In pursuit of happiness

I'm now 6 months into early retirement after a professional nursing career spanning 40 years. Top of the agenda since retiring has been to have more fun and restore some happiness into my life. So, I went on a quest  to find out more about  what happiness actually is.

I began by asking the question. What makes us happy? Irish director Conor Hagan asked pensioners, children, homeless people, advertising executives, recovering addicts and more about their experiences of happiness. I was touched by how  honest people were prepared to be. The responses were varied - some thought provoking, others humorous, some sad but always deeply felt. One thing  is clear though, given the statistics for those taking anti-depressants in the UK and  USA, it seems that for many - to quote Jane Austen - "happiness is rare and memories of it even rarer".

So why do we struggle with happiness?  What is it really? And how do we get more of it in our lives?

Let's start with a definition.

One definition of happiness is that it is a mental or emotional state of well being characterised by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to joy. Writing in 350 BCE Aristotle stated that happiness (also being well and doing well) is the only thing that humans desire for it's own sake - unlike, riches, honour, health or friendship;which were sought in order to be happy. For Aristotle happiness was seen as an activity rather than an emotional state; an interesting insight given what modern neuro-science is telling us about meditation and other mindful practises.

Which brings us to the emerging field of happiness science. It is said that good health is not just the absence of illness. Likewise, or at least according to Nancy Etcoff of Harvard medical school, "happiness is not just the absence of misery."  Another Harvard researcher, Dan Gilbert, has demonstrated that happiness can actually be manufactured; referring  to this as  "synthesised happiness."  From what's being said it seems that, rather than waiting for something good to happen, it's possible to think yourself into a happy state.

On delving into this I was expecting some patronising, simplistic "glass is half full/empty" psychology. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Gilbert's research has demonstrated that, central to a state of happiness, is the control of stress hormones like serotonin, dopamine and cortisol.  By practising meditation and other mindfulness practises -  such as yoga and EFT -   we can control the part of the brain that produces these stress hormones; thus  enabling the control of  the stress/relaxation response. Which in turn gives the power to reduce stress/anxiety, improve low mood and instill a greater feeling of contentment.

So that's some of the science.

Whilst we can all acknowledge that what goes on in our minds is important to how we feel,  to find further answers to what makes us happy I widened the search.

I was interested to learn that, since 2012, the UK has been measuring happiness and well being nationwide. From their data  a number of key points were identified as being significant to happiness:
  • health
  • relationships
  • employment
  • good housing 
  • governance
  • education
  • natural environment
Recent happiness research  has identified that the highest level of happiness occurs in people living near coastal locations, followed by those living in natural environments like moors, forests and farms. Specifically, being active in an outdoor setting seemed to raise happiness levels. Interestingly women and older people experienced the highest levels of satisfaction from being outdoors. Whilst on the coastal and outdoor theme in a UK study the people of the Shetland Islands and the Orkneys were noted to have the highest levels of happiness in the UK. (Surely, can't have anything to do with the weather!)

So, do we all have to up sticks and move to the Highlands or Islands of Scotland? As tempting as that may sound, from what the research is saying a state of contentment, happiness, or whatever you prefer to call it, is as much about your frame of mind as it is about anything else. So does the answer lie within? I'll leave you to ponder!

I've been thinking a lot about the Shetland happiness experience recently and, when searching for answers to the happiness question, it's hard not to be cliched or give an over romanticised view. That said,  from my perspective, there are a number of essential ingredients at play here. Namely, the centrality of community, with  established ties, relationships and families that go back decades, if not centuries. There is a common understanding of place, purpose, history. As seafarers and fishermen collectively their lives have always been in tune with their environment and the seasons. People interact and there seems to be a historical sense of everyone working together for the common good; helping out in the community at times of adversity.

Also -  and if you've ever been to the far reaches of Scotland, seen the milky way and felt like you were on the edge of the universe - there's  the feeling that stress is of a different order; particularly environmental stress. My own experience of the highlands and islands of Scotland  has given me some insight into the joy that can be experienced by living close to nature in the way that can maybe only be achieved by living in places like the Shetlands

Years ago Ian Dury and the Blockheads had a hit with a song entitled - "Reasons to be cheerful". On that note I'd like to share with you some of the things that continue to make me cheerful:
  • Engaging in musical activity with others
  • Family centred activities - like preparing and sharing good food
  • Sunlight on my face in the snow
  • The pristine air quality of a crisp, cold winter's day
  • Running along the white sandy beach of Calgary Bay on Mull
  • Seeing the abundance of new life in the spring
  • Being able to smell the trees and flowers 
  • Hearing birdsong .....
The list goes on and there's probably so much more that I can be grateful for. What makes you happy? Write it down. Then think yourself into it.

Finally, I'll leave you with a quote - "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world."


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