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International Day of Happiness, 20th March

What’s your definition of happiness? Is it a single snapshot of a great day? Is it a feeling you experience with your family or friends? Is it a moment of peace or total focus and engagement? Is it that big yellow smiley emoticon? This week celebrates the International Day of Happiness. What a good time to reflect on our own happy levels.

According to psychologist Martin Seligman, happiness can be broken down into three components. These are pleasure, engagement and meaning. While pleasure may bring some aspects of happiness, he teaches that those of us who strive for all three elements will achieve a deeper and richer level of fulfilment. Barbara Fredrickson may be the world’s leading expert on the subject of happiness. She describes the ten most common positive emotions as being love, awe, inspiration, amusement, pride, hope, interest, joy, gratitude and serenity. Aristotle knew this. He used the term “eudaimonia”. The definition for this is most closely related to “human flourishing”.

These definitions round out happiness and demonstrate its importance in the fabric of our lives. We spend much of our lives moving away from pain points (I’m hungry, there’s not enough money, we’re running late, the cat’s been sick again) rather than towards pleasure points (there’s a rainbow, the roads were clear this morning, The radio’s playing my song, I really like these socks). So what can we do to really flourish as humans? Is it worth the effort?

Many psychologists have suggested that we have a “set point of happiness”, that is a level of contentment to which we naturally return after periods of elation or pain. So some people seem to be naturally happier than others regardless of what comes their way. Does that mean if you think you’re miserable it’ll be forever or is it actually possible to turn that frown upside down?

In a book called The Undefeated Mind by Dr Lickerman, he suggests that it is possible to change your “set point” and that altruism is the way forward. He reports long term increases in contentment levels when individuals spend time caring and thinking of others. Definitely worth trying! I think there are plenty of ways to maximise the joy in your day but you’ve just got to commit to doing it. Here are a few suggestions:

External: Volunteer; add something to the foodbank; go shopping for a neighbour; help out at a school or read at a care home.

Internal: Learn about mindfulness and meditation; plan some conscious acts of kindness (eg buy a pair of gloves for the big issue seller you pass on your way to work); avoid sad news articles; watch less TV; spend more time outside, find 3 things to be thankful for every day.

Inter-familial: Look after a plant; make a bon mot jar with jokes, positive quotes and reasons to be grateful; surprise your nearest and dearest, do something that scares you, make a plan with a friend and enjoy the anticipation.

But why bother? What difference does it make anyway? Here's why... in 2001, a study was taken on Nuns and the effect of positive emotion in early life and longevity. These nuns had been encouraged to keep diaries over 5 decades from 1917. When researchers coded these journals for positive emotional content they surmised that the most overtly joyful members outlived their counterparts by ten years. “By age 85, 90% of the happiest quartile of nuns were still alive, compared to only 34% of the least happy quartile” (Seligman, 2005, “Authentic Happiness”).

Spending time on others is consistently regarded as the easiest way to feel good about yourself. Try it.

Enjoy Good Health!

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