Shiny Happy People
If you want to rank as one of the "happy people" in the world, you need to pinpoint exactly what makes you happy and incorporate more of it into your life. This is true regardless of income, health, age and attractiveness. Or so say the people who study the science of happiness.
The following is an excerpt from the article "Are You Happy?" in "The Independent.” The full version can be found at
Learn How to Be Happier
Can you learn to be happy? With 13 million prescriptions a year written for new-generation anti-depressants in Britain, this is no longer a question just for philosophers. Neuroscientists, sociologists, economists and public policy experts are increasingly focusing on the nature of happiness, and how to increase it. Positive psychology, a new school at the cutting edge of the discipline, claims that not only can science identify the components of a happy life, but also that we can all "learn" how to be happier.
Earlier this year, in the biggest social experiment of its kind, six happiness experts from these various disciplines took on a daunting task: to make the people of the Berkshire town of Slough happier. They worked with 50 volunteers, attempting to raise their capacity for joy through a programme of experiments and community-based activities - everything from workplace counselling to meditation in a graveyard (awareness of death makes all of us keen not to waste life) and a smile campaign. The results will be screened next month on BBC2 in the series Making Slough Happy.
The volunteers were a mixed bag, including a DJ, a landscape designer and a teacher. Slough was chosen because it is such a multicultural community (and possibly because of Ricky Gervais's The Office). The volunteers' happiness levels ranged from people who had battled serious depression to those who considered themselves averagely happy. They worked to a manifesto of 12 points similar to the ones shown here, drawn up by the experts, who included the Radio 2 psychotherapist Brett Kahr and Dr Richard Stevens, former head of psychology at the Open University...
Positive psychology - or the science of happiness - emerged in the US in the late 1990s. It turned the traditional discipline on its head by focusing on how people flourish rather than how they become depressed. In the past the goal was to bring patients from a negative state to a neutral normal. Positive psychologists believe they can increase our happiness by identifying and using many traits we already possess - kindness, originality, humour.
Underpinning all of this is a new consensus that our capacity for happiness is not dominated by our genetic inheritance and our experiences before the age of five. In fact, these factors contribute only around 50 per cent to our happiness potential. The rest is under our control. The brain can be "programmed" for a higher base level of happiness using techniques such as fast-forward thinking (where you screen "a film" of a negative event faster and faster in your mind until it dissolves) and cultivating "flow" activities. These are hobbies or skills where we completely forget about time and are most uniquely ourselves (as in "in the flow") - anything from cooking to rock climbing.
Very happy people, psychologists say, are more sociable and more agreeable than the average, but otherwise they are not particularly extraordinary. They are neither more beautiful nor more successful than the rest of us, and they do not appear to have more pleasurable life experiences. If you want to be like them you need to pinpoint exactly what makes you happy and incorporate more of it into your life.
And that doesn't mean asking for a pay rise. Once our basic material needs have been met, additional money and status have little effect on reported levels of happiness. (Researchers found virtually the same level of happiness between the very rich on the Forbes 400 list and Masai herdsmen. The reason for this is that the human brain becomes conditioned to positive experiences.) Nor do youth, education or a high IQ contribute to happiness. Illness doesn't exclude you from happiness: a US study found that more than 80 per cent of people who were paralysed in all four limbs considered their life to be above average in terms of happiness. They could enjoy their meals, their friends, watch the news. The factors that reflect most strongly in surveys, over and over again, are family, community and trust in fellow human beings...
Giving is a clear road to happiness. The founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has identified three distinct components of happiness:
- the pleasant life (a glass of wine),
- the good life (work, romance, hobbies) and
- the meaningful life (using personal strengths in the service of something larger than you, such as politics, religion or community action).
All contribute to wellbeing but it is the meaningful life that is the key to long-term joy. Without it, sooner or later, you will look in the mirror and ask, "Is this all there is?"
Work on your mind. ... [R]eframing - learning to recognise and dispute pessimistic thoughts - takes practice. Research shows that it takes 21 days to create a new habit pathway in the brain, and a further 63 days to consolidate what you have learnt. It sounds corny, but the other mantra of positive psychology is to count your blessings. Make a deliberate attempt at least once a day to reflect on some of the good things in your life and your brain will become happier.
Stop comparing. In the West, what sociologists call "reference anxiety" has become a disease. We constantly compare what we have with others and find what we have wanting. Start looking at people who have less instead of more. Olympic bronze medallists have been shown to be happier than silver medallists - they have got into the top three rather than just missed the top slot.
Sometimes positive psychology sounds like the art of the blindingly obvious. Be nice to people and they'll be nice back. Count your blessings. But it works. The simple truth is people who care about others are happier than those who are more preoccupied with themselves. As Slough volunteer Graeme Nash observes, "There's one thing that's equal to all of us: and that's the amount of time we have available. We've got to make sure that 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour a day is spent on some sort of positive action, connecting with the community around us. You can't just sit back and wait for the knock on the door for happiness to walk in. You've got to go out and find it."
"How to Be Happy: Lessons from Making Slough Happy" by Liz Hoggard is published by BBC Books.
Books and Video
"How to Be Happy Everyday
By the Happiest Man in America" by J. P. "Gus" Godsey and Dennis McCafferty, Morgan James Publishing, 2005
A Moving Exploration of Animals and Their Emotions" by Vicki Hearne and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2007
Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.
This is a "must watch."
Quotes From Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture
We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.
Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.
I probably got more from that dream and not accomplishing it than I got from any of the ones that I did accomplish.
You’ve got to get the fundamentals down because otherwise the fancy stuff isn’t going to work.
When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.
Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.
The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.
It’s very important to know when you’re in a pissing match. And it’s very important to get out of it as quickly as possible.
If you’re going to do anything that pioneering you will get those arrows in the back, and you just have to put up with it. I mean everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Somewhere along the way there’s got to be some aspect of what lets you get to achieve your dreams. First one is the role of parents, mentors, and students.
You just have to decide if you’re a Tigger or an Eeyore.
I have a theory that people who come from large families are better people because they’ve just had to learn to get along.
Loyalty is a two way street.
You can’t get there alone. People have to help you and I do believe in karma. I believe in paybacks. You get people to help you by telling the truth. Being earnest.
I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short term. Earnest is long term.
Apologise when you screw up and focus on other people, not on yourself.
Don’t bail. The best of the gold’s at the bottom of barrels of crap.
Get a feedback loop and listen to it. Your feedback loop can be this dorky spreadsheet thing I did, or it can just be one great man who tells you what you need to hear. The hard part is the listening to it.
Don’t complain. Just work harder. That’s a picture of Jackie Robinson. It was in his contract not to complain, even when the fans spit on him.
Be good at something, it makes you valuable.
Find the best in everybody. Just keep waiting no matter how long it takes. No one is all evil. Everybody has a good side, just keep waiting, it will come out.
Be prepared. Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity.
It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.
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