How to be successful in the lifelong pursuit of happiness

Sarah Rasmi says we need to be careful that the pursuit of happiness doesn't become a burden to our society

Ohood Al Roumi is the UAE's first minister of state for happiness. Kamran Jebreili / AP Photo
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Everybody is talking about happiness – and with good reason. Research shows that happy people have more social support, enjoy greater success at school and work, and have better physical and psychological health. But is this discussion helping or harming the community? It has the potential to enrich people’s lives, but we need to be careful that the pursuit of happiness doesn’t become a burden to our society.

The UAE has prioritised individual and societal happiness at the federal level. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has made it a national priority to improve the country’s happiness ranking. This is a national key performance indicator in the UAE Vision 2021, with the longer-term goal of becoming the “happiest of all nations”. We have already made some progress towards this goal, rising from 28th in the 2016 World Happiness Report to 21st in 2017.

The quest for happiness has also permeated public discourse. There are two things that we need to consider for this discussion to be empowering and not detrimental to our society.

The first caveat is that no one is happy all the time. At least not genuinely. Happiness fluctuates from day to day, and even hour to hour. We tend to be happier at the end of the week than at the beginning. Further, our happiness declines as the weekend progresses.

We also tend to be happier a few hours after we get up than we are when we wake up. Our happiness peaks around the middle of the day and gradually decreases as we get more tired. This is why people who get an adequate amount of sleep tend to be happier than those who do not.

The second caveat is that happiness is not entirely a choice. Psychology research suggests that half of our happiness is determined by our biological set point. This means that it is easier to be happy when you do not have a genetic predisposition towards low mood or depression.

An additional 10 per cent of our happiness is determined by recent life events. This means that people who have just experienced a positive change, such as a promotion at work, are more likely to be happy than people who have gone through a negative change, such as the death of a loved one. Many of these changes are not entirely within our control. As a result, most of our happiness is determined by external factors that we cannot change.

Being aware of these caveats can help us avoid the pressure to “just be happy” or “choose happiness”. These messages – which dominate social media – mean well, but they can be counterproductive.

Buying into these two ideas can make us feel like failures, which can reinforce some of the negative cognitions and behaviour at the root of depression. Simply put, thinking that we are failures at happiness can lead us to feel less happy, which can, in turn, reinforce the thought that we are failures. This is a vicious cognitive-behavioural cycle that needs to be broken.

That being said, we do have some control over our happiness.

Social relationships are the biggest predictor of happiness, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Spending time with loved ones is key to happiness.

Exercise and nutrition are also linked to happiness. As has been well-documented, engaging in aerobic activity releases endorphins, provides a distraction from negative thoughts, and encourages social interaction. People who eat fresh fruit and vegetables also tend to be happier than people with a less healthy diet.

Positive emotions, such as gratitude and optimism, also boost happiness. Research has found that people who are grateful for their blessings are happier than those who are not. We can express our gratitude by counting our blessings in a gratitude journal or writing a thank-you note to someone who has made a positive difference in our lives.

Positive thinking exercises, such as visualising a bright future, have been shown to boost our happiness. We can do this by closing our eyes and envisioning the best possible outcome for our life in five or 10 years. Optimism also means looking for the silver lining in every situation and challenging the negative thoughts that come up along the way.

Caring for others also makes us happy. Research has found that people who give time and money to charity are happier than those who do not. Other correlates of happiness include exposure to sunlight, mindfulness, relaxation, meditation, achievement and engagement.

Pursue the happiness hack that works best for you. Just remember that it’s impossible to “choose happiness” all the time. You might just find that removing this pressure will make it easier for you to achieve your goals.

Dr Sarah Rasmi is a social psychologist and professor at United Arab Emirates University. She specialises in parenting, families and well-being

On Twitter @DrSarahRasmi