about debriefing the day. Looking back over the last 24 hours and choosing the best bits. You can write it down, but you don’t have to… Having a chat with someone, or just rolling it over in your own mind can be just as beneficial to your happiness. Similarly to gratitude, looking back and finding the best bits will help you focus on the positives in your day. And even the hardest days will have a ‘best bit’ if you look closely enough.
(If you like writing a journal, and find happiness or relief in filling pages with all your happenings and thoughts, that is absolutely ok too.)
Other things you can do to be happy.
The list of things you can do to build your own happiness is long and varied, and not at all limited to the 5 core strategies above. Below I have detailed a few other ideas that I like, that you may find helpful too!
Positive People: Nurture strong and happy relationships.
The group of people we spend most of our time with has an impact on many aspects of our lives, including our happiness. It is a delicate balance creating and nurturing positive relationships, whether they be family or friends. It is important though, because our relationships have a huge impact on our happiness.
A strong happy relationship or friendship takes both parties to engage in a pretty equal exchange, involving acceptance, love, honesty, and a willingness to forgive and/or let go when things go wrong. Have a look at how your friendships make you feel, the conversations you have and the activities you do. Does your time together leave you feeling uplifted and inspired? And do they feel the same? Or do you feel exhausted, sad or down? Do you talk about plans, holidays, and the great things in life, or do you gossip and complain? Do you feel heard, listened to and seen? Do you hear and see them? Do they accept you the way you are? Do you accept them? Do you compare your life to theirs and find yourself wanting? Do you feel judged or accepted? Do you see yourselves as equals in the world?
All these things within a friendship can make the difference between a happy and positive friendship, or one that is detrimental to your happiness.
If you find yourself in a friendship that isn’t beneficial to you, it is worth asking yourself if you can accept the relationship as it is, whether you need to change your mind about it, or whether you need to let it go.
It’s unlikely you’re going to figure out your life’s purpose whilst reading a blog post…
Some people spend their whole lives seeking a purpose!
And some people find purpose in their every day.
I honestly think our purpose is to live and love and to be happy, and one step towards that is to bring success and purpose into everything to have to do, as well as everything you want to do. Of course not every day is going to be a perfectly purposeful day, but it comes back to noticing and appreciating the small things. My purpose right now is to write… earlier it was to go for a walk in the rain… and later I will be cooking dinner… This is a new learning for me. My purpose is simply to do the next right (or necessary) thing. I definitely have big hopes and dreams and goals, and a ‘higher purpose’ in mind, but right now, in this moment it is simply to do what is required now.
I am writing this post during the Covid 19 global pandemic… There is a LOT of negative news. I mean, there is always negative news, but over the last 3 months it has been a constant stream of death toll talk. I decided at the beginning to protect myself and my children from this constant tirade of negativity. The more we focus on what is wrong in the world, the worse we feel. I know in a world where news is everywhere, and it is deemed as very important for us all to know all of the news all the time, it seems counterintuitive to purposefully ignore the news. Yet… the world is not helped by me personally knowing all the bad news. The world is not healed by me discussing the bad news with my friends and family and increasing the fear amongst us. Too much negative input can make us believe the world and other people are scary and bad, when in reality, there is so much unreported good news happening all the time. Children and Dogs play in the park, healthy babies are born, people play music, waterfalls flow and the sun rises and sets every day.
What do I do instead? I selectively choose the information we need to know to ‘follow guidelines’ and I actively seek out positive, uplifting, fun and funny ‘news’.
Hint: Be aware of the background input… the news every half hour on the radio, the discussions in the supermarket queue, and discussions you have with friends.
Do you have a love or hate relationship with yourself? Do you even know? Quite often we can speak to ourselves with such negativity, in a way we would never speak to a friend… or even say out loud to an enemy. We can be absolutely awful to ourselves… And quite often we don’t even know we’re doing it. When you look in the mirror what do you say to yourself? When you make a mistake, do you forgive yourself easily and let go? It’s tricky, but trying to catch yourself in the act of negative self talk and challenging it can be really powerful. Are you really ‘the worst person in the world’ for saying the wrong thing at a party? Unlikely. Or do you really look worse than anyone when you gaze at yourself in the mirror? Definitely not. You are beautiful, and acceptable just as you are. Try talking to yourself the way you talk to your best friend or your partner… try it for a day, or a week and see if you feel more happy
Time in nature:
Spending time in nature is fantastic for our mental health and happiness. Physically we feel better because our muscles relax, sunlight boosts our immune system and we have more opportunity to exercise, making us fitter and stronger. Time outdoors also has the potential to improve our imagination, creativity, concentration and memory. Quiet time outdoors can also really help us appreciate our surroundings more, making us more mindful and grateful.
My favourite thing to do is walking… By the river, through the woods, along the beach. I find it calming, and happiness boosting. If you’re not feeling energetic though, then just sitting in the garden or local park can also positively affect your happiness. And if you can’t go outside? Scientists have found that looking out the window, or having a picture of the beautiful natural environment in your home, or even as the wallpaper on your device can have a positive effect.
The mind/ body connection:
There are so many things we can do with our bodies to improve our day to day happiness. The first and most simple one is to smile more! Just the physical act of putting your mouth in a smile position tells your brain that you are happy. It’s quite remarkable, try it out!
The food we eat can have a very strong effect on our happiness. Some foods such as chocolate cause the release of mood lifting endorphins, and some foods make us feel good just because we really like them! (For me that is spaghetti bolognese and cinnamon doughnuts). Balance is important though, and really healthy food helps us keep fit, healthy and strong, which boosts our confidence, and improves our happiness.
Another simple way we can use our bodies to boost happiness is with a hug! Hugs provide comfort and connection, and if you hold on for long enough cause the release of another calming and happiness inducing hormone called oxytocin.
The breath is one more way of managing your mood and improving happiness. Our breath is controlled mostly by our autonomic nervous system… and responds to what we are doing. It speeds up and deepens when we are exercising, becomes fast and shallow if we’re frightened, and slows right down when we are calm or asleep. Amazingly we also have some control over our breath too. If we are feeling frightened for example (and are not in actual danger) we can consciously slow our breath, and tell our brain we are safe.
Hint. Next time you feel nervous or anxious, try taking long, slow deep breaths and see how it makes you feel.
Learn something new:
When I say learning for the sake of learning how does it make you feel? Do you get excited, and curious, or do you wonder what the point is? I love learning new things, and starting new hobbies and trying different things out, because it gives me a sense of fulfilment, accomplishment, and sometimes excitement simply because I am trying something new. I generally like practical hobbies where I can see and feel (and sometimes eat) the outcome!
Learning for happiness means we are tapping into our natural curiosity and learning because it is fun, because it gives us meaning or simply because we want to.
This is not learning because we have to to pass a class, get a grade, put it on our CV or to get a promotion. It is not learning because we have to or as a means to an end… It is learning as the point.
It turns out curiosity is “one of the greatest determinants of personal satisfaction” and can lead to creativity and innovation.
During this Covid 19 lock down I have learnt how to sprout seeds and The grow vegetables, make sourdough bread, and ferment vegetables. I have also learnt how to propagate and grow other plants.
What can you learn about today?
Self care starts with the basics. Waking up, washing, eating a good breakfast, brushing your teeth and hair, and getting some exercise are all simple, easy and essential ways of taking care of ourselves. These simple actions show self respect, and help us value ourselves, which raises confidence and improves our happiness. Of course essential self care goes further than this, and includes spending time with good friends and seeing the doctor and dentist when you need to.
Getting your hair and nails done, spending time in a spa, having regular massage and body treatments, and seeking help from professional life coaches, counsellors or therapists are also really important examples of self care. In fact almost everything on this page could be considered self care!
Unplug from social media:
Completely… I mean it… every day turn off your phone, or go out without it. Or at the very least, disable the social media apps so you don’t get stuck mindlessly scrolling without realising you’ve even decided to open it. Social media is a time suck, and has the potential at best to make us feel pretty anxious, and at its worst depressed and even suicidal. It is also pretty addictive. When social media first ‘happened’ (yes I am THAT old) I would have to log onto my PC to use it, and if I wanted to go anywhere, it didn’t go with me. When I found myself feeling weirdly anxious after spending 20 minutes looking at everyone else’s highlights reel, the cause was quite obvious.
Now though, things are different. Now social media goes with me everywhere, and If I’m not careful, every empty moment can be filled with looking at other people’s holidays, and their perfectly curated lives… Or reading their complaints or political points of view… none of which actually help my life… And that insidious anxiety has no obvious cause…
Recently, I disabled my chosen apps from my phone, so now I have to make a decision, and take a few extra actions before I scroll.
Create a new story:
Very recently I was looking through almost every photo I’ve ever taken, and all the photos I am in that I didn’t take, like my wedding photos for example… I mention these specifically because I had a particular memory about my wedding day… a slightly negative memory that had tainted the day… not in a huge way, but certainly a little bit. As I was looking through my photos I realised that my memory was not entirely accurate… I had taken a small thing and made it bigger… and there was photographic evidence proving just how small that thing was. So I have re-written the story I had in my mind about it, and created a new story that makes me a lot happier. It was powerful proof that we make up stories based on the meaning we give certain experiences, and because we have chosen that meaning (either on purpose or not) then we can choose a new meaning. In this case I had photographic ‘evidence’ which we may not always have… but if there’s a particular situation that bothers you and makes you feel unhappy, maybe talk to someone else who was there, try and see the situation from a different point of view, and see if you can give it a new meaning.
Hint. A professional counsellor or therapist may be able to help if you are feeling very upset or distressed.
Spend some time with animals:
Animals are marvellous company. Just watching my cat go about his day makes me feel calm and happy. I love how he lives completely in the moment, grooming, resting, eating, playing… and when the time comes trying to catch birds through the closed window! Or deciding to sit on me! He is just so funny. Dogs are great too, so boisterous and completely full of joy. A loving family pet provides unconditional love and affection, and can fulfill the need we have to touch and connect. This can help us feel loved and accepted. They also help reduce stress while encouraging joy and playfulness.
Pets, and dogs in particular can ease the symptoms of anxiety. They help take your mind off your own worries, encourage you to go outside and exercise, build your self confidence and even help you make friends.
It is not limited to dogs and cats though… all pets have benefits… and if you don’t have a pet? Watching local birds and wildlife, visiting a community farm or local zoo, or even asking a neighbour of friend if you can play with their pet can benefit your mood and improve your happiness.
Photography for happiness:
Photography is a fantastically literal way of ‘focusing’ on what is good and right in the world.
Photographs are a brilliant way to remember great times, the people you love, places you’ve been and the fun things you’ve done. Looking back at your photos and remembering the happy times from the past can help you feel happier in the present.
Sharing photos with friends and family can bring you closer together, keep you up to date with each other, and help you relive happy memories.
You can also use photos as inspiration. Cut out pictures of places you want to go and experiences you’d love to have and stick them on a pin board. Pinning up your own favourite pictures can also help remind you to smile. It’s also great to use positive pictures as wallpaper on your devices.
Photography is also a fantastically literal way of ‘focusing’ on what is good and right in the world. The very act of taking a photo can divert your focus from yourself and your worries, whether it’s a happy face, pet, beautiful scenery or a house plant on the other side of the lense. It literally focuses your mind on how beautiful your surroundings are, keeps you connected with your environment, promotes creativity and encourages gratitude.
I would suggest selfies are not included… for this we need to face the camera out.
Plan to be happy:
If you’re feeling in any way anxious or depressed, then getting started in the morning can be really hard.
I have personally found this at times, and know having a plan for my day can really help. And I don’t mean just planning those things you have to do. Putting the things you want to do, like doing and that bring you joy into your schedule will work wonders to improve your day.
Prioritise and fill your day with those things you like doing and your happiness is bound to improve.
As I mentioned earlier I started researching and writing about happiness in 2015 in an effort to help my eldest son recover from anxiety. During this time I met and spoke to many families going through the same thing. Childhood anxiety went from being something I barely knew existed to something that was everywhere. I soon realised the tools we were using were slowly working for us, and that we had the opportunity to help these other families. “Someone should write a book” I thought to myself… “Oh… That somebody might need to be me!” So the concept of Everyday Happy was born. It is part manual, part happiness prompt and part gratitude journal, Everyday Happy is designed to be an easy, pressure free daily prompt to help it’s user gently raise themselves out of anxiety and into happiness. Described as a “happiness pick and mix” it will hold your hand on your pathway back to happiness.
This list is by no means exhaustive.
Anything you find that makes you feel even slightly better is a step in the right direction towards happiness for you. These techniques will help you, but only if you do the work!
It is very difficult to jump straight from feelings of depression to feelings of joy… the pathway there is as unique as you are, and will be the result of consistent small steps. Even Mount Everest is climbed one step at a time!
You are amazing.
You can do this.