This article was kindly written for Mr Perfect by Dr Kieran Kennedy, doctor, mental health advocate, writer and speaker passionate about health, fitness & breaking down barriers to our wellbeing. He also happens to be a huge friend and big supporter of Mr Perfect.
“I just want to be happy”. It’s something we’ve heard, read and probably said so many times it’s bordering firmly on the cliché. But when it comes down to it, that’s likely the case for a reason. Happiness, and its pursuit, is something that remains top priority for most of us with statistics in psychology and psychiatry to show it. But have you found it yet? And better still, rather than something to find, is happiness closer to something we can create?
If your answer to that question sounds like an “I think so...”, or even a “kind of?”, well then you’re in the right place. Because, in answer to that second question, it turns out happiness isn’t actually something given, won or bought. Thankfully, modern science now shows it’s something born, built and baked (read on for ingredients) within our very selves.
So what is happy?
Grab a copy of any dictionary and you’ll find that definitions of happiness leave a lot to be desired. Designated most commonly as “the state of being happy” (ground breaking), it’s not exactly a definition that fuels that modern man and woman with the recipe for turning that frown upside down. While we all inherently know what it means to be and feel happy, science has interestingly taken longer than expected to distil down what happiness actually is and means.
A vast number of definitions and theories around what equates to ‘the good life’ exist throughout human history. From early Hedonistic theories of happiness equating to momentary pleasures and “comforts of the flesh”, to the more deeply driven views of the ancient Greeks who believed a life of happy was to be found in virtues, meaning and moments - we’ve crossed the spectrum of experience in our search for what happiness actually is. While theories still abound as to what the ultimate recipe is, we now see a state of happiness as a collection of feelings, thoughts and actions - ones driven overall toward the upper end of the emotional spectrum. We now know that happiness is much more than a moment positive feeling (which joy more closely represents) but is an enduring sense of positive regard for ourselves, our lives and the world around us.
How do we find it?
While there’s no one recipe for happiness, science does show that a life of greater positive feeling does come with a certain set of ways to think and act as we go about our day. Research has found that certain ‘static’ factors like our genetics, age and where we were born do indeed affect our overall emotional state, however things we can do, change and act on are (thankfully) looking like the biggest piece of the puzzle. The modern world places a whole lot of pressure and focus on some of the more external factors we often assume will come with the happiness tagline. But (thankfully again) modern research findings show that things like status, fame, money and possessions aren’t big-ticket items when it comes to what actually makes us happy. What we actually know is that things like social connection, progress, gratitude and a sense of meaning are far more correlated to experiencing happiness overall. The good thing there? Happiness is truly something we can create. It’s growth rather than gifted. Something built instead of borrowed.
Steps to happiness
Modern psychology and medicine now know much more about what leads us toward a life of happiness than they ever did before. For the most part, these are actions and ways of thinking and living. And the best part - they’re things we can build and grow just like a muscle. Take on even just a few of these below as a regular part of your day, and evidence shows you’ll start welcoming a little more happy into your life.
Turns out it’s not happy people who are thankful, but thankful people who are happy. Gratitude practices and skill building are some of the hottest new exercises to enter the world of positive psychology and mental health - but (in one form or another) they’ve been around for centuries. Growing gratitude in the everyday is a matter of training the brain to look out for and remember even the tiny little good moments that happen in even the most testing of days. Try writing down (on your phone or in a journal) at least 3 points every night to be thankful for that day. An added tip here is to keep it simple - even the worst days can offer up a warm shower, a nice coffee or thanks for your overall health.
Research shows that those who experience a greater sense of connection to a meaning for their lives and day to day toils are those who on average experience more happiness. Try starting each day off with a reminder of what you’re doing it all for - for your family, that larger vision, a passion project or to help others. As simple as it sounds, even taking just a few minutes a day to remind ourselves of these ‘whys’ can make a big difference to how happy we feel.
One of the most consistently linked factors toward greater happiness is social connection with others. A life that’s spent with even a few close loved ones is one where you’re more likely to experience the upper end of the emotional spectrum. In our current world this is more important than ever before, and science shows that it’s quality not quantity that counts. Take the time each day to connect with those around you - open up, listen and place relationships as priority.
Grounding ourselves and remaining present has been shown to be a powerful antidote for worry, anxiety and stress. Picking up a regular mindfulness and meditation technique can thus be a great way to inject a little more long term happiness into our every day lives. While methods are numerous and there’s no one size fits all, a basic breathing exercise done daily can go a long way. Check out apps like ‘CALM’ or ‘Headspace’ to give these a go.
One of the biggest findings in recent decades has been the ever-clearer connection between body and mind. When we move our body - through sport, exercise, a walk or a run - we move our mind as well, and research shows that those who engage in some form of physical activity are also those with lower stress levels, greater mental resilience and overall bumped up happiness. Make some form a regular activity a part of every week, and know it’s just as much for brain as it is bod.