Posted on 21/11/2022
Have you ever spent some time in the company of a well rested baby who has a full tummy and a clean nappy, and marvelled at the simple, natural happiness they’re experiencing at that moment?
But in the midst of my envy it struck me that here – staring back up at me – was a perfect expression of happiness, that sometimes elusive “thing” that we all seek in our lives.
We all want to be happy, but many people live with stress, anxiety, isolation, depression and other mental health challenges that undermine their sense of happiness. Most of us appreciate that there is a lot more to happiness than having a clean bottom and a full stomach, but what really makes us happy?
Well, Dr Robert Holden, psychologist and founder of The Happiness Project shares some thoughts that are worth considering:
What is happiness?
“Happiness is a joy that doesn’t need a reason. It’s our authentic selves minus neuroses, and we usually discover it when we cease striving. Importantly, it’s not the absence of problems, nor getting something you want, which is usually a transitory pleasure.”
How do we become happy?
“The pursuit of happiness often fails because it is based on the idea that happiness is not here but could be in the future. As a result, we don’t concentrate on now, recognising what could make this moment joyful.
I also believe that unhappiness can be a message telling us to question whether there is something that needs adjusting in our lives. From the age of 15 I started rubbing my chin and asking about the purpose of life. I began to see that I had been brought up to believe that success makes you happy. Yet, as I went on striving to be successful in the competitive, driven way expected, there was a feeling of emptiness – which I now know is very common, and working in an NHS clinic I saw how stress – so often the product of pressures we put on ourselves – conflicts with happiness.”
Are there obstacles to finding happiness?
“Not taking care of ourselves is one. A lot of people are good at putting others first and being a bit of a martyr because they fear they may be seen as being selfish, but to this I ask “How well has being a martyr worked for you so far?” and “How many people have you made really happy?”
Research has shown that people who give time and consideration to their own needs are consistently more generous to others”.
What about material wellbeing?
“Studies we have done clearly show that life circumstances don’t matter as much as we believe they do, but our responses to them do.
The recession is a chance to restructure our lives. In recent years, with all our affluence, surveys have shown lower rates of happiness than in harder times. We need collective relationships, and less individualism and competitiveness. We also need to be less hyper active and more inner directed.”
Do you agree with research showing those with faith are happier than those without, as they are less cynical?
“A spiritual faith based on love definitely gives people a sense of meaning, a feeling of support. To be happy, it helps to believe in something bigger and more permanent than your ego!”
How far can physical exercise – from going to the gym to good sex – help increase happiness?
“When you treat yourself well, life gets better. There are four types of happiness: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Exercise should be enjoyable to really lift the spirits.”
Is it possible to avoid unhappiness altogether?
“In medical science and psychology we have tended to make unhappiness the devil, something bad and wrong that needs to be banished. But unless you get so low that you need medication, as some people do, it may be a valuable wake up call. There is an idea that through suffering we grow, and up to a point this can be true: we may do amazing things through suffering. But on the other side, when we find joy we can also do amazing things and feel happy, too.”
Do you have a formula for happiness you can pass on?
“For starters, we would be better spending a little time each day thinking about the things that make us feel joyful, and how often we experience them. This is an active process, and means thinking that we are worth the attention. Many things can encourage you to be happy, but you must take the initiative. Without this, nothing external can make you happy”.