Happiness is hard work. This isn’t what anyone wants to hear, and you might not agree. We have all watched friends transform from miserable to happy as a result of a new relationship, a new job or some other change in life circumstances. And life circumstances clearly do affect our happiness. People in relationships are, on average, happier than single people (though not by a huge amount). Unemployment, however, is highly correlated with depression. I know from my own life that being surrounded by people I like and having meaningful work are both hugely important for my happiness.
There can be a quick fix to increasing happiness – landing your dream job, meeting the man or woman of your dreams, winning the lottery, etc. But these (a) require a great deal of luck and (b) tend to be more complicated than they seem at first. On top of this, we are remarkably good at getting used to our circumstances, whatever they may be. With the exception of particularly difficult events which make us less happy permanently (for example, losing a child or repeated bouts of unemployment), we tend to adapt to our circumstances – positive or negative.
Or at least, so the theory goes for most of us. But then there are people like the Buddhist monk and writer Matthieu Ricard, who seems to be much, much, much happier than most people. His happiness was measured by an fMRI scanner, and found to be completely outside the range of normal humans. He has spent tens of thousands of hours meditating on compassion and love.
And there is the research by Sonja Lyubormirsky. She looked at identical and non-identical twins, and found that around 50 per cent of happiness was hereditary and 10 per cent was down to life circumstances (averaging life circumstances out across a life time – i.e. not when you’ve just been dumped). But that still leaves 40 per cent of our happiness in our control.
This 40 per cent share is where the hard work comes in. I’ve been tackling the 40 per cent for a while now, and I think I’ve managed to increase my happiness by about half that amount. The first bit of effort is finding out what you need to do to change your 40 per cent. For me, meditation is crucial, but it is really hard work and easy to let slip. Then there is exercise – one change I’ve made is to make sure I go dancing once a week, and climbing once a week. These two things have really made a difference.
Are they hard work? Well, not really, but I do need to prioritise them, and sometimes they make me feel a bit out of my comfort zone – either socially, or due to the exercise itself (especially the dancing). Then there is gratitude journaling, which I found so hard to do consistently that I made it into an app…and I still sometimes don’t get round to doing it (don’t tell anyone!).
There are plenty more tips and tricks, all of which can be tough for various reasons. Either they require you to prioritise your happiness ahead of other pressing tasks; or they require you to set aside time in a really busy day; or they require you to address slightly uncomfortable questions and habit patterns. For all of this, having a community of similarly-minded people to cheer you on and hold you accountable makes a huge difference.
That is why I would strongly recommend going on happiness course to find similar minded people. I’m running one online called the Happiness MBA, which starts on Monday 25 July, and will encourage participants to be a virtual community for each other. There is also the wonderful Action for Happiness’s 8-week course, Exploring What Matters, which is taught in person and is spreading around the world, so you might find one near you. If not you could always offer to run one or make your own little happiness community.