Don’t worry ... be happy

WAKE up, switch on the radio, tune into the morning news and get your daily dose of doom and gloom.

It’s one part unsustainable job losses, two parts crippling personal debt, three parts loss of our monetary control to Europe and four parts financial Armageddon.

Where to from here? Back under the duvet to nurse the depression? No. Lying down under the weight of our troubles is never a good idea. So where’s the antidote to that contagion of pessimism?

Consider these facts about money and happiness: happiness levels didn’t rocket in the last 50 years, despite this half century containing some of the Western world’s greatest economic growth, says Dr Robert Holden, founder of The Happiness Project and author of Be Happy, who cites research that the number of Britons, since 1957, who say they are ‘very happy’ has dropped from 52% to 36%.

Other research shows the correlation between wealth and happiness is strong at a very low amount of money — if you can’t take care of your basic needs, you’re likely to be pretty unhappy. But it doesn’t take that much money to render someone happy. “About £15,000,” says Holden, who also says one-third of millionaires are less happy than the national average. So, in this recession, the old wisdom bears remembering — money can’t buy happiness.

Are we as unhappy as media voices would have us believe? It seems not. In world happiness rankings, research places Ireland sixth. Ian Robertson, Scottish-born professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, is not surprised. “My experience is that Ireland is quite a happy country. People prioritise fun, relationships and family more than they do in some other countries and that’s likely to lead to higher levels of happiness. That’s not to deny, though, that there’s a lot of unhappiness around too. People are good at putting on a brave face, so there may be an element of cheerful stoicism,” he says.

TV and media are cynical, says family therapist and author of The Courage To Be Happy, Dr Colm O’Connor. “I don’t encounter the same sort of cynicism around the kitchen tables of Ireland. For many on the ground, the reality isn’t as negative as what’s portrayed — children are still happily going to school, classroom life is still exuberant, games are still being played,” he says.

O’Connor says the pessimism in the public arena — around pub tables, for example — is troubling. “Cynicism is the enemy of wellbeing and happiness. There’s a taboo around articulating the positive potential within our communities and in our nature as a whole. It’s hard to articulate that today without sounding like you’re in denial. There’s another narrative that doesn’t get expressed — the notion that one can approach one’s situation with hope and a sense of possibility,” he says.

In these times of threatened economic meltdown, it’s well to take stock of our national character, our resilience. Remember, we are descended from people who survived famine and persecution.

“In Ireland, we do well with adversity. It brings out the best in us. We have an in-built ability to deal with struggle and trouble,” says O’Connor.

We have not just a personal, but a national duty to choose happiness. Holden says happiness has a powerful effect on the brain, helping us “think broadly, be more resilient and come up with creative solutions for difficult situations.” Being happy impacts on the economy. People frightened about the future won’t spend money. People who are happy and confident will. “And that’s likely to generate an atmosphere where others will want to spend money too,” says Robertson, who says that for all the people who bought exorbitantly-priced houses during the Celtic Tiger, others sold these houses. “There are hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland with lots of money in mattresses and bank accounts.”

Researchers into happiness agree that life circumstances influence long-term happiness by only 10%. “The key to being happy in the long-term is not circumstances — it’s disposition and attitude,” says Holden.

So how do we cultivate an attitude that makes happiness more likely? “Love your unhappiness,” says O’Connor. “See it as a signal to adjust something in your life. Accept that stress is our constant companion.”

Don’t believe the myth that if you get rid of your problems you’ll be happy. “That’s not the case. Getting rid of problems only brings you to a neutral level. Plucking the weeds from your garden doesn’t cause flowers to grow.”

Remember, says O’Connor, that mood follows behaviour. “A lot of people wait for happiness to land. They see it as a feeling you get. But happiness is something you do. So, cultivate relationships that you’ve neglected. Spend time with your children. Engage in activities that really interest you. Exercise. Don’t get obsessed with the to-do list,” he says.

When we see happiness as outside of ourselves, we chase it instead of choosing it, says Holden, who says happiness comes from the inside out. “Two things set very happy people apart — they have strong, loving relationships and they put relationships first in their life. And they have a strong spiritual life — a sense of purpose and meaning.”


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