How to be happier
So, I’m going to say right from the start that I don’t have an answer to this one. In fact, I’m sure no one has – how we think about and define what makes us ultimately happy is a very personal business.
But I do believe that that there are a few good, general principles that often crop up when we think and talk about happiness in all its forms, that might help us to think in a more focused way about how we can get a bit more of the good stuff ourselves. With that caveat in mind, here are just a few thoughts on how we can all make our lives a little happier.
You can’t be happy all of the time
Like most of us, I’ve met a lot of happy people in my life (and a lot of unhappy ones too). So what is it (if anything) that these people share?
Well, the first thing I’d say is that appearances aren’t everything. The happy people I’ve met over the years are definitely not happy all of the time – a state that is pretty much impossible (and not even desirable) in my experience. The problem is that this is a truth that is hard to appreciate sometimes, especially in a modern world in which social media does a great job of often only showing us the best bits of people’s lives. So, remember that even happy people have off-days, and this is an important first point: in my experience, striving to be happy all the time is going to very much have the opposite effect.
That said, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to introduce regular habits that will, all being well, increase the proportion of our lives that we do spend with a smile on our faces.
Reflect, and be grateful
One of the biggest things you can do is to try to regularly reflect on and be grateful for the things you do have. This might sound a bit like ‘cheer up and be grateful for what you’ve got!’, but actually it’s a little more gentle and focused than that. Instead, it’s about building into your life a daily habit of reminding yourself of the things you are grateful for – either by literally making a physical list in a notebook or saying them to yourself. The important bit is doing it every day – it helps you to develop a mindset in which you don’t take the many good things in your life for granted, and you begin to give them the prominent role they deserve.
Get out and about
The other simple happiness habit that is absolutely fundamentally important is being more active. Of course it’s no secret that exercise, whether it is walking or running or a weekly football game with friends, encourages the body to produce chemicals in our body like endorphins that make us feel better. And, there are the clear physical benefits of just exercising and being outside and active. It puts us back in touch with our physical bodies, and gives us the time and space to reconnect with the people and things in the world around us. But it also takes us out of ourselves for a while, in the same way that other, more formal forms of meditation can. In many ways, a game of tennis on a sunny day with a friend can be just as spiritually and emotionally uplifting as that expensive paid-for retreat at a zen monastery.
Live for now
The third habit that plays such an important role in how happily we live our lives is also closely related to this, and it comes down to living in the moment. When we’re focused on reaching for a forehand shot to beat our tennis partner or just trying to run to the top of a hill, we’re not focused on anything else. That activity is all-consuming, and as such is a richer and more satisfying experience because it has our full attention. So much of our lives are spent worrying about things that are going to happen or conversations that we have just had, that it is in fact incredibly rare to truly and fully engage with and enjoy what we are doing, right now.
Think about the activities that make us happy, and how they are the ones that make us focus fully on the present. Sports force us to do it, through the physical exertion and the focus needed to compete. Reading a good book lulls us into it, as we are drawn into the world the writer creates. The same goes for listening to music, looking at a great painting, or even just having a good chat with a friend. These are the times when we lose ourselves, when we become fully absorbed in something for once, and we just enjoy it. And that full immersion, and the relief it gives us from the endless daily churn of thoughts, worries and concerns that run through our heads, makes us happy.
So my final piece of advice, if you want to be happy, is find something you are passionate about, and throw yourself completely into it. Whether it is playing tennis, or painting, or running, owning a dog or just making sure you set aside clear time every day to sit down and have a proper talk with someone you love, it is the secret to a happier life.