Happiness is a word, emotion and state of mind that is bandied about a lot these days. Everyone is seemingly in pursuit of this nirvana-like state, though I fear we are all too busy to actually ever realise if we arrived. As the saying so aptly points out: it is more of a journey than a destination. Given the opportunity to attend the recent Happiness and Its Causes Conference, I took the occasion to catch up with one of the conference speakers, Dr Mark Williamson, director of UK-based Action for Happiness. Launched in 2011 and already boasting 20,000 members from over 100 countries, the organisation is all about empowering people to take action in their everyday lives and helps build happier communities, families, schools and workplaces.
First off, what determines our happiness?
“Our happiness is determined by three main factors: firstly our genes, which set our natural temperament; secondly our circumstances, which affect the conditions in which we live; and thirdly our behaviours, which are a result of our conscious choices and our attitude to life. Although our genes have a big influence, our happiness is not set in stone: long-term studies show that people's levels of happiness can change significantly over time. Unfortunately we tend to believe that increases in happiness come mainly from changes in our circumstances - such as more money, a bigger house or the latest consumer goods. But research shows that, once our basic needs are met, these material things have relatively little impact on our happiness.”
Is happiness a skill you can learn?
“Although our attitude and behaviour are of course influenced by our upbringing and the culture we live in, evidence shows that changes in the way we think and behave can lead to significant changes in our wellbeing - so yes we really can learn skills to be happier. And what's more, practising these skills regularly has actually been shown to lead to positive changes in the structure of our brains.”
If happiness doesn’t come from money, status or material goods, where does it come from?
“Although the experience of happiness - feeling good about life - is universal, the things that make us happy differ between people. So there's no foolproof set of instructions for happiness; it's a personal thing. However, at Action for Happiness we have identified Ten Keys to Happier Living that research shows consistently tend to make people happier. Together these keys spell "GREAT DREAM". The first five Keys relate to actions we can take day-to-day: Giving (doing things for others); Relating (connecting with people); Exercising (looking after our bodies): Appreciating (being mindful of the world around) and Trying out (learning new things). The second five Keys relate more to our internal attitudes: Direction (having goals to look forward to); Resilience (findings ways to bounce back in difficult times): Emotion (taking a positive approach); Acceptance (being comfortable with who we are) and Meaning (being part of something bigger). The good news is that hardly any of these require lots of money or material things; they're much more to do with how we treat others and how we look after ourselves.”
Tell us about the link between emotions and our long term well-being.
“Happiness doesn't just feel good; it's vital for our overall health. Most people recognise that when they're anxious or stressed they're more likely to get ill. In fact, when exposed to the cold virus, people with lower levels of psychological wellbeing have been shown to be twice as likely to catch a cold as people who are happier. But this is just one example of a much broader and hugely important point: happier people have better overall health and live longer than similar people who are less happy.”
Many people equate success with happiness. This doesn’t always follow?
“Unfortunately most people are following a formula which says that success leads to happiness. If I work hard, then I'll be successful and when I'm successful then I'll be happy. But this "if x happens then I will be happy" mindset doesn't really work. We get stuck in a cycle of chasing one success after another and often fail to reach that elusive point of future happiness. There's truth in the old adage which says "happiness is a journey not a destination".
We spend so much time in our places of work. How can we maintain positivity in this environment?
“It's a sad fact that many people find their working lives rather miserable. For example in a recent UK survey over half of employees said they were unhappy at work. Considering we typically spend nearly half our waking hours there this is nothing short of tragic. It's also a huge missed opportunity, both for individuals and the organisations they work for.”
What are the benefits of a happy workplace?
“Research shows huge benefits from happy workplaces: staff are healthier, more fulfilled and less absent; and companies have higher levels of productivity and customer satisfaction. A happy workplace is characterised by trust, positive relationships and purpose. As employees we can call contribute to this by the way we treat each other. Simple things can really make a difference - like taking time to say hello, thanking people and letting them know why what they do is valued. Research shows that the most successful work teams are those with a "positivity ratio" of more than 3:1. This means that for every negative interaction - for example, a criticism or concern - there are at least three positive interactions, like a thank-you or a mention of something that has gone well.”
What do you see as the role of government in our overall well-being, and how has this changed?
“There is a vitally important shift underway in how we think about progress. Growing numbers of political leaders, economists and experts are calling for better measures of how well society is doing; measures that track not just our economic standard of living, but our overall quality of life. In recent decades our lives have become increasingly orientated in the service of the economy, rather than the other way around. Yet economic growth is really just a means to an end; it only matters if it contributes to social progress and human wellbeing. And the tragedy is that decades of growth and material progress have failed to deliver a measurable increase in life satisfaction. Government can’t make us happy, that’s down to each of us. But government does have a vital role in creating the conditions for people to live happy, fulfilling lives. For example, we need to see greater emphasis on promoting good mental health; reducing income inequality; putting economic stability before economic growth; teaching life skills in schools; and supporting families in need – particularly young children in their formative years.”
What tips can you share to finding happiness and wellbeing?
“Firstly I would encourage people to find what really motivates them. Psychologists distinguish between extrinsic motivations (like a financial reward or public recognition) and intrinsic motivations that matter for their own sake (like a hobby or cause we're passionate about). It turns out that we do better and enjoy life more when we're intrinsically motivated. We have limited time on this earth and at the end of their lives people often tend to wish they'd spent more time with the people they love and doing the things they're passionate about. As Steve Jobs said: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life".
Secondly, I would encourage people to be willing to be vulnerable. We're living in a culture where everyone is obsessed with maintaining their image and trying to show that they're the perfect boss or mum or friend. Not only is this exhausting, it's dishonest. Relationships are at the heart of happiness and good relationships start with honesty. Our connections with people are stronger when we have the courage to show our imperfections and let them know how we're really feeling.
Thirdly, I would say don't underestimate the importance of exercise and sleep. Everyone knows that these are good for your physical health, but we often forget just how important they are for our psychological health. I find the most reliable route to boosting my mood is to grab a good night's sleep (which is admittedly difficult as we've got three young children!) and then get outside for a run in the park. And finally, I would encourage everyone to join Action for Happiness and connect with tens of thousands of other people trying to create happier world for everyone.”