Kathriona Devereux: The science of happiness: It’s not a destination, but a journey

Gratitude and kindness have been scientifically proven to make you happy, so says Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: The science of happiness: It’s not a destination, but a journey

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: A study showed that expressing gratitude regularly makes you happier than dwelling on negatives

A COFFEE from Alchemy on Barrack Street, a passing quacking hello from the birds of the Lough on a frosty morning, the hubbub of the English Market on a Saturday afternoon...

These are just some of the small things that I appreciate about life in Cork, but they may have a big impact on my wellbeing.

Science tells us that cultivating gratitude, even for the small things, is one of the best ways we can boost our happiness.

According to positive psychologists there are actually two types of happiness — hedonic happiness and eudaimonic happiness.

Hedonic happiness is about fun and pleasure and the kind of happiness you might associate with being “young, free and single”.

Eudaimonic happiness is happiness that derives from having purpose in life and meaningful connections with people.

The pursuit of happiness is something humans continually strive for and psychologists have pondered what makes people happy for decades. Back in the 1940s a famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow, suggested that humans require particular needs to be satisfied in order to be happy.

Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ is imagined as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the basic ‘Physiological Needs’ that humans require to survive — food, water, shelter.

The next level up is ‘Safety’ — protection from danger, personal safety and security.

After the fundamentals have been taken care of, we can start thinking about other people and the next level is called ‘Love and Belonging’ —friendships, relationships, and community.

After that we get to ‘Esteem’ — feeling confident and respected. At the top of the pyramid is ‘Self-Actualisation’ — the opportunity and freedom for creativity and to reach your full potential.

Of course, it’s not a case of rigidly ticking off these levels and moving up the pyramid to ultimate happiness. These levels intermingle but if we don’t have the basic foundations in place then it is very difficult to get to the higher levels. If you can fulfil all levels then you are probably quite happy with life.

Regardless, we all go through ups and downs, periods of happiness and struggles throughout our lives. People might wistfully look back at the youth of their twenties as a happy period of their life, but it is also a time of uncertainty as people make their way in the world.

While adolescence is about forming our identity, our twenties is about building a life away from our parents. It’s a time when people can choose what they want from life and can find and follow their passions and focus on their strengths.

The developmental milestones that we follow from birth to adulthood continue, but they tend to be ‘establish a career’ or ‘form a long term loving intimate relationship with someone’.

In our twenties, we might think that happiness is something that can be attained — “when I finish my degree I will be happy” or “when I have a girlfriend I’ll be happy”, but as people age they realise the goalposts move and that happiness is not a destination but a journey.

Findings from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) show that, overall, Ireland’s over-50s are overweight, inactive but happy!

The study looks at the health and wellbeing of Ireland’s older adults and finds that quality of life peaks at 68 and then gradually starts to decline. So perhaps life does begin at 40, or 50, or 60!

But are some people naturally happier than others? A famous study looked at the happiness levels of identical twins who were separated at birth and reared apart. The study suggested that half of our happiness level is thanks to our genes and considered our ‘set point’. Twins who were separated at birth had similar ‘set points’ of happiness.

Our living conditions determine 10 per cent of our happiness levels and 40 per cent is the result of our own actions — how we choose to live our lives.

Regardless of what stage of life you’re at, or your default disposition — a ‘sunny, glass half full’ person or an ‘every silver lining has a cloud’ person — we can influence our own happiness by writing down things we are grateful for and being kind to other people.

Gratitude and kindness have been scientifically proven to make you happy!

An American psychologist, Professor Robert Emmons, conducted a study where participants were divided into three groups. The first group wrote down five things they were grateful for. The second group wrote down five things that displeased them, the third group wrote down five neutral events.

They did this every day for ten weeks and the group that expressed daily gratitude increased their happiness level by 25 per cent. Which is kind of amazing!

If a pharmaceutical company could make a pill that gave a 25% improvement in mood, it would be considered a wonder drug!

This happiness ‘prescription’ was simply pen, paper and the time to write down five things they were grateful for.

Last year, the United Nations published the World Happiness Report. The top three happiest countries are Finland, Denmark and Norway. Ireland ranked 16th.

When looking at the science of happiness, it’s hard not to be reminded of the 10,000 homeless people whose basic human needs are not being met, and to think of the stress and unhappiness homelessness causes in families around the country.

Hopefully, 2020 is the year Ireland properly tackles homelessness. That would be something we could all be grateful for.

More in this section

Sponsored Content