This is the year to start taking happiness seriously. But how – and where do you find the time? Elle Hunt shares some tips and advice you need for a pleasure-filled year
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian
Many of us treat joy like the good china, only warranted on special occasions. Even if we know it is within our reach, we may not see it is within our control.
But this is a mistake, according to happiness experts. Nataly Kogan, the author of Happier Now, says, “Happiness and emotional health are not extras, or bonuses, or nice-to-haves – they’re actually at the core of what helps us live well.”
Seeking joy may sound frivolous, but being happy has been shown to promote habits and behaviours that are important to our health. A 2017 study of roughly 7,000 adults found that those with positive wellbeing were more likely to be physically active and to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Being happy has also been linked to better sleep, better weight management, lower stress levels, an improved immune system and even increased life expectancy.
So, what can we do to make 2020 a more joyful year?
Identify the problem
Start by identifying where joy is most lacking. Sarah Waite, a London-based psychologist, suggests the ‘wheel of life’, a personal development exercise derived from the Buddhist theory of balance. Draw a large circle, divide it into eight or 10 segments and label each to reflect a different area of life that you want to assess.
There are templates online, typically along the lines of fun and recreation, physical environment, career, finances, personal growth, romance, family and friends, and health. Shade in each wedge to reflect your level of satisfaction.
The finished circle should be an overview of the areas of your life that you feel you have under control, and those that may need further attention. When it comes to deciding where to allocate resources, “it’s not necessarily the one you’ve marked the lowest; it’s the one you really value the most,” says Sarah. It may be that your job is not a priority for you, so it doesn’t matter if it remains only two-thirds filled.
The goal is to get perspective and clarity. The brain has evolved to be much more sensitive to negatives than positives as, historically, it has been more important for us to be attuned to hazardous situations than satisfactory ones. This ‘negativity bias’ distorts our perspective, meaning it is hard to make a good decision under stress, says Nataly. “People can focus on things that are not ‘as they should be’ …We all have our stories of why we are not happy, at work or otherwise.” But small, practical steps taken to boost joy in one part of life can improve happiness across the board as momentum builds.
The big picture
Nataly’s first tip is to start by writing a list of what you like about your job, no matter how small. “Be specific, think broadly and don’t judge your list as you write it.” It doesn’t matter what things these are, or how many there are; the idea is to shift your mindset.
Nataly suggests making it a daily habit to note three small, highly specific things that you are grateful for every morning – perhaps before you reach for your ‘phone. “It’s not about pretending that nothing is wrong; it’s about helping your brain to get out of that negativity spiral.”
Just three weeks of this consistent ‘gratitude practice’ has been shown to establish new neuron connections facilitating optimism, with the effects lasting for six months. Mindfulness and self-compassion are similarly powerful – says Shamash Alidina, the author of Mindfulness for Dummies and the co-founder of the not-for-profit Museum of Happiness – and more attainable than people may think.
What does it all mean?
Finding lasting happiness is also about what we do, particularly what we do for others. Nataly says it is important to have a sense of purpose – to find what she calls ‘the bigger why’ among our deadlines and meetings. “It’s not possible to be a happy human being if you don’t feel like what you’re doing is meaningful,” she says.
Assessing your to-do list – particularly tasks you find mundane or frustrating – through the lens of ‘Who does this help?’ can increase motivation, lift your mood and improve your ability to manage stress, she says. “When you say, ‘This project is going to help a lot of people’ – your team, customers, readers, whatever – your stress has context and you feel more resilient at getting through it.”
Helping others may seem like a circular way of boosting your happiness, but Nataly believes even small gestures – such as pulling out a chair for a colleague, or checking in with them about their day – releases oxytocin in both the giver and the receiver. Over time, it also fosters a sense of belonging at work and can lead to office friendships – one of the most common factors in job satisfaction.
The mindset shift encouraged by practising ‘intentional kindness’ means it is worth doing for your own happiness, says Nataly. At 3pm every day, she receives a reminder to ‘be kind’. Sometimes this is as simple as texting someone she hasn’t spoken to in a while and telling them that she’s thinking of them. “I cannot tell you how much that means to people.”
It is well known that strong relationships are important to happiness, but what those look like – and how to forge them – can be ambiguous. “Happiness can feel very abstract,” says Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. “My approach is to think about what you want, then break it up into manageable, concrete actions that you can actually take.”
In terms of improving relationships, this might look like making a regular time to call or meet a friend, committing to attend a reunion or throw a party, or having a daily exchange with someone in public. Every five days or so, Gretchen’s family email each other an update on the ‘boring, everyday stuff’ of their lives, freed from any pressure to entertain or expectation to reply. “We realised that, by staying in touch with the little minutiae, we would feel more connected – and it’s absolutely working.”
Making warm greetings and goodbyes habitual at home is another small, but effective, shift. “I always think that I don’t want to be less enthusiastic than my dog!” says Gretchen. Such low-level commitments are less daunting to start with, and easier to keep up – and they make a real impact. We all have different definitions of happiness, Gretchen says, whether it be joy, peace, satisfaction, bliss. “My way of thinking about it is, today, next month, next year – are there things you can do to be happier?” she says, “and, if there are, why not do them?”
If Gretchen comes across an improvement at home that she can make in less than a minute, she does it immediately. For her, ‘outer order contributes to inner calm’, so happiness can be as simple as a clean kitchen bench or a decluttered shelf. “It feels trivial – and yet, over and over, people say, ‘When I have control of my environment, I feel like I have control generally,’” she says. “Like making your bed every morning – it gives people a lift, more than really makes sense.”
Often this is understood as minimalism – but Gretchen points out that there are many happy, successful people who take pleasure in being surrounded by their possessions. It is not a moral failing to prefer abundance, and making your personal space reflect your values and interests ‘can be very pleasing,” she says.
Early to bed
Play, gratitude and kindness may factor into a life full of joy, but so can discipline. A sense of control is more important to happiness than many people realise, says Gretchen. Prosaically enough, this is inextricable from exercise, sleep and good money management. Too often, happiness is located solely in the moment, she says, when it could be achieved through giving up sugar or alcohol, or setting an alarm to go to bed on time. “Sometimes, to be happier in the long run, we have to ask more of ourselves or deprive ourselves of something,” Gretchen explains. “A happy life is not one that’s focused only on the present.”
In the same vein, putting off a difficult or boring task can detract from your daily experience more than getting stuck into it. Sarah says she rolls her eyes at the framing of self-care as ‘baths and candles’. “I love those things, but if doing your tax return is really making you anxious, maybe the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to make a start.” It may not be what is typically understood by joy, but sustainable, long-lasting happiness involves recognising that there are many shades on the emotional palette. Research shows that occasionally accepting the presence of harder emotions means you experience them less intensely and for less time.
In fact, the first step towards a joyful life may be letting go of your ideas of what that looks like – and recognising that it is down to you.