You can be happier, it just takes practice
Subjective well-being is the nickname experts in the field give to happiness.
Homeless people in Calcutta have been found to be less unhappy than those in California, because they have a stronger sense of community.
It makes you wonder what happiness is really about. And the truth is that, while it means different things to different people, we all have one thing in common.
The single, consistent factor in many happiness studies is the necessity for close connection, physical touch, the comfort of friendship and the deep embrace of love.
To this end, lifestyle choices – choosing the right partner, the right friends, or even the right job – may be more crucial to happiness than what’s in your genes, say researchers.
A 25-year study of 60,000 people found that long-term happiness is determined by lifestyle decisions including choice of partner, employment and religion.
Study leader and Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Bruce Headey, says the study turns the long-term notion of happiness being linked to personality on its head.
"Happiness isn’t just a matter of heredity, it isn’t just in the genes," he says.
"Genes might be about 50 per cent of the story but the rest depends on lifestyle choices – choices relating to your partner and also relating to your work life."
The study also found that people who prioritise altruistic and family goals over career and material success are more satisfied with life.
"Other things that matter are social activities, getting involved in social and community things with friends in an active kind of way," Professor Headey says.
He says a link between religion and happiness is also evident.
"Religion seems to work for people. People who regularly attended a church or mosque were a bit happier on average than people who were non-religious or non-attenders," he said.
"So having some kind of belief system that gives you a sense of meaning or purpose is important for happiness."
How to be happy
In recent years scientists have discovered that happiness is actually a skill that can be cultivated – you can choose to be happy.
Mindfulness coach and general practitioner Dr Russ Harris, who appeared on a recent ABC series on happiness, offers these mood-boosting tricks.
Act on your values.
"What do you want to stand for in life?" he asks. "What personal qualities and character strengths do you want to be remembered for?"
Make room for pain. Recognise that happiness is not the same as ‘feeling good’.
"If you’re going to live a full life, you will feel the full range of human emotions – both the pleasant ones and the painful ones."
"We spend way too much time lost inside our own thoughts and, as a result, we miss out on much of our life." Really pay attention to what’s happening in the world around you.
Give to others.
"When we contribute to the happiness of others – provided it is done willingly, not grudgingly – we usually experience a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. It doesn’t matter precisely what we contribute – time, money, skills, care, attention, affection, support, expertise, or knowledge, as the saying goes ‘Giving is its own reward’."
Happy Body, Happy Mind
A growing amount of evidence points to the strong connection between mind and body – happy body, happy minds, says physiotherapist Anna-Louise Bouvier.
In fact, how you sleep, what you eat, how often you exercise and even how much time you spend smiling – you might need to fake until you make it – all has a direct impact on your mood and your state of mind.
To increase your happiness quotient, she suggests:
Move more, sit less. In fact, studies examining the effects of activities such as running, swimming or tennis have found they are associated with significant elevations of endorphins (neurotransmitters that have a similar effect to morphine), says Dr Timothy Sharp, director of Sydney’s Happiness Institute.
Besides improving transmission of endorphins, exercise also improves cardiovascular function which may be good news for those who are feeling blue, says neuroscientist Dr Joseph Ciorciari, of the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.
"There is some evidence that people who suffer from depression have poor circulation in the front areas of the brain," he says. However, for people with severe depressive orders, a jog around the block shouldn’t be considered a remedy, he cautions.
Get serious about getting better sleep. Poor sleep is related to low levels of well-being and, consequently, unhappiness.
Use positive posture. "Lift your chest, put your shoulders back and smile and, after a while, you won’t only fool others, you’ll fool yourself," says Bouvier. "The mind thinks you are happy and begins to release feelgood endorphins."
Get outside and try new things. "If you exercise outside, rather than indoors, you will enjoy a more uplifting experience. It could be the scenery, the light or just the chance to connect with Nature. We’re not sure. But it’s definitely better than running on a treadmill."
To really switch off from worries, challenge yourself with activities you have never done before, that involve some difficulty, suggests Bouvier.
Breathe to relax. "The single biggest indicator of what’s going on in your head is what’s going on with your breath. The faster you breathe the more the body is in fight or flight mode. Consciously calming the breath can switch you into rest and digest mode. So, once an hour, take five deep breaths and centre yourself."
A poor diet can make you feel anxious and fearful, depressed, tired all the time and even suicidal, according to researchers at Roehampton University in the United Kingdom.
But while everyone knows eating plenty of fruit and vegies, lean protein, and wholegrain foods will enhance health, there’s some special foods you should eat if you want to feel happier.
To boost levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that can be low in people suffering from depression, you need poultry, sardines, salmon, fresh tuna, nuts and seeds.
According to the Food and Mood Project in the United Kingdom, turkey and chicken are also good because they contain mood-enhancing tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is converted into serotonin.
And here’s some good news for all of us who love carbohydrates and feel completely miserable on low-carb diets: carbs can help boost the tryptophan too, says Dr Judith Wurtman, author of Managing Your Mind & Mood Through Food (Perennial Library).
In fact, studies from Harvard and Oxford medical universities demonstrate that women on high protein/ low carbohydrate diets lower their serotonin levels, making them more prone to weight gain relapse, depression, excessive craving, bingeing, bulimia, severe PMS and seasonal affective disorder.
For a maximum mood boost, Dr Wurtman recommends you eat a little bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, corn, barley, oatmeal or some crackers or muffins without accompanying protein.
We may get happier as we age
Says Dr Timothy Sharp, director of Sydney’s Happiness Institute: "The area of aging and happiness is one that researchers are only just beginning to explore. Yet early anecdotal evidence does seem to point to the conclusion that we do get happier as we get older."
If we survive past 50 we may be clearer about who we are, what we have and what we want, he suggests. "We do know that clarity is one of the things that leads to happiness."
At the same time, samples of older people answering questions about happiness tend to be self-selecting. "The unhappy people die off at a younger age!"
Joking aside, a focus on what we have and less on what we don’t – something older people must inevitably come to terms with – can lead to an increased sense of well-being, says Dr Sharp.
This happiness factor is easy to label – it’s gratitude – and psychologists say it can be cultivated at any age, even among those who are young, ambitious and overworked.
It sounds Pollyanna-like, but having an optimistic attitude to life or, as the cliché says, ‘looking on the bright side’, can also make a huge difference to happiness, he says.
"Research shows that when you have a positive attitude or, indeed, when you fall in love, exercise, or laugh a lot, you produce feelgood chemicals, or endorphins."