The Science of Happiness: Am I Happy Now?
I have just written a book about happiness, called The Science of Happiness: The Six Principles of a Happy Life and the Seven Strategies for Achieving it. Having read it, my friend asked me: ‘Are you happy now?’
This sounds like a simple question but, for some reason, we make it complicated. We strive to be happy, but we struggle to know whether or not we are truly happy. If we admit to being happy, we feel guilty. What if it does not last? Sometimes, there is comfort in sadness. Is that a kind of happiness too? The avoidance of disappointment? Is sadness really happiness in disguise?
For most of us, the truth about happiness is relatively simple, even if we tie ourselves in knots trying to see it. We are either fairly happy and would like to be happier, or we are sad and would like to be happier. Either way, we all seek greater happiness in our lives, even if we struggle to admit this clearly to ourselves.
And yet, we habitually act in ways that will not make us happier. We make the same bad choices again and again. We do not prioritise activities that increase our well-being. We feel guilty about pleasure.
That is what my book is about: how to get happier. What do we really know about happiness to help us do this? Does happiness research provide any insights? How can we translate advice about happiness into actions in our day-to-day lives?
The path to bliss is not always clear. Finding happiness often involves letting go of fixed ideas about what we think will make us happy and opening ourselves to new possibilities. In one sense, happiness cannot be purposely built. Happiness happens. But we can create the circumstances in which happiness is more likely to flourish and so increase our well-being. There are many paths. Finding meaning in life is especially important.
I am a psychiatrist, a medical doctor who specialises in the treatment of mental illness and states of psychological distress. In this field, agreeing on a path to meaning is a vital part of a person’s recovery. What matters to this person? Where do they find meaning? Where can they find happiness?
I am fortunate that many aspects of my life provide meaning: spending time with family and friends, doing clinical work with patients and their families, writing, researching and talking with the cat. It is worth noting that these are all processes, not outcomes. The activities that I value are as much about searching for meaning as actually finding it.
Czech writer Václav Havel emphasised the journey rather than the destination: ‘Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it.’ He was right.
A person’s valued goals are not always what you think they will be. Some people value friends and family vastly more than meaning gleaned from education or work. For others, it is the reverse: they identify personal accomplishment as equally if not more important than other aspects of their lives. So be it.
Some other people simply value being able to leave the house or, at least, knowing that they are doing their best to do so, taking steps forward even if their ultimate goal remains distant. Again, it is effort, searching and direction that matter as much as reaching the destination. Process is as valuable as outcome, if not more so. Reaching a shared understanding about a person’s therapeutic goals and ambitions lies at the heart of good mental health care that seeks to build a path to happiness in a person’s life.
It is important to be patient and practical as we search for meaning and seek to increase our happiness. Positive thinking is helpful, but we also need to stay rooted in reality if we are to create lasting well-being. The truth is our greatest strength, no matter how long it takes us to adjust to difficult realities. These things take time.
The various strategies outlined in my book combine research evidence with scientific, psychological and even spiritual advice in order to chart a happier path through our complex world. I cover sleep, dreams, diet, work, exercise, connecting with other people and losing yourself in an absorbing activity.
It is not always possible to pursue happiness directly or explicitly. Sometimes, it is better to focus on creating the conditions for general well-being in our lives, in the confident belief that happiness will follow. It will.
Entering a state of flow is especially helpful. This means becoming utterly absorbed in an activity or situation so that the rest of the world simply melts away. We can achieve this by running, walking, meditating, gardening or even knitting.
In the end, that is the central message of my book: we should seek out healthy ways to lose ourselves and the world, if only for a period of time.
And, yes, I am happy!
(c) Brendan Kelly
Author photgraph (c) Ruth Medjber
About The Science of Happiness:
The science of happiness is a new and flourishing area of scientific research that provides us with a clear understanding of what actually makes us happy. In this timely book, leading psychiatrist Professor Brendan Kelly examines the most up-to-date findings to arrive at a comprehensive set of principles and strategies that are scientifically proven to increase happiness levels. Combining research evidence with scientific, psychological and even spiritual advice, it will enable us to chart a happier path through our complex world.
Professor Kelly examines features of the brain that lead us to think the way we do, common misconceptions about happiness, interesting facts about happiness trends around the world and the research that can empower us to create the circumstances for happiness to flourish in our lives.
Does a superb job at tackling that most bedevilling of things – happiness. Reading this book will bring it a step closer in your life.’ Professor Luke O’Neill
Order your copy online here.