Dissecting the Science of Lasting Happiness
It's the one thing that everyone wants - a little happiness. Researchers say that most people report they are fairly happy. The populations of some countries are said to be happier than others. To be happy doesn't seem to be asking too much, but does it mean different things to different people and do we require some level of unhappiness in order to appreciate the difference?
They say happiness is a state of mind, but if the science is accurate it extends beyond this. Happiness and optimism are said to be extenders of life, makers of good health and crafters of mental resilience. Happiness is also something of a slippery customer. It is quite possible to feel miserable and depressed for most of the time, yet have spirits lifted for just a few moments. But we can also adapt to happiness. Things such as wealth bring immediate pleasure but over time this diminishes. Wealthy people may be miserable in comfort, but misery is misery, however you package it. The fact that a bar of chocolate, a piece of music or the scent of a flower can bring you more joy in a given moment than anything else tells us that happiness can be fleeting or last much longer.
The fact that different things make people happy should tell us something about the nature of happiness. Most people would probably agree there is no single ingredient to happiness, but that happiness is an amalgam of things. So what are these things and are some more important than others? Here's a quick breakdown of the issues thought to influence our happiness:
If happiness helps to ward off illness and prolong life then the opposite can be said for stress. Stress grinds away at the immune system leaving us more prone to infections. It also promotes anxiety and depression. Find ways of reducing stress and replace it with eustress. Eustress is a positive form of stress that comes about from new challenges or novel situations. Take up a musical instrument, write a book, learn a new language or visit another country. Novel experiences even promote new neural connections in the brain.
Friendships and other forms of relationships are important and should be nurtured. This isn't just about having a close friend or partner with whom it's safe to share your secrets and fears (but that's important) it's also to do with breadth and depth of relationships. A life that brings you into social contact with a variety of people from different backgrounds and circumstances does the job. According to some researchers marriage can add a handful of years onto the life of the average man or woman.
For a life to be happy it needs to have meaning. For some people this may be reflected in moves to achieve some personal goals or aspirations. Others may want to embrace something spiritual or at least bigger than themselves - the environment for example. Engaging with life is important but so is reflecting on yourself and your role in it. For this to have meaning it's important that you accept who you are without judging yourself too harshly. Of course if your reflections suggest a tweak to some aspect of your behavior or personality, you have it within your gift to try.
Some of the things I've outlined represent a basis for happiness. Their interpretation or their relative importance will vary from person to person. Happiness, it seems, can improve if we work at it but it's far from static or predictable. We're all too aware that life circumstances can have a negative effect on happiness but this is a part of life - as happiness should be.