I recently read two very interesting books about happiness. Each written by a British journalist, transplanted to another country, both books chronicled the experiences of the author attempting to understand their host nation’s relationship with happiness.
In ‘The Year of Living Danishly’ Helen Russell deep dives into the aspects of culture, personal characteristics and community values that make up the Danish experience of life. An experience that has seen the Danes repeatedly crowned ‘World’s Happiest People’ by the UN.
On the other side of the pond, Ruth Whipman in ‘America the Anxious’ sets off to understand why America, despite all the time, energy and money spent on the pursuit of happiness, ranks consistently low on world happiness rankings and, in the process of pursuit, seems to be turning itself into a nation of nervous wrecks.
I’m not going to recount their findings here but I do recommend both books to anyone looking for deeper insight into the elements – societal, communal and individual – that contribute to material, physical and emotional wellbeing and, how wellbeing then contributes to happiness, and vice versa.
What I am going to focus in on is an aspect of the happiness rhetoric that I think is often overlooked with some fairly significant implications – that happy is actually a feeling and not a state of being.
Free the feelings and the rest will follow
Shifting to thinking about happy as a feeling rather than a state of being can be very liberating because it immediately lifts the burden of pursuit – the pressure that comes from trying to create or achieve a permanently happy life.
For many, it can also free them from the continual sense of personal failure, or belief that they alone are doing something wrong, if they can’t be happy all the time. As Whippman points out, much of the ‘happiness industry’ in the US is promoting the same message – that absolute happiness is both desirable and possible – if you just try hard enough!
Interestingly, those countries that consistently rank highly on happiness rankings don’t shy away from experiencing, or expressing, other emotions. This is because when people don’t fear their feelings or, label some as good and some as bad, they’ll openly tell you when they’re feeling a bit sad, pissed off or generally out of sorts.
And they can do this without worrying that they’ll be judged a ‘debbie downer’ or criticized for focusing too much on negative thoughts. They’re not reporting that they are sad, mad or bad, just that they feel that way at that particular time.
If you want to feel happier, focus on the moments
But, even if you don’t ascribe to the idea that happiness should be a life goal, there may be times where you would just like to feel happier in your life. Approaching happy as a feeling and understanding how you can manipulate your feelings, to some extent, may help.
Feelings are fleeting, contradictory and can co-exist
Most of us will experience a range of emotions over the course of a day or, in relation to a particular situation. When we become aware of just how fleeting each of those feeling is, they all lose much of their ability to overwhelm.
Letting go of the idea that you should feel a particular way all the time is also a way to let yourself feel the full emotional range. Rather than judging yourself for having a ‘wrong feeling’ try simply observing and accepting how you feel on any given day.
For many, this simple acknowledgement that their feelings can and do change a lot throughout the day can be enough to release them from the pressure to try and feel happy all the time. Now waking up in a shitty mood is just that, a case of the grumps that will probably shift by lunchtime and not something to fixate on or, try to fix, in any conscious way.
It’s also common to have mixed feelings about a situation. You may be happy for a friend who has met the love of her life but sad that they are moving abroad to be with them. You might be simultaneously overjoyed and terrified about becoming a parent or being asked to take on more responsibility at work. You may have very mixed feelings about your nearest and dearest – you love them to bits but they frustrate you like no-one else can!
Feelings can be manipulated
If you start to see happy as a feeling you can also begin to employ a number of techniques to increase the percentage of happy moments you experience in a day – if that’s what you want to do.
It is important to note, that applying these techniques won’t make you ‘happy’ in absolute or permanent terms but, they can be very effective in changing your mood for a short space of time. The impermanence of the relief in no way detracts from its value to the individual. Nor should these techniques shouldn’t be dismissed as ineffective simply because the effect doesn’t last.
Of course, there hundreds of techniques and strategies that can give you a temporary lift in an otherwise dismal day but I’m just going to briefly outline a few categories of approaches that may be of use.
- Being in the moment
Although regularly criticised for offering an overly simplistic panacea to cure all of society’s ill, I do believe that there is a place for applying mindfulness as a strategy if you want to experience a greater number of happy moments in the day. In particular the ‘be here now’ element of mindfulness is a good place to start.
A lot of our less pleasant feelings come from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Being in the moment brings us right into the room we are in and the activity we are engaged in at that time. For sure, mindfully savouring your first cup of coffee won’t change the fact you embarrassed yourself horribly in front of your boss yesterday or, that you are struggling to pay next month’s rent.
But, for that 10 minutes or so it takes you to finish your coffee, you can experience the sensation of having a hot drink to warm you and enjoy just how nice that feels. For that 10 minutes you can feel happy and content.
- Connecting with others
Another set of techniques for elevating your mood are to do with social and community connections. Spending time with others and feeling a sense of belonging and connection are reported to be among the most important elements to a ‘happy life’.
But here’s the thing. In order for social connection to work as a happiness technique, you actually have to be ‘in the moment’ when you are with other people. Racing around from one social engagement to another, constantly thinking ahead to the next thing is not going to help. On the contrary, this is the sure fire way to manipulate your mind into feeling stressed, overwhelmed and disconnected from your nearest and dearest.
Spending unhurried time with no specific agenda other than to enjoy each other’s company is key to experiencing social connectedness as a source of happiness, not stress. Catching up for a coffee, hanging out at home or simply stopping to chat to your neighbour can all provide a temporary lift in mood.
But this will only happen provided you’re not undermining your happy moment by taking yourself out of the now – casting furtive glances at your phone, thinking about what happened at work that day or mentally plotting the route to your next destination.
- Remedies, drugs & other interventions
As a natural health practitioner and holistic life coach, I’m never going to be one to promote the use of anti-depressants as a first choice but, there is no denying, that for some people, this is what works.
Interestingly both the Danes and those that live in America’s happiest state, Utah, have higher than average usage of these happy pills which, some argue, is a big part of the reason they report such high levels of happiness when surveyed. For those who don’t want to go down the pharmaceutical route, there are talking and body therapies available, as well as a range of behavioural techniques that can help to temporarily elevate mood and help you feel happier for a time.
The Danes also employ a range of other techniques in response to their greatest threat to happy, the bleak Danish weather that has many of them hibernating over the cold months, having lots of hygge moments, with close family, bathed in candle light. They also spend time basking under SAD therapy lamps to beat the blues with the lucky ones, heading off to sunnier climes in the worst of the winter.
Other techniques that can help include putting on your favourite tune and dancing around the house like a mad thing, spraying an uplifting scent or baking, and then savouring, a particularly moreish batch of brownies. This last one works even better if you invite some friends over to share :-).
All of these actions can, for a short-time, make you feel happier than you did before. Do enough of them in a day and you may find that the percentage of time you report feeling happy rises relative to the rest of your emotional range.
Become a full range feeler
Seeing happiness as an absolute and permanent state of being that can (or should) be achieved is a sure fire way to make yourself miserable. Seeing happy as just one of the many fleeting feelings you will experience over the course of any day is a much better way to both appreciate the full range of emotions you are able to feel and, take steps to actively manipulate your mind to feel more moments of happy, if that’s what you want to do.
But don’t be afraid to become a full-range feeler and embrace the emotions you may have tried to supress. Human beings have an amazing capacity to feel and, to feel in ways that are both, subtly nuanced and, inherently contradictory. And this is in no way an issue unless we make it so. Unless we make achieving an absolute and permanent ‘state of happiness’ a goal and, in so doing, demonise any feeling that isn’t ‘happy’ and, problematize the inherent changeability of how we feel.
So embrace your entire emotional range secure in the knowledge that you can manipulate yourself to feeling happy, if only for a moment, any time you want to.
Tricia Alach is an author, work-life coach and wellbeing professional who specialises in helping busy people create more balance, joy and fulfilment in life! To learn more about what she offers visit www.flowmindandbody.com or connect via facebook or @triciaalach