Most of us agree that happiness is worth pursuing. But we tend to have very different ways of trying to achieve it. For some of us, it is defined by the size of our house or bank balance. For others, it's all about family, friends and relationships. Yet, others claim that it can only be achieved through having no possessions or relationships at all.
I have spent a lot of time in the last few years trying to understand what happiness means for me. I am definitely not an expert, and my girlfriend will (correctly) tell you that I don't always practise what I preach. But as I've gone along, I've come across a handful of recurring and inspiring themes. They have definitely made me happier, and I hope, through listing them below I can signpost others to the same path.
1. Only you can make you happy. My journey started in a self-development centre called Inner Space in Covent Garden when I attended one of their free 'Self-Esteem' courses. The foundation of their teaching is that we cannot be happy if we rely on external factors to achieve it. External factors include anything from people's opinions, to the state of our finances, to the train running late, to the weather! They are each out of our control and by letting them drive our happiness, they effectively own it. The first step is to restore the ownership back to ourselves.
2. Stop getting angry. I've come across this in several places, but most memorably in a book called Don't get Mad Get Wise, by Mike George. Aside from ensuring no-one sat next to me on the tube, the book taught me the futility and damaging effects of negative emotions. Anger, the author argues, arises when our expectations of an external situation are not met. It is, quite simply, a negative reaction to the world not being as we want it. Expecting the world to shape itself around our designs, is irrational. Reacting negatively when it invariably doesn't is even more so.
Anger clouds our thinking, creates resentment, generates fear and (through triggering the release of cortisol) is bad for our health. We can reduce our anger by letting go of our constructed expectations and simply accepting situations as they are.
3. Be grateful (for everything). I watched a great TED talk by David Steindl-Rast who highlighted the detrimental effects of materialism on our happiness. Materialism is an insatiable desire for more, which in turn creates a focus away from the moment to 'what is next'. He points out that it's not 'what is next' that will make us happy, but what is happening now. We can never experience 'what is next' if that is all we are thinking about.
We are at our happiest, when we receive kindness from others. We can create gratitude by valuing everything we have in every moment.
4. It's not the winning that counts. So much of our life is geared around being the best. At school the best achievers are paraded and immortalised. Parents pack their children's time with extra-curriculas, so they will be the best at something. TV is packed with reality TV shows that centre on winning. It's everywhere we look, and we inevitably build it into our happiness barometer.
A winning culture can create unrealistic targets and lead to anxiety. For some, it can create a stigma for life. This is especially the case in the UK where inequality makes winning even harder for the less privileged. It is why anxiety levels are so high in the USA.
Evidence shows that competitiveness does not necessarily lead to better results. A controlled experiment in under-privileged schools in New York demonstrated that a 'pass/fail' culture provided significantly worse results than a 'not yet' culture. If we tell ourselves 'not yet' rather than focus on winning and losing, we are more likely to reach our potential.
Humility is also recommended. In her book Awaken Your Inner Wisdom BK Jayanti points out that we should remember how little we actually know. It is far better for our happiness to approach every situation as an opportunity to learn and develop.
5. Slow down. A common recommendation for happiness in our fast-paced world, is simply to slow down. Journalist Carl Honore's book In Praise of Slowness discusses the damaging effects of a fast-paced life. His epiphany moment came when he recoiled at his delighted to find a 2 minute bedtime story for his child. He realised he was trying to save time in every aspect of his life, even the most important and memorable.
Slowing down does not mean achieving less. It can enrich your life and boost your creativity. The experts who argue for it (and there are many) tend to succeed in whatever walk of life they are in. And, they are happy.
The first step is to do less and to make time away from distractions. Spend a day (or an hour!) without screens. And then, try meditation. I took it up a few years ago, and (when I have the time) it is invaluable.
So that's five suggestions I have picked up along the way. Obviously there are others, and they assume a basic level of income. But once you have that, they are a pretty good focus. They worked for me anyway.