Thursday, 20 August 2009

Happiness Gurus

Are these young Indian boys happy? They certainly look it, posing for my friend Christian at Humayan's Tomb in Delhi last year.

In fact, after reading a stack of nine heavy books on the subject of happiness, and interviewing the academics who wrote them, I can say with a small degree of authority that these boys are probably happier than many Western people with more money, bigger houses and greater opportunities.

"It's hard for us to believe," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, University of California, "but it's not our job, marriage or looks that make us unhappy, it's our behaviour." All agree: it's how we think about, and react to, things that happen to us that determine our happiness. Even better, we get to choose how we think or react. I found this an uplifting concept. "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so", wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. They all quote Shakespeare: he was the original positive psychologist.

One simple way to do this is to find the good in situations, says Barbara Fredrickson, University of North Carolina. "The bus to work, say: you could either count yourself lucky the route is long enough for you to read your book. Or you could worry if the car would have been quicker."

There are a few fundamental things we all need in order to be happy – or, as Lyubomirsky believes, things happy people naturally possess. One of the most important is to surround ourselves with people. "We need others to be happy," says Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. "We were made for love, friendship and family – so reduce your solitary activities." Another is to find a 'calling' – an interest or, ideally, job so absorbing you get lost in the flow of doing it. Importantly, it should be something you're good at.

All agree – and it's well-documented – that money and stuff don't make us happier. They may give us instant pleasure, but we quickly adapt to our new-found wealth/over-priced shampoo and return swiftly to our original level of happiness. Instead, says Haidt, "spend your money on 'experiences – a holiday, a great meal – rather than material objects. Work less, earn less, accumulate less," he says.

We should be braver, says Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University. "Studies show people regret not having done things more than things they did. Why? Because we can tell ourselves we learned something from the experience. Even more interesting, a real blow – a failed relationship, a lost job – trigger our psychological defences more than a small one. So we should "blunder forward", says Gilbert, "and choose action over inaction". As a serial blunderer myself, I love this idea.

Finally, it's the small things that count. "Savour life's joys – linger over a chocolate pastry rather than mindlessly consuming it," says Lyubomirksy. "Don't ruminate," says Fredrickson. "Endless mulling doesn't do any good." Be kind, write down your feelings if you're a bit sad, and be grateful. Do I feel happier after my summer reading list? You bet I do.

Photograph: Christian Schirmer