Lists of things to make you happy can seem too reductionistic, like a recipe for success or a template for joy, or some such thing.
However, some attitudes and perspectives really do seem to make a difference to our wellbeing. They range from the obvious-and-why-don’t-you-just-do-it via the challenging-but-achievable to the profound-and-totally-demanding-but-utterly-fulfilling! That requires more of us than just practising a few exercises every day.
So, here are some suggestions based on what, how, who and why.
Our society majors on the tangible, explicit, material dimensions (the “what”) of life. The pressure to overdose on them is enormous, so learning to handle them healthily and responsibly goes a long way to growing wellbeing in all domains of our lives.
Cover the bases with the basics: Some practices are foundational for our physical health, but it’s amazing how many of them we simply ignore or neglect. Remember for example: sleep, exercise, a balanced diet and daylight.
Take delight in the (apparently) small and everyday matters of life: That cup of coffee, glimpse of morning sun, smile from a friend, kindness of a stranger, beauty of autumn mists, bravery of emergency services that you saw on the news…The list is endless. Savour and enjoy the good things you encounter every day.
Appreciate and enjoy what you have, rather than hankering after what you don’t have: We spend so much time wishing we had more that we often fail to appreciate what we already have. The fact that you have a body (I remember a friend once telling me that she woke up every morning, saying, “Thank you God for my arms”!), a home and possessions is a cause for celebration, not complaint. It all depends on how you look at your experience, from either the perspective of “deficit” (focusing on what I lack) or “abundance” (what I have). So take a moment to list all the things you can call your own and express your thankfulness for them in some way.
Manage our materialistic culture: The ubiquitous nature of materialism means that we are saturated with messages telling us that we need “more”. Finding a stronger alternative narrative (one that arises from our deeper Who and Why perspectives) will help us to resist the outworkings of this insidious storyline. Paradoxically, loosening our grip on stuff will enable us to view materialism for what it is, and substitute a more sustainable and satisfying lifestyle in its place.
Practice inner hygiene: Whilst physical health is important, it isn’t the only “hygiene” we require. Health professionals talk of mental hygiene and that’s a helpful term. We all possess well-worn negative mental mindsets, so recognizing and then rejecting them will help us experience more inner stillness and contentment.
So “stepping to the right”, giving precedence to our right brains over the ceaseless chatter of our left brains, will help us to develop those calmer mindsets. Mindfulness has shown itself to be an effective approach, but there are many other simple ways to bring tranquility within, for example, putting the electronic screens away, relying less on technology and more on our direct, unmediated experiences of people and the world around, and practising empathic listening towards other people. Gratitude and an attitude of appreciation towards the good we have received are especially powerful agents of wellbeing.
The capacity to make choices is amongst the most significant of human attributes. We are all capable of making positive, healthy choices, which actually change our brain structure and function. Making the same choice daily over two months will establish a habit enduringly, which in due course will radically shape our character – i.e. the kind of people we become. So decide today what choices you are going to make regarding your material priorities, mental condition and people-concerns. If necessary, call on others’ help to make those choices stick.
Character development is more important than skill or technique. Growing authenticity and integrity in work, relationships and life generally will provide a strong and solid platform for the whole of your life. Developing such foundations will in due course cultivate wholeness and fulfilment. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the term “true self”, as distinct from a “false self”. He saw the false self as a defensive façade, behind which people hide their pain and anger, but which leaves them feeling dead and empty. In contrast, although cultivating our true or authentic self involves taking the risk of becoming vulnerable towards other people, ultimately it creates lasting health and satisfaction. How can you grow such a true, real self?
Facing life’s issues and challenges, rather than running away from them, will in the long run bring us hope and fulfilment. That is by no means easy, but it is much more likely to steer us towards health and healing. In particular, that uncomfortable and confusing place of “not knowing” which often leads us to act in ways we later regret, can be the point at which we grow and change for the good (another kairos moment). We struggle with a relationship and are tempted to abandon it. We experience failure and rejection, and therefore decide to jump ship instead of sticking with the pain of disappointment and finding a way through it. We lose someone close to us and start to walk down a pathway of emotional desensitisation and inner withdrawal. Or we just choose internally to become cynical about life, rather than staying vulnerable but still open to hope. Staying with the not-knowing may paradoxically become the gateway to restoration and hope. As Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ story goes, we can’t go over the deep, cold river or under the narrow, gloomy cave – we simply have to go through them!
Prioritise people over things: Not many people on their deathbed lament the millions they never earned or the university degrees they never obtained. Most people say that they wished they’d spent more time with family and friends. Pursuing healthy relationships will cost you time, energy and perhaps material luxury, but it will bring you a very different kind of reward – wellbeing today and fulfilment tomorrow.
Become the kind of person other people want to be with: This has a lot to do with character development as outlined above. Someone who has nurtured their authentic true self is likely to be able to sustain strong and lasting relationships. Focusing on other people and their joys and sorrows is an effective route to maturity in ourselves. This of course does not mean that we deny or neglect our own needs and desires – it simply places us in a position to limit self-focus and opens us up to robust and healthy mindsets and behaviours.
Finding someone you can trust to share yourself with is probably one of the keys to life satisfaction – even though the pathway will involve pain and frustration. Such a person of course doesn’t have to be perfect, but they do need to be willing to listen, empathise and be on your side. Of course, it’s also worth asking the question whether you are like that towards others!
Paradoxically, with relationships, as with so many other things in life, letting go is often the pathway to greater possession. Parents who freely release their children and friends who are not possessive of others are more likely to find their relationships maturing and flowering than those who cannot let go. This is what it means to be generous of heart, a giver rather than a taker. Forgiveness is perhaps the deepest and most significant outworking of it, but everyday acts of kindness also cultivate an attitude of open-heartedness.
Finding a place and people to belong to is not necessarily a top priority in our individualistic culture, but the experience of corporate social connection is one of the keys to wellbeing. As God says about Adam in Genesis, “It is not good to be alone”. What a primal and primary testimony to the need for and power of community. If you are isolated, you are at significantly greater risk of physical, mental, emotional and existential disease. So making the choice to connect with others will make a positive difference to your happiness. Just one encouragement however – choose your connections thoughtfully and carefully.
The Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Our “why” is probably the most important part of our lives, for without it life literally becomes meaningless. And yet many of us would probably say that we don’t really know where to start with it.
Here are some pointers.
Don’t make happiness your central life pursuit: Life is full of paradoxes. This is one of them. The more we chase happiness the more it eludes us. So find something deeper and more lasting as your number one pursuit in life. Happiness, or more likely, contentment and satisfaction will follow.
Reflect on your life: the philosopher Socrates is credited with saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In the rushed life that so many of us live today, there seems to be no time to just “be” and give time for reflection. But we lose so much that way, especially concerning the long-term and the big picture of our lives. So take some time off (preferably amongst nature, away from the routine of home and work) and give yourself time to reflect, contemplate and meditate on what is deeper and more implicit. What are your long-term hopes and dreams? How would you like to be remembered? What or who could guide you to find out?
Decide on your life priorities: Somebody once said that the main thing in life is to keep the main thing as the main thing. But what is your “main thing”? How might you decide to put “first things first”? What are those first things anyway – your most important life priorities? Matthew O’Reilly is a paramedic working in New York. In this youtube video he speaks about the three sayings that he has heard repeatedly from dying people: the need for forgiveness; the desire for remembrance by someone else; and the craving for meaning, for significance – that their existence matters. Let’s not wait until we’re on our deathbed before we give those necessities some consideration.
Work out your life’s vision: Some people find talk of “vision statements” something of a turn-off, but the principle of having a vision for your life is a good one. The futurist Tom Sine writes in his book Living on Purpose, “Whatever vision we embrace as the good life and better future determines what is really important to us. What is important to us directly determines where we spend our time and money”. Something will inevitably fill our vision whatever we do, but if we do not take the trouble to ponder it, someone else’s vision (most likely our prevailing culture’s) will probably take centre stage. So take some time to think through what you most want your life to be and do.
Find answers to life’s big questions: For me, the top three are “Who am I?” (Identity); “Why am I here?” (Purpose); and “What should I then do?” (Destiny). I can’t think of anything more important than discovering answers to these questions. I believe there are answers to be found. But many of us don’t feel we have the time or the inclination to look for them – until grief and loss ambush us and force us to engage with them. But why wait until you encounter such a crisis? Invest time and contemplation in discovering answers to the question “why.” You may be surprised by what you find.
We all need a framework that joins and holds together the many separate dimensions of our lives. The context that our culture provides is largely inadequate for that. So find a worldview, a narrative, a hermeneutic that connects and integrates all those disparate elements – one that addresses and answers the what, how, who and why questions of your life.
More information on Andy and the book, Lasting Happiness, which is published by Dartman, Longman & Todd.
More information on the Happiness Course, which Andy wrote and now trains others to lead.