Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 18 August 2019

The pursuit of happiness

If we are the keepers of our own happiness, why do we confuse it with pleasure, and chase transient stuff like sex and substances, instead of the things that offer us a more lasting fulfilment. Here are the different ways to find inner contentment

Lasting happiness remains elusive.
Lasting happiness remains elusive.

Suzanne Harrington

'To be happy, a man must first know what happiness is," said philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau around 250 years ago. Fast forward to now, and despite an extensive and highly lucrative happiness industry - outlined in sociologist William Davies' book of the same name, The Happiness Industry: How The Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing - we still don't seem to have quite got the hang of it.

Lasting happiness remains elusive, with statistics that confirm our misery competing with a proliferation of internet how-to guides to instant happiness in three easy steps. Or five easy steps, or seven easy steps.

But while such digital promises have all the weight and substance of damp candyfloss, our pursuit of happiness has never been more focused, more monetised, and more urgent. We are simply gagging to be happy.

Which might be the problem. "You can't summon happiness like you summon a dog," writes philosopher Pascal Bruckner in Perpetual Euphoria: On The Duty To Be Happy. "We cannot master happiness… We have a lot of power in our lives but not the power to be happy. Happiness is more like a moment of grace."

He may be right. The word 'happy' comes from an old Norse word, haap, which means 'chance', rather than anything permanent.

Plus we frequently confuse the idea of happiness with pleasure, and so chase the transient stuff - sex, shopping, substances - instead of that which offers us deeper, more lasting contentment.

We are also up against genetics and environment, which Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement, says counts for up to 60pc of our propensity for happiness, which only leaves us around 40pc to work with.

So while our eager attempts to achieve full-time permanent happiness are at best misguided, at worst delusional, we may still pursue the more attainable and less-transient states of emotional balance and inner contentment via a plethora of guides, methods, disciplines, and practices.


Buddhism without the smells and bells, mindfulness has been extracted from the ancient philosophy and freeze dried for convenient secular use.

Basically, it involves training the mind to be conscious in the present moment, so that we avoid the psychological distress of the discrepancy gap, which is the distance between our actual self and our ideal self, and something on which we tend to waste an inordinate amount of time.

Basically, mindfulness is being in the here and now so that we are not permanently stuck in the past or fretting and fantasising about the future.

According to the Berkeley Science Review, "Anecdotally, clinically, and empirically, there is ample evidence that mindfulness improves well-being and can increase happiness." You can achieve mindfulness via meditation.

Matthieu Ricard is a Sorbonne biologist-turned-Buddhist monk, who, according to the neuroscientists who measured his brain in 2008 as he meditated, is the happiest man alive. (He was quite literally off the scale). Ricard has been achieving his lasting bliss via 10,000 hours of meditation over 40 years.

His book, Happiness, is probably the best book you could read on the subject of cultivating contentment via mindfulness and meditation; that happiness is not an emotion, but a skill. Or as the Tibetans say, "Seeking happiness outside ourselves is like waiting for sunshine in a cave that faces north."

How to:

• Sit quietly upright in a comfortable position and focus your attention on a chosen object - a candle flame, a spot on the wall, a doorknob, anything - while focusing on your breath

• Count your breaths in and out to help you focus

• When your mind wanders, allow it to come back to the breath

• Start off doing just five minutes a day, and take it from there

• Use an app or guided meditation if you need to follow a voice. Or go to a meditation group

• Don't give up. The mind and body will get the hang of it. Be patient with yourself. Practice, practice, practice

Movement & Body Work

Doctors have long told us that exercise is highly effective for chasing away the blues. A good walk is an instant mood lifter; while serious depression needs further intervention, to lift yourself out of non-clinical low mood, getting sweaty is the quickest, easiest, cheapest way, with the most instant results.

Running is firmly associated with happy-happy-joy-joy, but if your joints can't hack it, do yoga. Dynamic yoga, where you move, stretch, extend, balance, sweat, and then relax in deep meditation, will leave you with a deep feeling of calm. Do this very regularly - ideally every day - and you will feel more emotionally and physically stable than a spirit level. Guaranteed.

How to:

• Get a yoga mat, find a good yoga studio

• Get a yoga mat, do it with YouTube

Positive Psychology

Developed by US psychologist Martin Seligman, this branch of psychology focuses on personal growth and development rather than pathologising what is wrong with us. With the emphasis on flourishing rather than languishing, positive psychology is a broad term which could incorporate ideas such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), cultivating gratitude, connection, and flow.

CBT, conceived in the mid-1950s by Dr Aaron T Beck, is all about managing distorted thinking. Examples include all or nothing thinking, or being too black and white; overgeneralising, or "this always happens to me"; negative filtering, where your glass is always half empty; should/ought/must statements of self-criticising; jumping to negative conclusions/mind-reading; and all-out catastrophising.

These are thoughts and feelings, not facts, yet we very often confuse the two. CBT helps steer unwanted and troubling thoughts away from the path of impending doom. Ruby Wax's chapter on CBT in her wonderful book Sane New World is worth a look.

Flow is when you lose yourself and all sense of time in an absorbing activity you enjoy. It can be anything - cooking, walking, painting, music, sport, gardening - and it lifts your happiness. Aim to be in flow at least once a week.

Gratitude trains the brain to appreciate what is, rather than bemoaning what is not. It also makes you look at the small stuff, but in a good way. If you have no idea where to start, make a list of five things either every morning or every evening of things you are grateful for - it can be anything. Your dog, your bed, your laptop, your best friend, your dinner. Anything at all. Do it daily and it becomes an automatic way of thinking.

Connection with happy people might sound blindingly obvious, but you'd be surprised. We are more atomised in the digital age, and spend as much time on social media as we do with actual humans. Choose your company well, and when you have chosen, do face-to-face interaction in real time in real life. We are social creatures, not lone wolves. Or robots.

How to:

Behavioural scientist Paul Doolan outlines "finding pleasure and purpose in every day life" in his book Happiness By Design, where he suggests that we:

• Buy a few more experiences and a bit less stuff

• Switch between pleasurable and purposeful activities

• Spend a little more time each day talking to people you like

• Spend a little less time each day on your computer or phone

• Help others


Action For Happiness, a London-based movement set up by a doctor and professor from the London School of Economics, now has followers in 118 countries. The movement believes that happiness can be maintained by three simple things: being mindful, being grateful, and being kind.

Often the most miserable people are the most inward looking - this is also true of people with addictions, hence the principles of 12 Step recovery include getting out of self.

When you are working with others (as opposed to gossiping about them, judging them, or envying them from afar) you tend to forget about yourself and become part of something bigger, which paradoxically makes you feel better about yourself as an individual.

How to:

• Get involved in some voluntary work

• Give someone a hand

• Do a random act of kindness, no matter how tiny

• Raise money for something other than yourself

• Join a campaign for something you believe in

Nature & Nurture

The Mayo Clinic's Handbook for Happiness by Dr Amit Sood is comprehensive how-to involving the psychological and physical aspects of happiness. He suggests four things. First, training your attention towards gratitude, non-judgement, kindness and nature. Secondly, developing emotional resilience by focusing on what is right rather than what is wrong. Thirdly, connecting the mind and body via music, art, prayer, meditation, reading, breath work, yoga and exercise. And lastly, maintaining healthy habits - living a simple life, doing exercise, picking your battles carefully, and lightening up.

We all know that spending time in nature boosts happiness - we gravitate towards beaches, lakes, mountains and forests in our leisure time. But going as far as your garden, or even your window box, could be enough - neuroscientists at the University of Colorado have discovered that there is a microbe in soil which has a Prozac-type effect on humans. Contact with soil actually raises our serotonin levels. Hence the popularity of gardens and gardening - it's not just about looking at the pretty flowers.

Equally, what we put into our bodies greatly influences mood and mood stability. This is the most obvious aspect of all when it comes to happiness, but here it is anyway - if you eat crap, you'll feel crap. Happy people, starting with Aristotle, know that a happy body and a happy mind are intrinsically linked; so we have to listen to our bodies, rather than the food and drinks industry and their all-pervasive clamour for us to consume unhealthy products. Eat clean!

How to:

• Spend time outdoors every day, no matter what the weather

• Spend time with animals

• Be mindful of your food

• Eat wholefoods, plant based foods

• Avoid processed foods, sugar, and too much booze - they'll make you feel depressed once the initial buzz has worn off

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