THERE is an old saying that suggests that: “If you want to be happy for a few hours, get drunk. If you want to be happy for a few years, get married. If you want to be happy forever, get a garden!”
The wisdom of this is in emphasising that the simplest of activities can often produce the most enduring happiness.
Some of the research on happiness produces very interesting findings. Most of us have a relatively set happiness range that does not change too much throughout life. Our mood fluctuates from situation to situation and may be elevated or diminished for longer periods as a result of life circumstances, but most of us return to our own base level. For example, most of us want to win the Lotto and believe that we would be much happier and content if we did. Yet the research suggests that this does not actually happen — winners are happy in the short-term but after about six months begin to return to their normal level of happiness.
You will notice this with people you know — how their personalities are relatively stable, and, despite life circumstances and events, they pretty much stay in-character. If you have gone to a school reunion you will notice the most people have stayed the same. Even the most dramatic changes have only small effects on our basic levels of happiness. So, forget about winning the Lotto, its effects would last about six months after which you would be back to your same-old self.
However, though our base level stays pretty stable, around that level there are concrete things you can do to keep yourself at the higher level. For example, one thing you can do is to find out what kinds of things you were doing in life when you were at your best, at your happiest. Figure out what kinds of activities enable you to feel good and content. Then do more of those things.
This is important because learning how to be happy means understanding which activities bring out the best in you. They are usually activities that involve you using your character strengths and doing things that are aligned with what suits your character. Then, the formula is simple: Do more of what allows you to use your character strengths because this will make you feel good and true to yourself. It may be as simple as gardening, baking, studying, learning something new, travelling, or concentrating on a hobby. Whatever it is, find it and do it.
So, think of the activities you have done in the past that represent you at your best, at your most content and happy, and at your most vibrant. Then build these activities into your life with regularity! Everybody has their ‘thing’, it is a matter of finding it. Often it will have been an activity that you engaged in in childhood. For one person it may simply be the art of tidying; for another it may be writing; for another it may be working on cars, for another it may be decorating. Usually it involves a bit of creativity, learning, or imagination.
In any given day you can measure your happiness by seeing if you experienced any of the following four things: Did I experience Joy? Did I learn something new about myself? Did I improve myself in some way? Did I overcome an obstacle?
Your mood and your happiness have so many positive effects. In fact, being happy makes you a much more effective person. People in good moods handle problems in a better way than people in bad moods. People in a good mood attack a problem quickly, apply the simplest strategy, and accept the first solution they find. In a bad mood people tend to make things complex and act slowly, if at all. For example, people are better able to solve problems after they engage in a light-hearted activity than if they do not!
So, before you get your child to tackle a difficult problem with homework, get them into good mood first. It will seem easier. People who are happy or in a good mood tip waiters more; are less likely to get ill, and less prone to heart disease. Even temporary elevations in your happiness help you be more effective. A treatment for depressed patients consisting of getting people to read positive self-statements throughout the day has been found to be as effective as drug therapy and counselling therapy. Writing down three positive things that happened to you during the day, and doing this for a month, has the same effect. Happy couples keep a better mental record of the positive things their partners do than the negative things. Unhappy couples remember the bad things. Optimistic people live 20% longer than neutral or pessimistic people.
If one were to summarise the research on happiness it could suggest that, to enhance happiness one should get married, stay married, have children, keep up with the relatives, have plenty of friends, have enjoyable hobbies, and keep on good terms with the neighbours!