Last Updated 12 January, 2024

How to be Happy

Rowan Berries August 2011

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Useful resources on happiness
  • Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
  • The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Happier: Finding Pleasure, Meaning and Life's Ultimate Currency by Tal Ben-Shahar
  • Positive Psychology in a Nutshell by Ilona Boniwell
  • Centre for Confidence and Well-being
How to be Happy!

What would make you happy? More money? Shorter working hours? More sex? Losing weight? The new science of positive psychology studies what makes us happy - and it's not what you might think. Rachel Weiss investigates.

Why is happiness important?

We feel good when we're happy, but happier people are also more creative, resilient, better at learning, problem-solving and building relationships. This is why the government is starting to measure our happiness and why psychologists are studying questions like: What is happiness? Is happiness a worthwhile pursuit? Can you become a happier person?

How can you become happier?

We tend to think that if only we had that house, that job, that man, those shoes, then we would be happy. Advertisers encourage us to believe that material possessions will make us happy.

Our children have far more material goods than we did at their age, yet are they any happier? The resounding answer is "No!" Levels of depression are increasing in every wealthy country. Once we have enough money to cater for our basic needs, more money does not necessarily bring more happiness - ask any lottery winner!

Now, I'm not denying that buying clothes and eating chocolate makes me feel good, but that pleasure fades fast. One definition of happiness says it combines pleasure with meaning. Chocolate gives me instant pleasure, but has no meaning or significance. Spending time with friends gives me pleasure and has meaning. What gives you pleasure and has meaning for you?

Defining Happiness

Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says the factors contributing to happiness are:

Happiness = Set range + Circumstances + Voluntary Control
Set Range
Set Range is my inherited happiness level. About 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics and our upbringing, which we can't change. That's why, given the same circumstances, I will be happy and my husband will be less so - he's just gloomier than me! Remember when you got that pay rise or bought those shoes? You were happy! But you soon reverted back to your normal levels, caught up in day-to-day tasks. Similarly remember when he dumped you or you broke your arm? You were unhappy, but eventually returned to your normal happiness level.
Circumstances like wealth, housing, health and relationships have surprisingly little effect on our overall happiness. The two circumstances which do have strongest links with happiness are spirituality and friendships. So now I have every excuse for a girlie night out!

But Seligman says only 10% of our happiness is due to circumstances, what about the rest?

Voluntary Control
Voluntary Control are the factors that we can influence. The good news is that they make up 40% of what determines our happiness. We can increase our happiness by our behaviour, choices and attitudes See Box 1 for some tips.

Research shows that keeping a daily gratitude diary increases happiness. Ask yourself "What Went Well today?" Our brains tend to ignore what goes well and focus on went wrong. Ever come home from work going over a list of all the things you DIDN'T do today? Instead try reminding yourself of the things you DID achieve.

What makes me happy may not make you happy. I feel happy when I visit my parents, for my best friend visiting her parents has the opposite effect!

So, although circumstances, like money, make some contribution to my happiness, my attitude and behaviour have far more impact. Changing habits to see your glass as half full takes time and practice. You can do this yourself or you may find seeing a counsellor or coach helpful.

Now that I've finished this article, I am going to treat myself to some special time. Shall I savour watching a DVD, phone a friend or have a long bath? Whatever I do, the trick will be to choose to enjoy doing it!

Box 1 - Tips for boosting happiness by voluntary control
Work it out
Do more exercise, get outdoors.
Spend more time with friends.
Just a job
Don't let your job take over your life.
Give yourself permission to be human
Allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions, including fear, sadness, or anger. An expectation of constant happiness is unreasonable and sets us up for disappointment. A happy person has highs and lows, but their overall state of being is positive.
We try to do too much. What are you prepared to cut back? Do fewer things, slower and enjoy them more.
Do something meaningful
Undertake something worthwhile, something where the achievement is not just about you, but serves a larger goal [e.g. random acts of kindness]
Use an advert break
Don't compare yourself with celebrities. Cut down on exposure to advertising, as it encourages you to compare yourself with others and feed dissatisfied with what you have.

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