Happiness: I've got sunshine in a bag
There's a new school of thinking that says you can think yourself happy. Codswallop? Anna Carey investigates...and keeps a gratitude journal allong the way
Published 03/04/2010 | 05:00
Everyone wants to be happier. Even if you're content, chances are you think that's not enough.
We feel we're too stressed, too tired, too distracted to be able to properly enjoy our lives. We want more. Of course, there's nothing new about the pursuit of happiness -- people have been searching for it for millennia, and everyone from Aristotle to Oprah has looked at the question of joy and how we can achieve it. But more and more ordinary men and women are putting more and more effort into the quest for happiness -- so much so that it has become our defining purpose.
Over the past few years, dozens of books have been published with titles such as Happiness: The Thinking Person's Guide, The Question of Happiness, The How of Happiness and Authentic Happiness. Even the Dalai Lama has written a book, The Art of Happiness.
The Happiness Project, in which New York lawyer-turned-author Gretchen Rubin attempts to dedicate an entire year to increasing her general happiness, recently hit the top spot of the New York Times bestseller list.
Irish mind coach Brian Colbert, author of The Happiness Habit: Choose the Path to a Better Life (Newleaf, €16.99) believes that the huge social changes which have taken place have something to do with our growing obsession with happiness. "Traditional hierarchies have failed," he says. "In Ireland, the religious hierarchies have failed. The bankers have failed. The Government has failed The economy has failed. In fact, it looks like the world is becoming flat again. People have lost confidence in the competence and integrity of those in power and when that happens it's natural to look for a replacement."
Many of these books are inspired by, and written by, practitioners of positive psychology. Traditionally, psychology has concentrated on treating depression -- bringing someone to a neutral one. Positive psychology actively promotes happiness and positivity "to make normal life more fulfilling". The godfather of the movement is Dr Martin Seligman, the former president of the American Psychological Association, who began writing about positive psychology in the mid-90s. He's also the author of Authentic Happiness.
Positive psychology doesn't offer a quick fix. It's estimated that 50pc of our happiness is due to genetics (we do all have a natural tendency towards different emotional states) and 10pc is due to our life circumstances. But, as psychologist Allison Keating says, "40pc of differences in happiness levels are accounted for by intentional activities. It's down to you. It's about making happiness a habit."
But that takes work. "To be happy you have to habitually engage in happiness-increasing activities," says Keating. "You have to put in lots of energy, effort and perseverance."
You also can't expect to always feel totally amazing -- as Keating points out, that's not healthy. "When I talk about happiness, I don't mean you're smiling all the time," she says. "What you're trying to do is build sustainability, contentment and peace. Authentic happiness isn't always what people think it is. It could be the ability to feel gratitude for a beautiful morning or to appreciate your child smiling at you."
Everyone defines happiness differently. But one thing is clear: it doesn't mean an absence of sorrow or pain. "The definitions of happiness that resonate for me are the ones that allow for the complexity of it," says American writer Ariel Gore, author of Bluebird: Women and the Psychology of Happiness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, €16.99stg). "The positive psychologist Paul Wong defines happiness as the ability to rejoice in the midst of suffering.
In her book A Life of One's Own, Marion Milner points out that happiness is different from pleasure in that it includes both the pleasure of discovery and the pain of loss. "I like those definitions. For me, happiness is a raw openness to experience. It's the opposite of anxiety."
And reaching that state can help you deal with bad times. "It's important to feel a breadth of emotions," says Keating. "But positive psychology is about being in a healthier mindset, so that when difficult times come, you have become very resilient."
So how do we reach this stage? The Buddhist technique known as Mindfulness has been adopted by many psychologists. Mindfulness essentially means concentrating thoroughly on the present moment rather than worrying about the past or the future.
Other widely accepted methods of increasing happiness include documenting one's moods in a happiness journal, pinpointing what makes you happy and working on how you can foster those feelings. Sounds exhausting. Can anyone really be happy just by putting their mind to it? Gretchen Rubin definitely felt that her Happiness Project worked for her. And so do her legions of fans, thousands of whom have begun their own Happiness Projects -- she even started a website to help them, www.happinessprojecttool box.com. Her readers clearly see Rubin as an inspirational figure. If Gretchen can do it, everyone can. Right?
But Rubin doesn't live an average life. She's a successful lawyer-turned-writer whose husband is a private equities trader. Her father-in-law is the former US Treasury Secretary, and she and her family live in a large, beautiful house in New York's elite upper-east side, where they employ domestic staff.
It's much easier for someone who doesn't need to worry about money to devote a year to her own happiness, to spend days sorting out her closet or to splash out on a personal trainer. If you're rich, it's not a big deal for you to pick your own working hours and take time out to focus on being true to yourself, or, as Rubin puts it "being Gretchen".
In the book, she reveals that the main reason why she hadn't given up law to become a writer sooner was because "it's often hard for me to 'Be Gretchen'". For most people, the main argument against abandoning a steady job for the very unreliable world of literature would be a fear of not being able to afford to eat or pay bills.
One of the most prominent positivity sceptics is award-winning journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich's new book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (Granta, £10.99) is an entertainingly ferocious attack on what she sees as a wilfully naive "positive" mindset that refuses to acknowledge anything can have a downside -- even cancer. She points out that believing anyone can simply attract good fortune through their positive attitude also implies that those who are poor, sick or abused are somehow losers, whose misfortunes are not caused by an unjust society, genetics or bad luck but by their own inability to think happy thoughts.
Gore thinks she has a point. "There are a lot of reasons why Americans in general and American positive psychology in particular has a bad name," she says. "When my own mother was diagnosed with cancer, I was relieved to hear Ehrenreich on the radio explaining that being angry and scared about it wouldn't make the cancer worse!
"It seems obvious, of course, but the notion that we all create our own illness with negative emotions is so entrenched that I had almost a superstitious fear that if I reacted to cancer with anything but hope and good cheer, I'd make it worse."
But Gore worries that this sort of nonsense can turn people away from a philosophy that could genuinely help their state of mind. "Many of the great spiritual philosophies of the world teach us that we do, basically, 'create our own reality', but that idea gets horribly oversimplified in materialistic culture," she says.
"[Holocaust survivor] Viktor Frankl explores this idea in a deep and mature way in Man's Search for Meaning. If we have the mental and spiritual tools, we do have the freewill and the power to rejoice in the midst of suffering. But I think it's pretty rich to expand that philosophy to say, 'Hey, I have all this material wealth and there's no earthquake where I live because I'm better at meditation than you are!'"
Gore's Bluebird is perfect for anyone who finds the likes of Rubin too perky but Ehrenreich too bleak. Gore's a sceptic who admits that there's nothing cool about concentrating on happiness and who understands that many of us are turned off by the "hokiness"of positive thinking. "But," she points out, "existential depression isn't getting us anywhere!"
In the book, Gore embarks on her own sort of happiness project, although it's more accessible than Rubin's. She gathers together lots of different women from various backgrounds and asks them to keep gratitude and happiness journals to see what, if anything, their happy moments have in common. She attends a few positive psychology conferences and even consults a life coach.
But she's not just focused on herself. Gore agrees with Ehrenreich that positive thinking can sometimes turn to victim blaming, and, intriguingly, she looks at how studies of happiness have focused on male subjects, while women have been seen in terms of neurosis. "According to the World Health Organisation, women are twice as likely to be prescribed a psychopharm than our male peers, even when we present with the exact same symptoms," she says. "There's something wrong with that picture -- it's got to change."
As does the common view that women are most happy in traditional, self-sacrificing roles, a view not borne out by Gore's interviewees.
It's impossible to read any of these books without feeling the urge to try out the techniques. Rubin's focus on traditional domesticity and her refusal to acknowledge her own privilege annoyed me, but I had to admit that, like her, I also get stressed when my house is ridiculously messy, so I followed her advice and just made my bed every morning (something she says was the easiest way to feel more in control of your surroundings). And to my amazement, I felt better.
When I took a break from work and went for a walk in the park, I made a concerted effort to just enjoy my surroundings. It wasn't easy, but I discovered that trying Mindfulness really does work. And, dorky though it felt, I started a journal. Taking note of the good things in my life made me feel lucky, and, yes, happier.
"I came to the project with the intent of really trying these things out, but, at the same time, feeling pretty sceptical," says Gore. "So it was a delight to discover what is true: when I took the question of happiness seriously, and when I dug through all the nonsense of fake cheer, happiness was there, with liberty, love and creativity -- all the free things we nevertheless have to work for and fight for, the things that make life worth living."
The Happiness Project, Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin, HarperCollins, £16.99, available at Amazon.co.uk