The secret to happiness is that there is no secret: as elusive as the ideal may seem, now more than ever we actually know what makes us happy. Through centuries of wisdom we have known the principles and habits of happiness - now neuroscience backs up and advances many of them. There are various schools of thoughts but by and large they are contained within the practices in these 1000 words.
The good news is that many of them are in our control and if you can master them you will transform your life. The bad news is that such a transformation is an illusion. The author Annie Dillard wrote that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives and much like the goals and resolutions we covered last week, the key to happiness also lies in the sustained act of day to day of living. But how?
There is no magic bullet.
Happiness comes not from chasing it but from an essential mix of ways of being and living in the world. It flows strongly when we pursue what we love and live with passion while at the same time being able to calmly detach ourselves from expectations and materialism.
When we make plans for the future it gives our lives a sense of direction and meaning. Turning those plans into reality brings satisfaction so we feel happy - as does bouncing back from failing to achieve them. Being healthy and physically active has proven to meaningfully increase happiness everywhere from Norway to Korea.
When we learn new things and feel like we are growing, we feel happy. When we feel we are part of a shared purpose bigger than ourselves and are contributing to a cause, we feel happy. When we are using what we are good at or something we have in the service of others, we feel deeply happy.
Is any of this a surprise? Maybe not, but combined those are some of the behaviours that are most widely acknowledged as leading to sustained and authentic happiness. So tear this article out and hang it on your wall because being aware of them is half the battle. Three more below are ones that you might find most useful to reflect on as you head into a new year.
We can't choose a lot of what happens around us, but we can choose how we respond to it. The Roman philosopher Seneca observed that "we are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens". We should avoid sugarcoating realities and must learn from when things go wrong, but we tend to think too much about what's not going right in our lives which increases anxiety and depression.
Instead, reflect on what went well throughout the day and try a practice of daily gratitude. In my family, we do this before dinner every night and it gives us a moment to think back on the day, and relive something we are appreciative of.
Nurture deep bonds and loose ties.
Happiness psychologist Martin Seligman has learned from studying exceptionally happy people that deep relationships with just a small number of close bonds are critical to happiness. They provide love, support, honesty and meaning. They can motivate and inspire us to be better and help us get through life's inevitable setbacks. Time and space to nurture these relationships is vital but alone, deep bonds won't cut it.
We also need looser ties to the people who fill the small interactions of our days. Sideline chat at the soccer field and talking with your local barista all count for more than just being friendly because they give us a greater sense of familiarity, place and belonging. They make us feel less alone and lift our spirits throughout the day.
There has never been a time in history where we have been more distracted and less present in our surroundings. There's a lot of talk of mindfulness and meditation, but I prefer to simply think of it as just noticing more. Notice what is going on, where I am, who I am with, what it smells like, sounds like, feels like. Stopping to take notice recognises that whatever our post mortems of the past and our dreams for the future, all that each of us really has is the moment we are in and we should savour it.
Kiwi summer breaks are perfect for noticing and reflecting on the things that make us happy, but why does a few weeks in the sun mean so much to us? Perhaps it's because unwittingly, they are almost the perfect embodiment of the myriad of behaviours and habits required for happiness.
They give us unhurried room to connect and spend deep time with the people we love and care about while seeing old familiar faces. We think about others in the spirit of giving and gratitude. We feel a bit fitter getting into the sea, walking on the beach using our bodies in ways we don't when we're in the city or at the desk. We notice and stand in awe of nature often.
The season gives us all permission to be more open and friendly with people we barely know. We read new books and take the time to learn new things. There is a sense of shared experience and purpose in bringing on a new year.
With that comes a chance to have a positive, fresh set of plans and goals and a sense that we can choose anything. So go out into 2018 and choose to be happy.
Top tips for a happy new year
• Strengthen your close bonds by making more time for the people that matter - create recurring catch up times or calls in your calendar.
• Broaden your loose ties by making the effort to create new connections - with strangers, your neighbours, unfamiliar colleagues at work or people in your community.
• Write down three things (big or small) each night of what went well that day.
• Share what you are grateful for around the family dinner table each evening before dinner or on an email chain if you are apart.
• Write a letter of gratitude to somebody who did something that changed your life for the better who you have never really properly thanked - and post it.
• Stop to notice and appreciate the moment, whenever you get to a new surrounding or meet with a new person during the day.