To a happy place? Does it involve coastlines, cocktails, cookouts, and colourful clothes that you wouldn’t dream of wearing back home? Will you take in majestic vistas, far-flung sunsets, the wonders of the world? (Or will you not take them in at all but simply take pictures of them for boasting purposes on Instagram?)
Do holidays make you happy?
One study in Holland found that happiness comes from planning a holiday. The anticipation of a trip boosted happiness for eight weeks prior to departure. On returning home, however, for most people the good cheer quickly fades away, along with and the suntan and the memories. Back among your quotidian hassles, the limoncello doesn’t quite taste the same.
Maybe you hate the summer anyway—you suffer perhaps from reverse seasonal affective disorder and your mood falls as the temperature rises.
So what does make you happy?
The size of your bank balance, your physical beauty, your number of Facebook friends? If so, you will never feel as if you have enough. You will never be satisfied.
Is it about having security, knowledge and religion, as a 1938 U.K. survey suggested? Or humour, leisure and security, according to the same survey today?
Being a heavy metal fan?
Being playful, mindful, forgiving and compassionate—and getting the basics right like diet, exercise and sleep? Yes. These are all good daily, tried-and-tested practices.
But true happiness runs deeper. It arises perhaps from good relationships. Having a sense of purpose and meaning. Becoming who you are, who you were meant to be—fulfilling some of your true potential. Some kind of spiritual practice and belief. A feeling of connection—with yourself, with others, and with something larger. Love. In the end, maybe it's all about love.
• Change your attitude. Happiness is a choice. You can be bitter about all the terrible things that have happened to you. Or you can think good thoughts and feel good feelings about yourself and others by fostering an attitude of compassion. When your best-laid plans end up in tatters, laugh. Raise your game by all means, but lower your expectations, too—being a perfectionist is a recipe for disappointment and unhappiness. Count your blessings: cultivating a stance of gratitude really helps. Appreciate everything around you, right here, right now. Be generous. Give people a break; the benefit of the doubt. Smile. Feel the love. As Victor Frankl wrote in a supreme book on his experiences in the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
• Be around happy people. For better and for worse, emotions are contagious, and you reap what you sow. Seek out people who make you feel good.
By the same token, avoid unhappy people, or people who put bad energy and unhappiness into the world, or indeed advice from such people, including dog-torturer turned U.S. Army dark arts coach Martin Seligman who churns out self-help books on “positive psychology” and professes to be an expert on “authentic happiness.”
This calls for a random quote from Immanuel Kant: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”
The kind of energy you put forth into the world is exactly the kind of energy you shall attract and receive.
• Go to happy places. What is your happiest place on earth? How often do you go there? You can take yourself there anytime at all with a safe place mindfulness meditation. And go to actual happy places, too, such as inspirational, wild landscapes. In nature, we can find our true nature. So go green.
Or go to Switzerland. In May I wrote about the World Happiness Report, which declared the 10 happiest countries in the world to be:
9. New Zealand
The U.S. is 15th on the list; the U.K. 21st. On the bottom of the pile are Syria, Burundi and Togo.
The 10 happiest nations are generally egalitarian and collectively-minded in spirit--inequality breeds discontent.
As Hector astutely notes in the whimsical novel Hector and the Search for Happiness: “It’s harder to be happy in a country run by bad people.”
• Grow old. Countless studies show that in general, happiness follows a U-bend across the adult life span, regardless of factors like wealth, employment status, presence or absence of children and so on. Perhaps you set out on your grown-up journey in reasonably good cheer, full of hopes and dreams. But sooner or later all that potential and possibility gets mugged by reality. And one day you find yourself trapped in an unsatisfying job, marriage or town, struggling to pay the bills, stressed, sandwiched between looking after your kids and looking after your parents. You are miserable. You are at the bottom of the U-bend. “And you may ask yourself,” as the Talking Heads song goes, “how did I get here?”
One study of happiness data in 72 countries reported that the global average bottom of the U-bend is 46 years old (though this of course masks enormous variety and individual differences).
But then, after a midlife crisis or two, things get better. Your physiological decline is outweighed by your psychological advance. The death of ambition is outweighed by the birth of acceptance. Instead of trying to live up to other people’s standards or expectations, you fully accept who you are. What Jungian James Hollis calls your “provisional personality” fades away, along with all the delusions of grandeur and internalised “rules” about how you, others and life “should” be. You start to play your own game. You start to love life again.
I see lots of clients going through the vortex of these kinds of transformations, painful breakdowns of various kinds that in the end turn out to be profound breakthroughs. I believe a “midlife crisis” can happen at any age, once in a lifetime or many times. Or, for the unfortunate few, never at all.
• Stop trying to be happy all the time. It’ll only make you unhappy. As Oliver Burkeman writes in The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking: “In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions—or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.”
And anyway, is that what you really want, to be nothing more than a big yellow smiley face? There is so much more to life than being only happy.