My friend Ruth recently confessed to me that she just didn't know how to feel really happy. She wasn't depressed, she insisted, she just wasn't feeling really happy. What is happiness? I asked her. She immediately came back with, "It's a feeling. A good feeling". As our chat continued we realised that we can't wait to feel happy. Sometimes we have to do happy.
To get happy, Do happy
According to the US entrepreneur Marc Andreessen "If you're unhappy, you should change what you're doing." And the evidence from the academic literature bears this out.
One of the most promising ways to increase well-being is to engage in valued and enjoyable activities. (Mazzucchelli et al, 2010, Journal of Positive Psychology).
I've also been working with Do Something Different and Action for Happiness to investigate how changing what people do changes how they feel. And the evidence shows time and time again that happiness is not something we sit and wait for. It's not a feeling that descends on us like magic dust. It's something we have to get out there and do, to make it happen.
We have to adopt a set of happy habits in our everyday life. Those habits that include connecting with others, giving freely, appreciating ourselves ad what we have and being willing to try out new things.
Here is a quick happiness tool designed to see whether people have happy habits. It diagnoses the extent to which people practice happiness, by asking:
How often do you....
• make an effort to do things for others?
• put effort into the relationships that matter most to you?
• take time to connect with new people?
• spend at least half an hour a day being active? (e.g. sport, walking)
• take time to notice the good things in your life?
• try new things?
• do something that makes you feel good about the future?
• find yourself able to bounce back quickly from problems?
• feel good?
• feel ok about yourself as you are?
• feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
Life as an experiment
The beauty of having happy habits is that we can apply them every day and then see what happens. It's a different approach to life, treating it more as an experiment in which we are the driver, instead of sitting back and letting life happen to us.
Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. The only way to get something different really is to just do something different. And so, as I told my friend Ruth, if we're not happy we have to do more of the things that are known to make people happy.
Make yourself happy
The key to getting happy involves reminding ourselves what makes us happy. Remember when you were a child and the little things that excited you? The sound of the ice cream van, the knock on the door as a friend called, making a card for your mum or dad. The most popular action on the Do Happiness programme was all about reminding us to do things we love:
Joyful Day. Do something today that lifts your mood. Listen to music, watch comedy, sing, read a poem, cycle, dance, go outside or connect with friends.
Make others happy
One thing that's known to boost happiness is making other people happy. In experiments where researchers gave students money to either spend on themselves or on another person, those who spent it on another person were happier afterwards than those who'd spent it on themselves. But it doesn't have to involve money. On a Do Happiness programme the giving habit is turned into this behavioural prompt:
Recognition Day. Today recognise someone who's done good work or gone the extra mile, praise them outwardly, email them or share positive news.
The habit of doing happiness
Research shows that, amongst thousands of people practising happy habits, these two habits were the most enjoyable. Other habits focus on appreciation, exercising, relationships, having goals and finding meaning in life, giving people little prompts to practice each one.
Over the course of a few weeks of getting into the habit of doing happiness, people were found to be much less depressed and less stressed. More importantly, the biggest improvement was in people's levels of self-acceptance, after practising the self-acceptance habit life got better and better.
Here are three positive actions that people can take to increase their levels of self-acceptance:
• Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small.
• Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you.
• Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you're feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.
The most lesson though is learning that happiness is something that we can do, a set of habits we can develop, and that's empowering. So the next time you want to feel happy, why not go and do happy?