Sunday 27 January 2013

Happiness: why bother?

It has struck me, as I've become more and more interested in the science of happiness and been sharing and talking about it more and more, that not everyone shares my enthusiasm.

In fact, I have met with rather a lot of resistance from various different angles.

I cannot really understand this, except to say that I think a lack of understanding is actually the problem.

What I have noticed is a certain disdain for prancing about going on about being all jolly and happy instead of just getting on with it and focusing on with more important things.

Or a distrust for supposed 'scientists' wasting their time working out what makes people happy.

Or a scoffing at a 'pollyanna' type view of the world.

Or deeming it as a bit selfish and flimsy to dedicate time to such a frivolous hobby as being happy.

Or a whole heap of counterarguments for why positive thinking and optimism is in fact dangerous etc etc.

Even Freud thought it was a total and utter waste of time bothering to try and be happier when man is essentially doomed to a life of misery and should just get on with it.

Luckily psychology has come on a lot since Freud's day and I think everyone else is just missing the point. Which is sad, and which is why I spend so much of my time extolling the virtues of positive psychology to all and sundry, because I want as many people to benefit from its lessons as possible.

Essentially, I think some people just take issue with the word 'happy'. It's a bit cheesey and American I suppose in a way...if you choose to see it as such.

But the point of positive psychology isn't just to be happy. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. There are countless benefits to being happy which I will come on to. It may be what we strive for overall, but it's also a route to better health, a longer life and so on.

Positive psychology isn't just the science of happiness but also the science of optimism, resilience, strengths, creativity, performance, wellbeing, fulfilment, meaningfulness, success...generally speaking all good stuff and all linked to, feeding from and contributing to happiness.  Seligman and Czichsentmihaly, two of the founding fathers of positive psychology offer us this definition:

 " the scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive".

But why? What's the point? Why should we bother about any of this and why is going on about happiness actually quite important?

Because, quite simply, it's good for you. Yes, it feels good, but it also does you good. It's good for your physical, mental and emotional health and they all feed off of each other in a lovely virtuous circle. And far from being selfish, it does those around you good as well. Not only are moods catching, but being in a good frame of mind ourselves is a much better place to start from to help somebody else. Think of it a bit like having to put on your own gas mask before helping others in a plane crash. 

Happier people tend to have more friends, be more optimistic, have clearer goals and stick to them. Have happier marriages, seek out more experiences, are more creative and more resilient. Are better able to exert self control and have better coping mechanisms. They have more energy, better immune systems, less disease and are more active. They do more good for other people, they care more. They're more open to new ideas and opportunities. At work they tend to have higher levels of productivity, creativity, quality of work and income. Shawn Achor's work  shows us that happiness breeds success at work, and not the other way round. 

And happier people tend to live longer.

The famous 'nun study' showed that the happiest and most optimistic of the nuns in the study outlived the least happy and optimistic by an average of 10 years. Longevity of life could be predicted by levels of happiness and optimism some 60 years earlier.

Seligman looked at the optimism levels of 120 men who'd suffered a heart attack and then followed them for another 8 years. Half the men died from a second heart attack.  The only thing the research team found that differentiated those who had died from those who had not, was their levels of optimism. Not blood pressure or anything to do with their physical health or habits. Optimism.  Being in the top quartile for optimism proved as good for one's cardio vascular health as not smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

And it's not just about improving all the good stuff, but also crucially decreasing all the bad stuff, specifically our tendency for depression.  Sin and Lyubomirsky's meta analysis in 2009 proved that positive psychology interventions designed to cultivate positive feelings were also successful in ameliorating the symptoms of depression.

For anybody who has been reading my blog from the beginning, you will know that my interest in positive psychology stems from a particularly bad patch in my own life, since when I have been learning about and applying the rules of happiness in an attempt to see which of them work best for me. And it has made such a massive difference to me: 

I have lost 3 stone.  I have a regular gym routine which I enjoy as opposed to seeing as a chore.  I have made a career change and am in the process of making another one.  My marriage is stronger and features more understanding than confusion. I am better able to both recognise what I feel and need and crucially to express it.  The back problems which had totally dominated my life are now, mostly, under my control.  I've had one cold in the last 2 years. I'm less ruled by food cravings. I am much less likely to feel, behave and play the 'victim' but to be able to see things from other people's point of view and take responsibility for what happens to me and in my life. I am more curious and inquisitive. I write more. I take more photographs (if that were possible). I have been learning more. I am more resilient. And I feel much, much better. 

The point here is not to blow my own trumpet, far from it...I'm not terribly good at giving myself credit. The point is to say that it's not just about the people in the studies or the numbers and the scientists.  It's about real life. About me and about you.

So far from being frivolous, flimsy fancy. Or being selfish. Or being something to feel embarrassed or ashamed of.  Or prancing about like Polyanna. Or to be scoffed at or shunned in favour of more meaningful pursuits like profit or whatever. Taking measures to increase our levels of happiness is as important as any other health and wellness habit.  Incorporating measures to boost our happiness should be as much a part of our daily routine both at home and at work, as cleaning our teeth, eating our five a day and going to the gym.  Physical health is built on the foundations of emotional health and like any kind of muscle, the happiness muscle needs regular exercise and practice to keep it in tip top condition.

Not only can we choose to actively improve our wellbeing with so called positive psychology interventions, but not to do so would be really rather irresponsible and a massive missed opportunity.

This is such an important area that not only are there now charities set up with sole intention of improving happiness (notably Action for Happiness) but politicians are also starting to take note. Bhutan even measures GDHappiness rather than GDP, for example. If you type 'happy' into the Amazon bookstore there are over 35,000 results.

So all you naysayers out there, I'm afraid this isn't going to go away. So rather than poo poo, take interest, get involved. Rather than dismiss all of this as silly nonsense, you'd do much better to take happiness seriously.

And that, my friends, is why bother.


  1. Very insightful post and I completely identify with it! You're so right about focusing on being happy; there are so many people who are too scared to take that leap, so they look to belittle others who prioritise being happy. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Kirsty, the more people we can convince the better!


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