Happiness is . . . ? How would you finish the sentence? What do you think happiness is? Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, in The How of Happiness, says it is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive wellbeing, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Let’s admit that lining up all those elements at the same time in our lives is not always easy, but there’s a sense of “joy” and “contentment,” says Lyubomirsky, when it happens.
Another positive psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, explains that “helping people find happiness and meaning is precisely the goal of the new field of positive psychology.” But how do we actually achieve happiness?
Finding positives in a garden
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, recalls a time when he and his five-year-old daughter, Nikki, were gardening together. It was a moment that helped change both his attitude and his approach to psychology.
He explains that when he’s doing something, he tends to be focused, which means he was focused on gardening. Nikki, however, was having fun. “Nikki was throwing weeds into the air and dancing around. I yelled at her. She walked away, came back and said, ‘Daddy, I want to talk to you.’”
She reminded him of her fifth birthday. “From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine any more. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.”
A grouch! Ouch!
He calls this moment an epiphany. “I learned something about Nikki, something about raising kids, something about myself, and a great deal about my profession.”
In that moment he realised that raising children was “not about fixing their weaknesses, but about identifying and nurturing their strengths” and that as a psychologist, he had “focused on correcting weakness instead of nourishing strength.” As the 1998 incoming president of the American Psychology Association, he used his year of leadership to promote “positive psychology.” He often used his experience with Nikki to help explain what he was about. Positive psychology has grown into a movement that will outlive him (he’s currently 80 years of age).
So, how do you “be” happy?
Time to move to Finland?
Finland has been the happiest country in the world for the past six years according to the annual World Happiness Report. Since 2012, countries around the world have been measured for happiness based on six key factors within each nation: social support; income; health; freedom; generosity; and the absence of corruption.
This year, using these factors, the unhappiest countries on our planet are war-torn Afghanistan and Lebanon.
And, for the sixth year in a row, Finland has been declared the happiest country. It’s followed by two other Nordic countries: Denmark at number 2 and Iceland at 3. The rest of the Top 10 are: 4 Israel; 5 Netherlands; 6 Sweden; 7 Norway; 8 Switzerland; 9 Luxembourg; 10 New Zealand.
So, perhaps we should move to Finland if we want real happiness. (Actually, for those who want to know how the Finns do it, there’s a four-day Masterclass of Happiness in Finland every June to help individuals from anywhere find their “inner Finn.”)
The important thing about the Happiness Report is that it’s based on individuals, not geography. Richard Layard puts it this way: “The overall goal is a happier society, but we only get there if people make each other happy (and not just themselves).”
Author Lara Aknin adds that in the happier countries, we see “various forms of everyday kindness, such as helping a stranger, donating to charity…. Acts of kindness have been shown to both lead to and stem from greater happiness.”
You can’t merely go to a happy country to find happiness. Happiness comes from how we and those around us individually act and live wherever we are—in any nation, city or town.
Old and happy?
John Leland, a journalist for the New York Times spent a year reporting on six of New York’s “oldest old” (individuals aged 85 and over). His weekly reports were turned into the book Happiness Is a Choice You Make. He concludes that such things as politics do matter, as does money and health, “but they aren’t the makings of a life well lived.” Besides, he expects that at least sometimes, these kinds of things “will probably fail you.”
“The good things in life—happiness, purpose, contentment, companionship, beauty, and love—have been there all along. We don’t need to earn them. Good food, friends, art, warmth, worth—these are things we have already. We just need to choose them as our lives.”
That sounds like the makings of a life well lived—at whatever age.
Can money buy happiness?
That depends. Psychologist Elizabeth Hopper asks: “Imagine that someone gives you a cash gift and tells you that, instead of saving or investing it, you need to spend it right now. What should you put your money toward if you want to make yourself happiest?”
Answer: research shows that most people are happier spending money on experiences “like travelling or going out for a meal instead of buying the latest product we see on social media.”
One study showed that while wealthier people tended to be happier, prioritising money over time can have a negative impact. “How you spend, save and think about money shapes how much joy you get from it,” report Elizabeth Dunn and Chris Courtney in the Harvard Business Review.
While they admit research in this area is dependent on “our unique personalities,” using money to gift yourself time can lead to positive moods—as can giving money to a friend or someone in need.
Happiness is . . .
Seligman’s positive psychology was a reaction to the fact that, back then, almost all psychology was used to help people overcome issues in their lives. He asked, why can’t we also use psychology to help regular people have more fulfilling, positive lives—a “flourishing” life? The word “flourishing” was one he used frequently.
Getting away from technical terms, Syed Balkhi says there are five principles from positive psychology that can help you boost happiness:
1. Focus on your strengths.
2. Express gratitude.
3. Find the silver lining.
4. Move toward rather than away from your goals.
5. Be present (in the moment).
He concludes that positive psychology focuses on building what’s good in your life because you’re more likely to experience growth and happiness when your mind is in a positive space.
One more thing worth knowing. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed the lives of two generations for more than 80 years. It rightly claims to be the world’s longest study on happiness and published its latest findings this year in The Good Life: and How to Live it.
In a sentence, the research tells us, “When we think about the consistent signal that comes through after 84 years of study and hundreds of research papers, it is that one simple message: Positive relationships are essential to human wellbeing.”
Colour you happy?
Can we colour you happy? Or do you have some things yet to work on? If so, where will you begin?
Bruce Manners is an author, retired pastor and former editor of the Australia/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times based in Lilydale, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.