Habits of Happiness for World Mental Health Day
There is no health without mental health
Ask someone what they most wish for their life and the number one answer is that they want to be happy. Happiness is a subject that has fascinated thinkers and teachers for millennia. Everyone has their pet theory on what makes us happy but for the last 21 years there has been a science of happiness, producing a body of evidence on how to grow our mental health.
The paradox of happiness is that the more you chase it, the more elusive it can be. People who highly value happiness often set standards for it which are tough to reach, leading to disappointment and lowering their happiness the more they want it. So how can we avoid falling into this happiness trap and build a sustainable wellbeing? As the field comes of age, I’m sharing twelve happiness habits that can make a real difference to your wellbeing. First you need to understand the nature of happiness.
There are two major forms of happiness. Hedonic wellbeing is the more familiar one. It’s the happiness of pleasure and enjoyment. Something positive happens and you feel good. The trouble is that these peak moments are just that – moments. The positive emotions they generate like awe and bliss are short-lived, here one moment and gone the next.
And that’s not the only limit to this kind of happiness. The novelty wears off and we begin to take the pleasure for granted. The second time you go to that amazing restaurant is never as good as the first time. The way to overcome this ‘hedonic treadmill’ is to add variety to the experience or keep upping the dose for hedonic happiness to continue to deliver.
Not so well known is ‘eudaimonic wellbeing’. This is the deeper, meaningful happiness that comes from living a life of purpose and using your strengths in the service of something beyond the self. It could be raising a family, pursuing a vocation or supporting a cause. The advantage of this kind of happiness is that it can be sustained, unlike hedonic wellbeing. There are many elements that come under the heading of eudaimonic wellbeing but it does have a simple formula. If you put effort into something meaningful it leads to this greater sense of fulfilment.
Happiness is NOT a spectator sport
Neuroscience shows us that it is possible to increase our happiness. The brain is shaped by life experience but also responds to training. By adopting a ‘growth mindset’, a theory of development from Stanford psychologist Prof Carol Dweck, you can learn to think more optimistically and experience greater positivity. What I find with clients is that they often want to satisfy their curiosity about the science of happiness but sometimes don’t appreciate that it requires practice to strengthen their wellbeing. It’s the multiple repeats that form the neural connections to make a habit out of happiness.
Each of these twelve habits from The Little Book of Happiness, are backed by science, so we know they work.
1 – Learn to Play
As adults we don’t get as much time to play as we do as children. Although it’s harder to get started, active recreation like gardening or singing in a choir will raise our happiness more than passive leisure like watching TV. Just as you might have a ‘playlist’ of your favourite tracks on your phone, you can do the same with leisure activities. Write a playlist of the activities that put sunshine into your soul and schedule something into your diary every day.
2 – Express Gratitude
There is far more to gratitude than saying thank you. It trains the mind to tune in and notice the good things in life, which is a way of overcoming the brain’s negativity bias, where your attention goes to what’s wrong before noticing what’s right. Having a gratitude practice, like counting your blessings or keeping a gratitude journal, can really help us appreciate life’s positives.
3 – Savour the Positive
Marvelling at the beauty of nature, feasting on a mouth-watering delicacy, cherishing a loved one or treasuring the happy memory of a holiday, these are all examples of savouring. Savouring is about being present to the joys of life and slowing down to smell the roses. Paying deliberate attention to the experience of pleasure. Using your senses can really help to maximise the positive experience so you squeeze all the juice out of it.
4 – Harness your strengths
We all have positive qualities – character strengths like courage or perseverance and our talents and abilities. Your strengths are the positive you, the assets that you can apply to raise the bar on your happiness and build resilience when life gets tough. Strengths give you the greatest potential for growth, so identify your personal strengths and then find new ways to use them to realise your potential.
5 – Live with meaning
What is your ‘ikigai?’ Your reason to get up in the morning? Having a sense of meaning performs two major roles for wellbeing. It gives us an understanding of the ‘why’ in life – why we do the things we do. And it gives us a sense of purpose – the ‘how’ of how we live our sense of meaning by directing effort towards it. Decide what’s important to you and make it a priority. As life gets shorter the need for meaning grows and we don’t want to waste our time on meaningless activities.
6 – Learn optimism
Optimism is one of the most important happiness habits, which protects against depression and has a major impact on psychological wellbeing. Both optimism and pessimism act as self-fulfilling prophecies. If you have confidence in a positive outcome, you are more likely to put in the effort to guarantee success, whereas if you are pessimistic then you’re more prone to giving up. Optimism is something you can learn to do even if you’re more of a born pessimist.
The happiest people on the planet have two things in common. They have good close relationships and active social lives. Love is ‘positivity resonance’ in the science of happiness. It is made up of a micro-moment of connection and warmth, where people have a shared experience of positive emotions, their behaviour and biochemistry start to sync and they have a mutual impulse to care for each other. Make your loved ones a priority and practise active-constructive responding to nurture the relationship.
8 – Practise kindness
Acts of kindness are a win:win. It makes the giver and recipient feel good, oils the wheels of relationships and creates positive communities. Altruism is good for you and for the greater good. Volunteering can produce a ‘helpers’ high’, which is an antidote to feeling low and a distraction from your own troubles. Acts of kindness can be small and brief, spontaneous or pre-planned but they must come from a selfless place. Doing a good deed for selfish reasons will limit the benefits.
9 – Get physical
You may be familiar with ‘psychosomatic’ illnesses where the mind has a negative influence on the body but what about ‘somatopsychic’ wellbeing, where the body impacts the mind in a positive way? One of the best practices for mental health is to get physical. Even the simple act of breathing deeply can change your state, break stress and restore calm. Tal Ben-Shahar, a psychologist at Harvard, once said that not exercising is like taking depressants. The key is to find a physical activity that feels like a pleasure rather than a pain.
Spending time in nature is a great healer, reducing stress, lifting the mood and helping you to better health. Researchers at the University of Exeter have found that we need a weekly dose of two hours in nature for optimal wellbeing. Even looking at images of nature is linked to higher levels of alpha brainwave activity, which plays a role in serotonin production. It only takes a few minutes of green exercise like wild swimming to start producing a feeling of wellbeing. Do it near water and the feel-good factor is intensified. A walk in the woods has turned into the Japanese health therapy of ‘forest bathing’, where you totally immerse yourself in nature, using your senses to connect with the natural environment around you.
11 – Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that can develop the part of the brain which is associated with happiness. Prof Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has studied the brains of people who do an 8-week course in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and found that it leads to greater activation of the left prefrontal cortex, the seat of positive emotions in the brain. So regular practice of this form of meditation can increase your capacity for happiness.
12 – Strive for success
Happiness and success are universal desires and there is a strong relationship between them. Experiencing success leads to happiness but the reverse is also true and people with high wellbeing tend to enjoy more success in life. The sweet taste of triumph makes us feel good and gives us the satisfaction of achievement. It isn’t only about winning the prizes. Making progress towards your goals will also grow your happiness as it gives you the sense of moving forward in your life.