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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 really ways of cultivating it? The good people at prestigious Ivy League college, Yale, certainly seem to think so. They have made their most popular course ever, The Science of Well-Being, which was devised by Professor Laurie Santos, available online for free.

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, and how we can all have a little more of it.

What is happiness? A brief history

We might assume that everyone wants to be happy all the time, but it certainly wasn’t always the case. Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon gives us a detailed account of how our views on happiness have significantly altered over the centuries. For example, after the defeat of the Persian empire and the beginning of democracy, he tells us, 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, hence ‘the Dark Ages’ becoming a common moniker for the period. 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 simply didn’t have the time to consider their own sense of well-being, let alone pursue it. However, with the emergence of the European Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, attitudes towards individual happiness slowly began to change 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. However, as the Enlightenment got underway, it was noted that those born during this period—and told from birth that they were supposed to be happy—were reporting to be more sad than their predecessors.

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 simply accepting life as it was. It was around this time that pain and suffering became linked to the idea of happiness, and that only through suffering could we reach a more harmonious and content state of mind.

The main lesson from this historical overview of happiness, is that our idea of it has changed a lot over time. How 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 how just 13% of employees worldwide feel enthusiastic and engaged in their work. In the US alone, this level of dissatisfaction can lead to a whopping 550 billion dollars of losses every single year. With our increasing knowledge of psychology, many economists and businesses now seek to actively increase workplace productivity (and profit margins) by trying to increase the level of happiness felt by their employees. As Davies says: “[Workplace] productivity goes hand-in-hand with health and happiness.”

Whether a company chooses to address this lack of engagement or general unhappiness through free fitness programs for their employees or by hiring ‘Happiness Consultants’ to organise fun events and take care of employees’ mental health, 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 certainly clear why companies are interested in 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 to be found in the various packages, lifestyle options, and benefits offered at work, even if the root cause of this generosity is to boost profits?

According to Davies, being happy at work has more than the obvious benefits of increased productivity and a friendlier atmosphere. The risk of heart attacks, strokes, burnout, and nervous breakdowns are all significantly reduced when employers take steps to improve overall employee happiness. Regardless of the motive employers have for providing these benefits, if workers’ emotional needs are being recognized and provided for in the workplace, they will benefit outside the office, too with improved psychological and physical health. In the end, productivity increases and happiness, too: it’s win-win.

Your key to happiness

There are numerous theories on what creates the ideal conditions for a happy life, with everyone from scientists and psychologists to religious and spiritual leaders weighing in on the debate. We’ve looked hard at the research on how to be happy from leading experts on the topic and put together a list of some of their most profound insights to help you 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 order 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 satisfy both.

Paying attention to the important things

Dolan goes on to point that we need to be fully 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 simply to observe them. It allows us to be fully 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, thoughtfully, and compassionately, which ultimately leads to much deeper feelings of contentment and 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 in order to find happiness in the life she was already living. One trick that she found particularly useful was starting her day singing and generally 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. In addition to this, finding humor in challenging situations, rather than letting herself get 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 in order to attain 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 totally 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 the fact that you don’t have that great sportscar, or wasting time wishing you were 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, and by doing so our feelings of happiness significantly increase. A good way of adopting this practice is by telling ourselves that what we have is enough, rather than focusing on the scarcity of certain things in our lives, or bemoaning 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. With so much advice and information out there on the subject we’ve instead tried to give you the whole picture; the history of our relationship with happiness, the industry surrounding staying happy, and some key 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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