Ten Sure-Fire Ways To Be Happy
You want happiness? Who doesn't? Today's shrinks are fascinated with what it is that makes some people leap into another day while the rest of us can barely drag ourselves out of bed. The result of their research, according to Dr David Myers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness, is a list of the key ingredients needed for happiness. Some will surprise you. Some might seem a tad, well, strait-laced. But put your smarty-pants doubts to one side and try following the happiness programme for just one week. At the very least we guarantee a smile.
One: Lighten Up About Money
Tear that lottery ticket up now. It's true that many of us think we'd be happier if we had more money, but we're wrong (honest). When University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener surveyed forty-nine of the richest Americans, he found them only slightly happier than average. Okay, so they were a bit happier, but eighty per cent agreed that "Money can increase or decrease happiness, depending on how it's used." And, as if to prove the point, some were undeniably unhappy.
"Assuming you've got enough money to pay the rent and eat, having extra doesn't automatically make you happy," confirms relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, author of Women On Sex. What matters is what you do with it.
"Money can't make you either happy or sad," says psychotherapist Vera Peiffer, author of More Positive Thinking. "What matters is the meaning you give it."
Two: Talk Yourself Happy
Sounds weird, but it works. "There's no doubt that we become what we think," says Peiffer. "Tell yourself you're broken hearted over the loss of your latest love and it becomes true."
That's exactly how therapies like neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) work -- by changing the tape in your head from negative to positive. For instance, instead of saying "I'm a disaster at relationships," try "I'm getting better at leaving bad situations. I only let the last one go on for six months."
"The trick is to keep your statements specific, personal and realistic," says psychotherapist Gael Lindenfield, author of The Positive Woman. "Organizing next week's conference is well within my capabilities," works better than "I'm the best PA in Birmingham." Write your affirmation -- the technical term -- on a piece of paper and stick it on your fridge door or on your pillow. Within a week it should've rubbed out your old, negative thoughts.
Three: Act Happy -- Even If You Don't Feel It
You don't have to come on like a member of The Brady Bunch, but research shows that if you force yourself to smile, you'll automatically start feeling happier. What's more, you can bet that everyone around you will start acting nicer too. "It's a feedback loop. You smile, so someone smiles back, and you start to experience the world as a happier place," explains Susan Quilliam.
Debbie, 29, tried this technique. "When David and I split up, it seemed like the end of the world. We'd been planning to get married and all the invitations had gone out. The humiliation was overwhelming."
For six months Debbie, a retailer, did what abandoned brides are supposed to do. She wept, wailed and spent hours in wine bars with her friends analyzing David. But then, "It got to the point when I realized the world was moving on and I wasn't. During the six months other friends had split from their partners, one had had a baby, another had gone to work in the States, but I was still in the 'post-Dave' phase."
Debbie realized that something had to give. "Obviously I wasn't going to be able to switch my feelings off, but I could start acting more upbeat. The next time I went out with my best friend, I made a decision not to talk about Dave. At work I dropped the 'woman with a great sorrow' body language. I didn't feel instantly better but people started to treat me differently, which speeded up my emotional recovery."
Four: Don't Get Nostalgic
Remembering past pleasures actually makes us feel worse about the present. UCLA psychologist Allen Parducci found that taking a spectacular holiday or having a sensational sexual fling means that we end up feeling discontented with the boring everyday stuff.
"Getting addicted to emotional highs isn't good for happiness," says Gael Lindenfield. "However, you can still use memories in a creative way." Run through your memory and come up a time when things weren't going so well. Congratulate yourself on getting through those bad times and learning from them. Imagine how you'd deal with those problems today. Chances are you wouldn't even let them develop.
Finally, it's worth remembering that a whole host of surveys show that remembering other people are worse off actually makes you happy. "Next time you feel down, try counting your blessings," suggests Vera Peiffer. Failing that, read the problem page. It could be worse.
Five: Regular Exercise
Before you tune out, we're not talking about the endorphin buzz you get after an hour's aerobics. What's important here is the sense of confidence, discipline and resilience you get from having a fit(ish) body. "People are turned off the idea of exercise because they think you have to do it five times a week," says Vera Peiffer. "In fact, ten minutes of stretching every two days will give the biochemical results you need. The lymph system gets going, toxins are flushed out of the body and adrenaline levels are reduced."
Also, don't underestimate the sense of control and achievement a regular exercise plan can give you. "Last year my life hit rock bottom," recalls Catriona, 28, a teacher. "In the space of six weeks my boyfriend dumped me, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and I lost my job." Unsurprisingly, Catriona's usual routines fell apart. For three months she stayed up all night, ate Jaffa Cakes all day and refused to answer the phone. "The only routine I could hang on to was going swimming regularly," Catriona recalls. "The first few times I only got as far as the changing room. But gradually I managed to get into the water. At first I went for five minutes; three months later I was swimming 20 lengths. Making my regular visit to the pool gave me the sense that there was at least one aspect of my life that I could control."
Six: Get Organized
Happy people have plans. Miserable ones, says Oxford University psychologist Michael Argyle, let hours slip through their fingers with nothing to show for them.
It's the control thing again. "Having a sense of control over our environment is immensely important in fostering well-being. That's why we get so miserable if there's a sudden train strike," explains psychologist Susan Quilliam. Make sure, however, that you're not a pseudo-organizer: someone who makes endless lists that include things like 'buy cat food' and 'make major presentation' in the same breath, and as a consequence often ends up doing neither.
The key is to prioritize. "First decide which tasks fit in with your major goals. Give the others less importance," advises Gael Lindenfield. Ask yourself what you really need to accomplish and what will help you do this. If your cat is the thing that makes you happiest, then buying her food should be top of the list. If work's your priority, then the presentation takes priority. On Friday review how you did and make adjustments for next week.
Also make the most of your biorhythms. "I'm much sharper in the morning, so I make sure I do all my report writing then," explains Jo, 25, a market researcher.
Seven: Do Things You Really Enjoy
Sounds obvious, but apparently, "It's easy to get carried away by peer pressure," warns Gael Lindenfield. "You go skiing because everyone in the office is doing the same thing." Don't waste time on other people's hobbies, do what you want.
Your hobby needs to be absorbing, too. Italian research shows that watching TV leaves you feeling tired and apathetic. However, getting involved in, say, painting or dancing leads to something psychologists call "flow" -- a sense of being so absorbed in the moment that you're unaware of what's going on around you.
Gael Lindenfield also suggests getting back to nature. "We need to find an activity like gardening or walking, which allows us to reconnect with the environment," she says.
Eight: Stay Close To Your Friends
People who can name five intimate friends are 60 per cent more likely to feel "very happy" than those who can't. Intimate is the key word here. It's not necessarily how often you see someone that matters, but how you behave with them.
But it has to be a certain kind of friend. "Someone who constantly interrupts with 'That happened to me...' isn't offering the kind of support you need," says Susan Quilliam. "However, many people quite naturally know how to put their own needs aside while they concentrate on another person. They know that next week it will be their turn to talk. This kind of person makes a good friend."
In fact, research has proved what some cynics have long said: a chat with a good mate can be as helpful as a session with a shrink -- and it doesn't cost. Australian psychologists conducted studies comparing treatment offered by professional therapists and lay people (people given a few hours training in empathy listening). Unsurprisingly, the lay people did as well as the professionals.
Nine: Make The Most Of Your Job
"There's really no way around this -- if your work isn't providing you with a sense of identity, community and purpose, then you need to make changes," says Vera Peiffer. Don't make any sudden moves. Chucking in your job without another to go to will make you even more unhappy. "The very act of updating your CV or looking seriously at the job pages is often enough to lift that sense of desperation," she advises.
But what if you have no choice but to stay in your job? "Come up with some creative strategies of your own," suggests Susan Quilliam. Set goals, make friends -- even if you don't plan to stay with the company long, it will make the job more bearable.
Jodie, 24, used these strategies to help her get through a particularly boring holiday job. "I was handing out fliers at a computer show. I made the job more interesting by seeing how fast I could get rid of my allocation. And in the lunch break I messed around on the computers -- that was how I got to understand the internet."
But careful, though, that work doesn't become the only source of happiness in your life. "Form the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties there's been this feeling that having the right kind of work will make you totally fulfilled," says Susan Quilliam. It's a dangerous trap. No matter how great your job is, there's always going to be a day when the boss snaps, the budget goes haywire and you long to lock yourself in the loo. A job can't laugh at your jokes or say you look great. You need friends, maybe even a partner, as well.
Ten: Believe In Something
God makes you happy, that's official. (Well, if not God, something to believe in at least.) There's nothing like knowing you're loved, for making you feel good about yourself. But what if you just can't get to grips with religion? Don't even try.
Gael Lindenfield suggests looking at what organized religion offers and then finding substitutes. Attracted to the solitude of prayer but can't stand the mumbo jumbo? Try meditation or yoga. Want to be part of something that feels like it will last forever? Try getting involved with an environmental group.
"Religious faith seems to give a sense that there's a point to everything -- even the nasty bits," suggests Susan Quilliam. When you're feeling down it gives everything a reason, as Karen, 23, discovered. Now she's found something to believe in, she says, "When someone's vile to me I just think, 'Does it honestly matter?' And, somehow, I find it doesn't."
© Katie Hayward 1996