We would all like to know how to be happier and the answer may be a lot more simple than we thought.

Five happy women illustrate how to be happier.

Flor, Marsha, Iris, Pilin and Lali – happy to be together.

I typed ‘how to be happier’ into Google and in 0.43 seconds received 228 million listings. Give each one two minutes and it will take almost a year (reading 24/7) to read them all.

There are a lot of people writing about how to be happier – probably because they aren’t happy themselves – and even more of us are reading about how to be happier when there’s not a whole lot to be happy about.

We live in stressful times – cowardly wars, flash fires, rising sea levels, poverty and homelessness in the planet’s richest nations – the US, UK, France. We see every day on our televisions scenes of mutilated babies in bombed hospitals, weeping grandmothers, missiles raining down from supersonic jets on cramped, undefended cities.

In my search for how to be happier, the NHS came up first on Google with the following bland suggestions:

  • Regular exercise, practice breathing techniques, watch funny videos and sports with friends. Do something you are good at like cooking or dancing. Boost your self-esteem by treating yourself as you would treat a valued friend, in a positive but honest way.
  • Limit alcohol, choose a balanced diet, get enough sleep, build your resilience. Start a support group to help others. Make something creative out of bad experiences by, for example, writing, painting or singing. Share problems with a friend, family member or counsellor.

Current waiting time for a counsellor, depending on your postcode, is 26 weeks. If you want to talk anonymously or urgently, you can call the Samaritans 24 hours a day on 116 123.

The NHS list is positive but lacks guidelines or support; a flatpack chest of drawers without instructions. Happiness is illusive, impossible to define, as slippery as an eel, hard to catch, harder to hang on to. On a perfectly pleasant day you may see someone suffering or homeless and feel hopeless and in turn sad that you can do nothing about it. If one is essentially content, this feeling of despair is impermanent, but the 228 million Google listings on how to be happier show a need for a more solid and tangible answer.

How To Be Happier Reality

A survey that has been examining happiness since the 1930s has finally come up with that answer and published the results in The Good Life – Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed the same 700 people and their families over many decades to determine what makes people thrive and feel joyful. They asked thousands of qualitative questions as well as taking hundreds of quantitative health measurements from brain scans to blood work.

In the 1930s, participants were chosen from either Harvard’s male students or young men from the low-income suburbs of Boston. Every five years, they provided medical information and every two years, they answered detailed questions. Their wives and children later joined the study and the Harvard team has continued to track the group through work, marriage, divorce and death. Twenty-five participants left their brains to the study after they died.

Professor Robert Waldinger is the fourth director of the project over its lifetime. ‘What we learned,’ he said, ‘is that people believe happiness is something they can achieve – if they buy that house or get a promotion or lose enough weight, then happiness will follow. We act as if happiness is a destination we will get to if we tick the right boxes, but the data clearly shows that this is simply not true. And that’s a good thing, as contentment is no longer something out of reach, but eminently achievable for all of us.’

It turns out that money does not make people happy, nor does your job, station, rank or achievements. Happiness depends on relationships and connections. ‘Whether these are in the form of friendships, book clubs, romantic attachments, church groups, sports partners or co-workers, the people with the strongest social bonds and connections in their 50s, are the most contented and in the best shape in their 80s.’



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