There is one thing that human beings have in common, whatever our age, sex, ethnic origin, intelligence, social class, job, wealth - we are all trying to be happy. You would have thought that after all these generations of humans we would have become better at it, but the self help industry is testament to the fact that for most of us it is definitely 'work in progress.'
The main obstacle to being happy seems to be that our ideas as to what will make us happy are largely inaccurate. This week's tip invites you to find out what actually works - for you.
We are all prone to thinking that if only we had this partner, or that job, or this amount of money, or that car, we would be happy. It is quite possible that those things will make us happy, but unfortunately the effect is only ever short term. The reality is that success and possessions do not lead to long term happiness, on the other hand happiness does seem to lead to success. People who are happy, research tells us, have better relationships, more fulfilling jobs, and live longer, healthier lives. Worth getting happy then.
But what works? The self help industry is huge. There are shelves and shelves of books in any bookshop that promise to make us happy, whether directly, or via success and money. If they were truly effective we should surely be experiencing a quantum improvement in our levels of happiness, and yet reports say that we are unhappier as a society than we've ever been. We're also better educated, more affluent, and are safer than previous generations. So what on earth is going on?
Well Richard Wiseman, Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology, tells us that we're all barking up the wrong tree. Reviewing hundreds of scientific papers, he discovered that much of what people are told to do does not actually work, and may even cause harm. Trying to suppress negative thoughts, for example, is simply not possible, and actually increases the rate at which those thoughts intrude on our consciousness. Imagining a perfect future can certainly perk us up in the moment, but it can lead to lots of disappointment and discouragement when that future fails to materialise. What does work, according to the literature, turns out to be some very simple actions. But if research says that something 'works', is there any guarantee that even that will make you happier?
The problem is that while research is essential for deciding how to spend limited resources to achieve maximum benefit in populations, it only tells you if a certain approach works for significantly more people than it fails. If it does, researchers then go on to make the assumption that it must be 'effective'. What it does not do is tease out different effects on different people. In fact it blurs those differences. The best way of finding out if something works for you, therefore, is to try it. If it works, then try it again on another occasion and see if it works again. If it does, leave a little time and try again. If each time you do it you feel better, then it clearly works for you!
Can I persuade you to do an experiment?
To assess how happy you are right now, ask yourself these few questions and, drawing the scale below, make a mark on the score that most equates with how you are feeling.
Miserable 1__2__3__4__5__6__7__8__9__10 happy
Completely Really Enthusiastic
I never Full of
play 1__2__3__4__5__6__7__8__9__10 fun
In close relationships
Deeply 1__2__3__4__5__6__7__8__9__10 Blissfully
Either draw these out on a piece of paper or just keep a note of your scores.
Below is a five day experiment, based on research, and described by Richard Wiseman in his book '59 Seconds'.
Using a notebook or a new file on your computer, do the following writing exercises on five consecutive days. It will take only a minute or two to do each day.
Write down three things that you are grateful for in your life, and take a few moments to feel that gratitude. It may be big things like health, career, partner, children, or it may be smaller things like the sun coming out today.
Think of the best times and experiences of your life. Take one and spend a few moments imagining yourself back there, re-experiencing it. Now write about it for a minute or two.
Write for a minute or two on what your future will be like if everything goes really well.
Think of someone who is very important to you. Imagine you have only this opportunity to tell them how much you care for them and the impact they have had on your life. Write them a short letter.
Think back over the last week and write down the things that went really well for you. They may be large things, or quite small things.
On the sixth day, do your scores again. Are you feeling any better?