What makes people happy? It’s a question I’ve been mulling over this week in response to a range of things I’ve been reading and it’s proved to be an interesting ponder. To be honest, it would be possible to spend a lot of time looking into it as there’s a wealth of research out there and some of the results are perhaps a little surprising; I fully expected to see people quoting factors such as close loving relationships or having time to do the things they really want to but listening to sad songs as a way to brighten their day was a bit less predictable! It comes as no surprise, I’m sure, to hear that spending time outdoors is one of my biggest happiness triggers so this week has literally been a joy, with woodland walks to enjoy the fresh autumnal mornings, bike rides from home with Roger and a picnic and time spent in the evenings appreciating some stunning sunsets. Completely free and just perfect.
One of my favourite articles, written by Lachlan Brown, identifies ten key elements for a happier life: stop taking things for granted; learn to be agile (flexible); be curious; remember how to play; try new things; serve others; experience life; work on your relationships; don’t try so hard; get your heart pumping. This list resonated very strongly with me because I feel there’s much overlap with the list of core values I identified for myself in an earlier post. The root meaning of happy and happiness in many languages is a word more akin to ‘luck’ so it was satisfying to find a common thread of gratitude running through so many articles and surveys. It’s been a terrible year in so many ways and it would be easy to feel swamped by fear, sadness, frustration and loss; gratitude doesn’t necessarily come easily when times are bleak but it seems that if we are able to find some, then it can have a positive effect on our mood and wellbeing.
I think I am very lucky because I find immense happiness in simple ~ and yes, often silly! ~ things. (Actually, at the risk of being an etymological bore, silly and happy originally shared the same meaning anyway.) I believe people are far happier when they are allowed to be themselves and there is a palpable joyfulness and zest for life in those who are comfortable in their own skins. I love it when people call me a ‘bit of a hippy’ because it sounds far more interesting and colourful than being a ‘bit of a dull grey person’ in my book. Scientists have found that people tend to become happier as they get older but haven’t yet been able to prove why; a favourite theory is that older people have had more experience at dealing with negative situations, but I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that as people grow older, they are more inclined to be their true selves?
Well, I don’t pretend to be a psychologist, armchair or otherwise, but I would like to suggest four things over and above the standard lists of ideas that I believe can bring a healthy dose of happiness to our lives. By the way, I’m not sure anyone can ever be too happy so even if you are cheerfulness personified, there’s no harm in adding a little extra here and there. First, I think it’s fun to disrupt our behavioural patterns and try doing things a little differently. This might be as simple as altering a daily routine in some way, maybe eating a meal at a different time, or eating it in a different place to normal, or tucking into something totally new. There are crazy little things to try such as brushing teeth using your non-dominant hand or walking backwards through the house; okay, you might now be thinking I’m definitely in the Realm of Silly but the point is, things like that make you smile (they’re also great brain gym). Our road trips to the UK are long and incredibly dull so we are always looking at some way beyond listening to music or eating ‘boredom’ chocolate to lighten the journey. Last time, we invented a game where we had to create simple phrases or sentences from English, Spanish and French but could only use the shortest word each time; so, for example, car would beat coche and voiture and flor would beat fleur and flower. Where words had the same amount of letters, we started introducing all sorts of weird and wonderful rules for sorting them; the whole thing was complete nonsense, but we laughed ourselves silly and it passed a good 100 kilometres or so of that endless motorway ~ or rather, autovía.
I broke my usual pattern of walks last week, heading down towards the village instead of up into the woods, to walk along the riverside track. Roger has seen a pair of otters there and I live in the (forlorn) hope of doing the same. It’s so different to my normal route, with the constant babble of the río Muñás and more open landscape of meadows, giving me literally a different perspective to my wander. It was interesting to pass through different wooded areas and contrast the range of species and stage of autumn they had reached with my usual arboreal friends on the mountain.
It was fascinating, too, to see the sun coming up behind the mountain from a different angle and to look up at our home from a position I rarely stand in. From there, it suddenly becomes clear that although the house perches above a village and is by no means isolated, there is nothing behind and above it but acres and acres of wilderness. I felt so refreshed and happy from doing something different that I ended up extending my walk by several miles!
I love the way that sometimes happiness can come from the most unlikely or unexpected circumstances. When I was invited years ago to join the now defunct ‘Vegblogs’ community, my initial reaction was a resounding no: the only writing I’d done for years was for study and work, I had no time for social media and was pretty rubbish when it came to doing new things on the computer or taking photos. It was only after reading some of the blogs and realising what a vibrant and diverse community of gardeners was contributing that I decided maybe I should have a go; after all, developing a few new skills would be a good thing and it would be refreshing to write for pleasure for a change ~ when was the last time I’d done that? Since I began, our gardens have changed several times, as has my blog site, but writing brings me so much happiness and pleasure, even if it really is a lot of waffle!
Then there’s litter. I’ve written before about how it is nothing like the problem in rural Asturias that it is in other places but I think the amount of litter in the verges has increased in the time we have been here (no cause and effect, I’d like to point out!). I have never understood how people can throw their rubbish out of a car window and it would be easy to feel sad, cross or frustrated but instead I’ve turned it into a positive situation. Every time I go for a walk, run or bike ride, I pop a small bag in my pocket so I can collect any litter I see on my travels; yes, stopping a run or getting off my bike is a nuisance but this is important. The litter is pretty predictable: beer cans, fizzy drink bottles, cigarette packets, crisp bags, chocolate wrappers and ~ weirdly and always in the same spot ~ sliced ham packets. I personally don’t consume any of those things but the least I can do is gather up the packaging and dispose of it; thankfully, most of it can be recycled here. Strangely, it’s an action that makes me very happy, not in a ‘look at virtuous little old me’ sense but as something positive and meaningful I can do to help care for the environment and planet. It’s also a personal contribution and service to the community; I’ve never been a front and centre socialite or committee member, but quietly gathering up litter on my wanderings is a small yet powerful gift I can make to all in this beautiful area.
The journalist Gaby Hinsliff recently wrote about the joys of being a ‘happy amateur’ and I have to agree that, in a world where success and being the best are such driving forces, there’s a lot to be said for just having a go and having fun in the process. There’s nothing wrong in setting challenges or having goals to aspire to, or to try doing things to the best of our ability, but it’s also important to keep an eye on truly living our lives rather than constantly striving to win at life’s game. What a shame and a waste it is if we feel we can’t have a go at something because we’re scared of failure or ridicule, when doing that very thing, at whatever level, could have such a positive impact on our well being. I love tooting on my recorder; I’m certainly no virtuoso and I squeak out excruciating mistakes and duff notes all the time . . . but the sheer pleasure I gain from immersing myself in music, in doing something purely for the sake of it (even if it is very badly), is wonderful medicine indeed. Creativity is very empowering; when we make or do things for ourselves instead of relying on others, it brings a tremendous sense of liberty and achievement which in turn engender happiness. So go on, whatever it is you fancy doing, then do it! It doesn’t matter in the least what anyone else might think because if it makes you feel good and brings a smile to your face then nothing can touch you. Perfect is overrated. Living life to the full is priceless.
Finally, I would suggest that there is much happiness to be found in very simple things at home if we take the time to look for them. How often do we do things during our day completely on autopilot? The familiar act of making and drinking a cup of tea or coffee (or whatever your preference might be) can be transformed into an immensely pleasurable experience if it’s done with mindfulness ~ or if you’re not keen on that concept, with a focus and concentration that allows us to indulge all our senses. Just stopping to take a few deep breaths or have a good stretch can shift our mood into an upward spiral of contentment. One of the biggest positives to come out of Covid-19 must surely be the change that lockdown has brought to many people’s perception of ‘home’ and a fresh awareness that it can be somewhere to work from and educate in, to take exercise and be creative, to relax and enjoy. To be.
In the 1970s, the King of Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness Index as a measure of his country’s wellbeing; unlike GDP and the eternal mantra of ‘growing the economy,’ it is a concept that implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach. GNH is based on nine domains ~ psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards ~ which contribute to the wellbeing and ‘good life’ of the Bhutanese people. I think this is an enlightened and inspired view which recognises that there are many more factors contributing to a happy society than money, and it’s a concept reflected in the Happy Planet Index which gives a fascinating comparison of how well nations create long, happy, sustainable lives based on factors far beyond GDP and GNP. Now at this point, of course, there are people who would say that money is important and measuring wellbeing is a bit of a soft, fluffy bunny, airy fairy and ~ dare I say, hippy? ~ idea . . . but is it, really? There are many studies reporting how better levels of health, wellbeing and life satisfaction are seen in countries who don’t dominate the ‘big economy’ league and that it’s time to shift perspective. Some countries are already doing that; in fact, Costa Rica ~ dubbed as one of the happiest nations in the world ~ has been doing it for 70 years and more recently, countries such as New Zealand and Iceland have prioritised wellbeing over monetary wealth through various budgets and frameworks. Maybe now would be the perfect time for a global happiness manifesto?
This month, our grandchildren are counting down to Christmas with ‘kindness’ Advent calendars which I think is a truly lovely idea. They in no way diminish the excitement, magic and sparkle of the season but shift the focus from getting to giving through simple creative activites each day.
- 1: Share something
- 2: Write a letter to someone you haven’t seen for a while
- 3: Put some seeds/pieces of apple out for the birds
- 4: Think of 3 things you are grateful for
- 5: Make some mince pies
- 6: Give some mince pies to your neighbours
- 7: Give a hug!
- 8: Think of something you admire/like about each family member
- 9: Pick up some litter
- 10: Put a coin in a charity box
- 11: Say thank you to your teachers
- 12: Make a card/note to put in charity shoebox
- 13: Smile at at least three people!
- 14: Put some water out for the wildlife, especially if frosty
- 15: Learn “Merry Christmas” in another language
- 16: Help someone (e.g. with a chore)
- 17: Give something away
- 18: Finish filling charity shoebox and hand in
- 19: Make some planet-friendly decorations
- 20: Give a compliment
- 21: Call/video call someone
- 22: Choose something to give to the food-bank
- 23: Wish someone a “Merry Christmas”
- 24: Read the Christmas story together
Part of me thinks we should all have one of these, because there is much happiness and contentment to be found when we move from me to us and develop a stronger sense of connection, kindness and community through simple human acts. These children are the future and I can’t help feeling optimistic about the prospects for humanity and all other life on the planet if they learn to count their wealth in such meaningful and holistic ways. It makes me a very happy hippy indeed! 😊