5 new rules of happiness
It’s the emotion we desire most – and we’ll go to considerable lengths to get it. Search ‘happiness’ and you’ll get a staggering 360 million hits on Google and over 134,000 on Amazon. You can do online courses in it, take retreats to find it, or pay a gazillion pounds to have a super-guru stand on a stage and shout about ways to get it. So what is happiness?
1. There is no magic solution
‘It means different things to different people,’ says Mark Coulson, associate professor of psychology at Middlesex University, who’s been researching positive psychology for 20 years. ‘There’s no magic solution, and pressure for us to feel happy means we’re sold things we think will make us so, but won’t – such as that new car, or handbag.’
Happiness is transient: it changes throughout our lives, Coulson explains, and why we feel it depends on a combination of our personality, genetic make-up, upbringing and circumstances. ‘If you spend a bit of time learning it, positive psychology is a skill that will make you happier.’
2. You have the power to control how you feel
Martin Seligman, the psychologist who began the positive psychology movement, says lasting happiness can be the result of ‘internal circumstances under your control’. Happiness exists in us, we just have to develop the tools to find it,’ he says.
For MJ Ryan, an author on happiness, it has two strands: ‘One is contentment, where we appreciate life as it is now,’ she explains. ‘The other is fulfilment; using your talents to get a sense of contribution to the world.’
3. 40% of your happiness is determined by your everyday life
If 50 per cent of happiness is genetic and, as additional research suggests, 10 per cent is down to circumstances, that’s 40 per cent we can influence with our daily choices, Ryan says. We can make feeling happier a daily habit with neuroplasticity; the in-built ability of your brain to change its make-up, meaning you can actually rewire it to be happier and more positive (so late trains don’t ruin your mood).
4. Growing older brings happiness
A study at Warwick University examined survey responses about wellbeing and happiness in 80 countries, and identified a U-shaped curve in happiness levels over lifetimes. Levels were high in people’s 20s, but slowly dropped to a low point around 46, before rising again in later decades.
‘We set out with high expectations for happiness and life generally,’ says Professor Andrew Oswald, who led the research. ‘Around the middle of our lives – aged 45 to 50 – we realise we’re not going to win that gold medal or be a film star, so we let go of impossible aspirations. That leads to us becoming happier and more content as we savour what we’ve already achieved.’
5. This generation is statistically happier
Ours is a generation which, according to Professor Oswald, is ‘Statistically likelier to be pleasantly surprised and enjoy their everyday lives much more than they think.’ We’ll take it!