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A Comprehensive Guide on How to be Happy

We looked into the most-respected research on happiness, from its history in the public sphere, to tips on how to be happy you can apply today.
by Rosie Allabarton | Jun 6 2019

We all want to be happy, don’t we? But what does happiness even mean, and are there ways of cultivating it? The good people at prestigious Ivy League college, Yale, seem to think so. They have made their most popular course ever: The Science of Well-Being.

A Comprehensive Guide on How to be Happy

Inspired by this, we looked into the Blinkist library to see what the experts had to say about happiness. How can we all have a little more of it?

What is happiness? A brief history

We assume that everyone wants to be happy all the time, but it wasn’t always the case. Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon gives us a detailed account of how our views on happiness have altered over the centuries. For example, after the defeat of the Persian empire, the inhabitants of Athens began to experience a freedom they’d never had before. Finally, individuals had some control over their personal happiness and were learning how to be happy. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea.

In contrast, the European Middle Ages were a dark time. This was largely thanks to the Black Death wiping out a third of the population of Europe and the general struggle to survive. Most people didn’t have the time to consider their own sense of well-being, let alone pursue it. It wasn’t until the fourteenth century that attitudes towards individual happiness changed again. As quality of life improved, individualism began to flourish. By the end of the eighteenth century, happiness was considered to be a basic human right and accessible to all. Yet, as the Enlightenment got underway, it was noted that those born during this period were reporting to be more sad than their parents.

This general feeling of melancholy around the world gave way to a rather surprising outcome. It gave people a starting point and an impetus to start asking themselves “what is happiness?” and to try to find it for themselves, rather than accepting life as it was. Around this time, pain and suffering became linked to the idea of happiness: only through suffering happiness could be reached.

The main lesson from this historical overview of happiness, is that our idea of it has changed a lot over time. Our view of what happiness is, and how much we want it has fluctuated wildly depending on the fashions. and, particularly, the circumstances of the day.

What makes you happy? Bringing happiness to work

In his book, The Happiness Industry, William Davies reports that only 13% of employees worldwide feel engaged with their work. In the US alone, this level of dissatisfaction can lead to a whopping 550 billion dollars of losses every single year. As Davies says: “[Workplace] productivity goes hand-in-hand with health and happiness.”

Companies try to correct this unhappiness with free fitness programs for their employees or by organising fun events. In any case, the business of keeping workers happy is seen by many experts as an essential part of running a successful company. With profit boosts estimated to be as high as 12% when these methods are introduced, it’s clear why companies investing in them.

But what about the workers themselves? How skeptical should we be of attempts by our employers to increase our happiness in the workplace? Is there still value in these various packages, lifestyle options, and benefits offered at work when ultimate goal is to boost profits?

According to Davies, being happy at work has more than the obvious benefits of increased productivity. The risk of heart attacks, strokes, and nervous breakdowns are all reduced when employee happiness improves. In the end, productivity increases and happiness, too: it’s win-win.

Your key to happiness

There are many theories on what creates the ideal conditions for a happy life. Everyone, from scientists and psychologists to religious and spiritual leaders, are on the debate. We’ve taken a look at what some leading experts have to say about how to be happy, and then put together a list with their best insights. Find your key to happiness!

Combining pleasure and purpose

In his book, Happiness By Design, Paul Dolan discusses the balance of pleasure and purpose. His research has found that humans need to have some degree of both emotions in their everyday lives in to feel happy. If we could sit and eat our favorite ice cream all day many of us are aware it would not make us happy. But perhaps eating our favorite ice cream after completing a work project that has given us a sense of purpose would be the perfect way to please both.

Paying attention to the important things

Dolan goes on to point that we need to be present in an activity to experience the joy in it. In his book, 10% Happier, Dan Harris supports this view. Through mindful meditation we learn not to respond to impulses but to observe them. It allows us to be present in our own bodies and teaches us how to recognize—but not be overwhelmed by—negative or unproductive thoughts. This kind of detachment from our thoughts and reconnection with our body means we are no longer controlled by our ego or emotions. Instead we learn to deal with them slowly and compassionately, which leads to a much deeper feelings of happiness.

Behaving like a happy person makes you a happy person

In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin set out to put some tried-and-tested methods of happiness into practice. She wanted to find happiness in the life she was already living. One trick that she found particularly useful was starting her day singing and behaving as though she was in a fantastic mood. What tended to happen, she writes, is that this pretence of happiness actually made it so. Finding humor in challenging situations, instead of getting overwhelmed with negative emotions, also boosted her mood.

The five pillars of well-being

Positive psychologists believe in five pillars of well-being that humans need to reach happiness. In his book, Flourish, Martin E.P. Seligman talks us through them. The first is Positive Emotion, which refers to general feelings of pleasure and warmth that a pleasant life would be full of. The second, Engagement, refers to that feeling of being absorbed in an interesting task or exercise that means time flies by very fast. The third is Meaning—finding a cause to support that you truly believe in. The final two pillars are Accomplishments and Positive Relationships. If each of these pillars is at its highest level, we can be confident of leading a happy life.

Be grateful for what you have

Rather than lamenting that you don’t have that great sportscar, or you are not ten pounds lighter, try to be grateful for the things you do have in your life. As Brené Brown writes in The Gifts Of Imperfection we can train ourselves to be grateful for the small things that are going well. By doing so our feelings of happiness significantly increase. A good way of practicing this is by telling ourselves that we have enough, rather than focusing on what we don’t have. What’s important to remember is that this behavior can be learned, our brains can be trained. It’s not a question of being a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ person, but instead a skill anyone can teach themselves.

We hope you’ve found this rundown on how to be happy an interesting and thoughtful read. We’ve tried to give you the whole picture: the history of our relationship with happiness, the industry surrounding staying happy, and some pieces of advice from prominent experts which are known to work. If you’d like to know more about finding and keeping happiness in your own life, check out the range of books on the subject on Blinkist. You’re sure to find a fascinating read that fits perfectly with what being happy means to you.

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