Joy to the world: Strategies to increase your happiness during the season of goodwill

It’s not what you have that makes you happy, it’s what you do. And what better time to be proactive than during the season of goodwill, says Margaret Jennings.

Joy to the world: Strategies to increase your happiness during the season of goodwill

It’s not what you have that makes you happy, it’s what you do. And what better time to be proactive than during the season of goodwill, says Margaret Jennings.

‘TIS the season to be jolly — as we soak up the festive atmosphere of twinkling lights, piped festive music in every store, and the heady whiff of pine Christmas trees, but here’s the spoiler: Santa’s bulging sack of gifts will not bring any of us lasting happiness.

Wishlists for material things aren’t just made at Christmas of course — many of us are constantly yearning for the holy grail of happiness by reaching out for the next shiny new thing, which when we grasp it, only brings a fleeting pleasure.

“Often what we think happiness is, doesn’t bring us as much joy as we expect,” says Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos.

“We assume happiness comes from our circumstances — the perfect job or house, lots of money, Instagram-worthy vacations etc. But in reality, our wellbeing stems from our behaviours — making social connections, taking time for gratitude and mindfulness, even healthy practices like sleep and exercise.”


Arguably our pursuit of happiness has been there since the beginning of time.

But while happiness, or wellbeing, might seem an intangible and elusive concept to pin down, in recent decades there has been a upsurge in scientific studies of what makes us happy — the so-called science of happiness.

A course launched by Santos in 2018 called Psychology and the Good Life, became the most popular class ever taught in Yale University’s 318-year history.

As a result of such huge demand a free online adaptation, The Science of Well-Being, followed.

“Our online class has currently more than 450,000 learners from over 200 countries and our new podcast The Happiness Lab has more than 3m listeners,” Santos tells Feelgood.

I think this shows how much a demand there is out there for strategies to feel happier. The good news is that science gives us some clear easy-to-follow tips.

The scientific approach to happiness has been rubberstamped by the United Nations, which in 2012 launched its first annual World Happiness Report, following a high-level meeting on ‘Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm’.

Described as presenting the “available global data on national happiness”, having “reviewed related evidence from the emerging science of happiness”, the reports show that the quality of people’s lives can be “reliably” assessed by a variety of subjective wellbeing measures, collectively referred to as ‘happiness’.

Often there is a central theme, and this year — the seventh — with the focus on community, it found Irish people to be the 16th happiest nation on the planet, among the 156 countries ranked.


The argument that we can largely influence our state of happiness through our own intentional habits, emphasising the role of our positive emotions and individual strengths to do so, was popularised in positive psychology, by the then president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman in the late ’90s.

“With Positive Psychology, it is important to differentiate it from Positive Thinking — which can be toxic, because there is an attempt to ignore negative emotions, which carry important messages,” says David O’Sullivan, director of the MA in Positive and Coaching Psychology at UCC.

“Instead, Positive Psychology acknowledges the positive and the negative, and chooses to focus on the positive first. What becomes important is the ratio of positive to negative.

“Barbara Fredrickson (an American social psychologist) argues that when we have a ratio of at least three positive emotions to one negative, then these positive emotions undo the impact of the negative ones, and we begin to flourish. If the ratio is too high, she argues more than 9:1, we are disconnected from reality. When a person has a ratio of under 3:1, they are languishing.”


When we talk about positive emotions it’s not just about feeling “happy clappy” it’s about living a life that has meaning for you, says Dublin-based chartered psychologist Margaret Forde who gives courses in mindfulness, wellbeing and positive psychology.

“That meaning can be different for different people. Originally psychology concentrated on the negative — what’s wrong with people and what makes them depressed and anxious.

“But being happy is not just about getting over depression and anxiety. Positive psychology is the science of what makes us happy,” she tells Feelgood.

“Sometimes we can have the idea that happiness is about us going around laughing all the time, which isn’t the case — it’s to be more mindful of what we are doing, that our life is fulfilling and worthwhile, that we have friends and spiritual values and goals.

You can’t leave out any dimension really — positive emotion is just one part of it.”

And it can be subjective: “For one person meaning might be bringing up their family in a way that is consistent with their values. For somebody else, it might be great achievement in business and for somebody else it might be a spiritual goal. It’s about what makes a greater sense of meaning for each person.”

Forde, who has been working in what she calls the field of psychoeducation — facilitating people to have a level of understanding of what “makes them tick” for 30 years, has seen a shift in emphasis over the decades.

“When I started out originally, people were mainly interested in stress management, but now I find they are taking much more of a growth attitude, they are reaching out to find things that will help them to have more control over their lives in a proactive way,” she says.


But how much can we influence our wellbeing through our thoughts and actions? One of the most prominent proponents of the “study of human happiness”, University of California professor, Sonja Lyubomirsky, claims through her wide body of research, that 50% of happiness is genetically predetermined, while 10% is due to life circumstances, and 40% is the result of our own personal outlook.

That much-quoted formula of 50:10:40 offers a hopeful basis for each of us to intentionally turn around the potential for happiness in our lives, through paying attention to our thoughts and behaviour.

However, many of the variables that the science of happiness has concluded as influences on our wellbeing — or to live a “flourishing life”— seem to be plain common sense; advice which we read and hear about regularly through the media.

They include maintaining social contact; relaxation practises including mindfulness; physical exercise; having life goals; spiritual meaning; sleeping and eating well; practising gratitude; doing acts of kindness/volunteering — and of course maintaining a positive outlook.

While we are bombarded with the positive research outcomes on how these factors can keep us healthy and happy, it’s all easier said than done, to actually adopt them.

Add in the research pointing to all those lifestyle habits contributing towards longevity, and one would think our urge for self-preservation alone, would motivate us to change our attitudes and habits.

The link between happiness and longevity is a simple equation.

“Happier people live longer and healthier lives because happiness and lower stress go together, so the body and brain are relatively protected from too high and sustained levels of stress hormones such as cortisol,” says Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin.

Even with the 50% variance genetic influence on our happiness, which he believes “is a subject of debate”, the remaining 50% is potentially under our control, says the neuroscientist.

“We have a lot of control over our happiness — it is not programmed into us. Yes, we can change our emotions and behaviour through the way we think and behave,” he tells Feelgood.


Another online platform which has a big fan base is the Greater Good Science Center’s free online course, The Science of Happiness first launched by Berkeley University, in September of 2014, and which has had more than 450,000 students registered for it.

The GGSC studies the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of wellbeing and “teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient and compassionate society” and the online course helps participants to explore “the roots of a happy, meaningful life”.

Taught by the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon Thomas, they say The Science of Happiness zeroes in on a fundamental finding from positive psychology: that happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social ties and contributing to something bigger than yourself— the greater good.

The course emphasises “the science of connection, compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and more.”

Perhaps the Christmas season is a good time to hone in on themes of compassion, kindness, gratitude and connection with family and others through the season.

Although the clear message is that for a more lasting sense of wellbeing we have to adapt these thoughts and behaviours on a daily basis, to fulfil that 40% control which it’s argued we all have over our own happiness.

So, go on, get out there, and do what it takes to have a very happy Christmas.

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