Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Glittering Prize

Did you read the articles on Happiness in the Independent on Sunday ? Fascinating stuff. I loved ‘Happy Now?’ by William Leith, the whole “Christmas = consumerism gone mad = cause and effect of unhappiness” argument is very persuasive. How many people do you know who really did have a fantastic Christmas holiday, full of joy and goodwill towards others, not blighted by tears over burnt turkey and unsuitable or forgotten gifts (at best) or ugly family rows and break-ups (at worst). According to Manches LLP, a leading divorce law firm quoted in the Telegraph, the 2nd week of January is the busiest for divorce lawyers – once the kids are back to school, parents have the time to start divorce proceedings....

Leith talks about his experiences of happiness, and in particular an exceptionally happy moment from childhood; he describes being so involved in the activity that he doesn't notice time passing. Three hours actually seemed like twenty minutes, so when it’s time to go he is shocked. What he neatly describes in this short paragraph is what psychology professor, Csikszentmihalyi, calls ‘flow’ (see Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness’) i.e. a state where you are so absorbed in what you're doing that time passes much faster than you realise. This optimal state is one which we all strive for, since it is then that we perform at our best, whatever we are doing. By the way, don’t be put off by the unpronounceable name; this book is an extremely good read and is highly recommended.

Sarah Harris’s ‘Happiness: a user’s manual’ also quoted in the IoS gives you a dozen or so “rules” to follow to increase your happiness. She doesn’t quite give you the full story, however: she says ‘get married’, for example, quoting a large research study in the States in which 40% of married people described themselves as happy compared to only 24% of single people. But might it not be that happy people are more likely to get married in the first place (and unhappy people more likely to stay single)? You’d need to do some kind of survey of the same people before and after getting married to prove that point, wouldn’t you?

She also says that people who believe in God are happier than those who don’t. But this might not be to do with God per se, it might instead be something to do with optimism, or hope (life after death). According to Snyder et al (see Chapter 19 of the Handbook of Positive Psychology) , hope provides a buffer against negative emotions and negative self-talk, is critical for psychological health and has been shown to improve sporting and academic achievement. But then, as Dr Ilona Boniwell points out, it might be more to do with the social connections that people make through going to church. Sarah Harris also states that finding ‘a class or group of any kind (that) fosters a sense of belonging’ is important to increasing your happiness.

According to Martin Seligman, the American guru of happiness and, with Csikszentmihalyi, co-founder of the Positive Psychology movement, about 40% of your happiness is within your control (the rest is due to circumstances and genes). So in addition to the rules given by Sarah Harris, what practical things can you do day-by-day to increase your happiness? Here are a few of the ideas I’ve picked up over the past year or so:

1) Avoid keeping up with the Joneses, whether literally next door or the celebrities you’ll probably never meet. There will always be people who have ‘more’ than you (wealth, beauty, luck, success, Prada handbags, or whatever), and continually comparing yourself with other people is proven to cause dissatisfaction. Notice when you compare yourself to other people, and notice how you feel about making those comparisons. The more aware you are of it, the easier it will get to avoid doing it.

2) Get involved with something which is bigger than you (eg a choir, charity, community group, soccer team, anything which you can’t do on your own) – this helps to build social connections, and keeps you focussed on “life outside”.

3) Do a good deed every so often, or talk to someone at the bus-stop, or the supermarket check-out . See this fabulous Random Acts of Kindness website for ideas.

4) Write a daily journal and keep a note of the three best bits of your day. I took this up when I did my NLP training, and it really works. The three best things could be anything, big or small. Writing it down is useful – it’s very encouraging to reread it several weeks or months later – however if you haven’t got time to write, put aside 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the day to recall those moments.

I did look for the YouGov poll mentioned in Leith’s article, but the only thing I found was a link to a Daily Mail article (“ Britons despair of falling standards in society despite increasing affluence”), not the actual results themselves. If the figures he quotes are correct (only 11% of us think Britain will be a better place in 5 years time), let’s at least be positive about it….the only way is up, as they say….


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