While philosophers, leaders and scientists have searched for the answer to happiness for thousands of years, the United Nations General Assembly established International Happiness Day just over a decade ago, to encourage people to realise the importance of a life filled with happiness.
This isn’t just a feel-good awareness day, it is part of the UN’s goals to help people to live happier lives, eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet.
Despite the eradication of poverty being a key aim, happiness is not simply the result of external circumstances such as wealth or status. Happiness is far more linked to mindset, relationships and a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
The science of happiness
Hundreds of studies prove links between happiness and health benefits. For example, a UK study by the Medical Research Council in 2005 found that people who reported greater happiness over a three-year period, had lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduced stress markers (like cortisol and adrenaline) and were generally less unwell than unhappier counterparts. The 2017 ‘Good Life’ Harvard Study of Adult Development (published after 80 years of research) shows that happiness (particularly in relation to close relationships) at age 50 has the biggest influence on our health at 80. Happiness and connection (i.e. close relationships) help to delay mental and physical health decline and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or even genetics.
Happiness is good for work too. A study in the Netherlands found that happiness helps us solve problems more easily and think more creatively, and research from the University of Warwick in 2014 found that happiness enabled people to be 12% more productive.
Increasing happiness by choice.
Happiness is largely a matter of choice. While we can’t control everything that happens to us in life, we can choose how we respond to life’s events. Studies have shown that just choosing to have a more optimistic outlook in the face of challenges, rather than dwelling on the negative, can help you live longer!
How can you choose to become happier?
You may be thinking: “This all sound great in an ideal world but when a particular situation makes me feel sad (angry, depressed etc.), how can I choose to be happier?” Here are my top five tips:
1. Make time each day for gratitude: Take time to be thankful every day. Perhaps by recalling three things that you are grateful for from the day. The secret is to look for the little things – the smile someone shared, the cup of tea you were brought, the sunrise, pretty frost on the ground etc. You may like to start a gratitude jar/noticeboard for your family or office and celebrate the moments of happiness with a reading of the messages – maybe at a special occasion like new year or to start the month off on a positive note.
2. Don’t compare: As the proverb states ‘comparison is the thief of all joy.’ Social media makes it too easy for us to look at other people’s lives and see the highlights they share. Instead of being happy for their success, too often we compare ourselves against unrealistic measures of other people’s highlights and find ourselves feeling jealous, left-out or unloved. These are just feelings and the best way to let them go is to stop comparing yourself with others and be grateful for your brilliance, and that of the other person.
3. Be kind: Studies show that kindness is good for you, boosting immunity and giving cardioprotective benefits , and the health benefits are two-fold as kindness increases happiness and the associated positive health impacts! How can you add a little kindness to each day? Think about three small ways you can add kindness into the tasks you have on your agenda today. Maybe make one an act of kindness for yourself and two for other people.
4. Take a breath: Breathing steadily helps to regulate your nervous system and triggers the relaxation response in your body. Notice how many breaths you take in a minute and then slow this to around 5 breaths in a minute to engage the ‘rest and digest’ response.
5. Don’t let a bad moment become a bad day: When something bad happens, it is all too easy to define your day by this unpleasant moment. But it is just a moment and ‘this too shall pass.’ Try not to let the rest of your day be ruined by one mistake or one incident. Look at the other good things that have happened so far. Look at what you can do that brings you joy, connects you to others and brings you back to a happy place.
Spread happiness by helping others find their happiness too.
As well as helping you personally, happiness benefits those around us. It improves communication with and compassion for others, to strengthen relationships with friends, family and wider communities.
The theme for this year’s International Day of Happiness is to explore ways to help others be happy. Maybe it’s making time for your daughter’s interest in Minecraft, even though it bores you. Maybe it is about going fishing with your Dad and having some quality time together doing what he loves. Maybe it is donating something to the Food Bank or your time to help a local charity?
With this theme of helping others, how do you bring happiness to your work and those who you work with? Can you take time to talk about what makes you happy and explore ways to change and improve happiness levels? Do you celebrate successes in happiness as well as business achievements? What small things can you do to spread happiness?
While the UN describes happiness as a fundamental right for all, we all have a fundamental role to play in choosing happiness for ourselves and helping to spread a little happiness in the lives of those we live and work with.
What two things can you do today to spread a little happiness for you – and someone you know?