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.
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?
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?
Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says the factors contributing to happiness are:
But Seligman says only 10% of our happiness is due to circumstances, what about the rest?
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!