Is there a formula for happiness? Well not exactly - lots of things contribute to how we feel in the moment and about our lives overall, and it varies from person-to-person and over time. But if I had to pick a number - when it comes to happiness that might well be three.
Your daily three good things
Let's start with a classic positive psychology experiment. This found taking a few moments to reflect on your day and write down three things that you were pleased about, enjoyed or were grateful for (however small), along with a few words on why, had a lasting effect on how happy people felt. In fact doing this simple activity each night for one week made people happier and less likely to experience depression-type symptoms for up to six months. Not bad for an investment of about three minutes per day.
Why does this work? Well it turns out as humans we are hard-wired to focus on what's wrong. From an evolutionary perspective this made sense. As hunter and gathers, early detection of problems and issues meant we could take action to avoid danger, for example by fighting or fleeing, which helped us survive as a species. Luckily for the most part, we no longer face the same day-to-day risks yet our brains are still more likely to notice and dwell on what's wrong than on what's right.
Practicing this activity helps us pay a little more attention to the good things that happen to us, as well as what's wrong, and can have powerful and lasting impact as how we feel. Even on our worst days we can usually think of three things if we try - even as small as appreciating putting our feet up after a long day, or reading something that made us smile or someone noticing we were overloaded and making us a cup of tea.
And it turns out that this might not just be good for us but for those around us too...
Three ripples - your happiness matters for others
Ever worked with a grumpy colleague and found that he or she had a ripple effect to everyone around them? Well science has proved our moods are contagious across our (real) social networks, statistically significant to up to three degrees of separation! This means our moods have a knock-on effect not just to the people we are in direct contact with, but the people they then connect with and so on. For example - imagine I get out of the wrong side of the bed and snap at my partner before he leaves for work. He leaves the house thinking "What did I do to deserve that?" and churns this over during his journey. Arriving at work, caught up in his annoyance with me, he doesn't see a team member as they pass in the hall. The team member feels snubbed which upsets them, so they are then curt with a customer who phones with a query and so the ripple spreads out...
This doesn't mean we need to be full of the joys of spring all the time, but we perhaps understanding the ripple effect makes us more aware of the impact of how we feel on others and encourages us to take action to manage or improve our mood. It isn't just for us - it's for others too.
Nurture three connections
Other people matter for our wellbeing and happiness, and we matter for theirs. In fact, having fewer than three close relationships - people who are there for us and who we can turn to in good times and bad, makes us much more likely to suffer from depression and can be as damaging to our physical health as smoking or obesity! Yet it's often our close relationships that, in our busy lives, we take most for granted. So today - on the International Day of Happiness why not think of three people important to you and get in contact with them. How about picking up the phone to a good friend you haven't spoken to for ages, dropping a note to someone you are grateful to tell them why or taking time out to share a coffee with a family member or neighbour. You'll make your world, and theirs, a happier place.
There's a Latin phrase 'omne trium perfectum' which means everything that comes in threes is perfect and may be for happiness three is as perfect a number.