Experts on happiness and how to find it for the International Day of Happiness

  20 March 2017    Read: 4838
Experts on happiness and how to find it for the International Day of Happiness

The UN’s International Day of Happiness is a coordinated effort in 160 countries to shift attitudes around the world. Creating a happier world is certainly important. In my experience, leaders who are the most effective happiness drivers make every day happiness day.

What is happiness? Is it necessary to feel happiness every day and why do we seek it out?

The International Day of Happiness is on Monday, and with that in mind we spoke to two experts and a Canberra family about the topic.

Firstly, meet Lara Corr and Debra Rickwood.

Dr Corr is an Australian National University research fellow with the National Health and Medical Research Council, Research School of Population Health.

Dr Rickwood is a professor of psychology at the Faculty of Health at University of Canberra. She's also the chief scientific advisor for youth mental health program Headspace.

So what does happiness mean to them?

According to Dr Corr, part of it is about being able to manage your emotions.

"Happiness to me is about being able to experience a full range of emotions in a healthy way."

"We don't want to rule out those so called bad emotions, we don't even want to judge them as bad. Things like anger are really useful at motivating us to make change, and we should grieve when someone we love dies, we should be sad."

Professor Rickwood agreed with the sentiment.

"Happiness is about feeling pleasure, enjoying what you're doing and also the absence of negative emotions, not feeling anxious or sad or agitated or irritable.

"It's sort of a sense of contentment and feeling like you're flourishing."

Should we be happy all the time?

Both experts agreed that this was unrealistic.

"It would be setting yourself up to fail, to expect yourself to always feel happy," Professor Rickwood said.

Dr Corr said it was an "unrealistic and quite unhealthy goal to just want to be happy all the time".

Why do we seek out happiness?

It's fundamental to human nature, Professor Rickwood said.

"It's hardwired into us. A lot of our behaviour is about avoiding pain, physical and emotional and moving towards positive things, things which motivate us, make us productive, make us set goals."

Tips for happiness

Dr Corr said there are "huge amounts individuals can do to be happier".

"Even though change is hard, we can always work to change things in our lives. There's huge potential."

She said the research into meditation and mindfulness was conclusive, and "you'd almost have to be crazy" not to try it. Though she does admit it took her some time to jump on that bandwagon.

Dr Rickwood advised people to live in the moment and be present in your life.

"Often people aren't. They spend their whole time thinking about the past, worrying about the future."

There was a trick to grounding yourself, she said.

"Engage your senses. Think of five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can feel and one thing you can taste. You can do it in any order that you like."

Doing things for others generally made people feel happier and better about life, and connecting with others was also important.

"The most unhappy people are often the people who feel lonely and isolated. We're social animals, it's important to have social connections."

How Canberra compares

Dr Corr said one of the most important things about happiness is it's really influenced by society. The more inclusive, fair and environmentally sustainable the society, the happier people will be.

"Canberra is a pretty special place. There's a lot going for Canberra, it's a matter of not becoming complacent and continually towards a more progressive and inclusive society."

While most countries measure gross domestic product, Professor Rickwood said Bhutan, tucked between China and India, uses a gross national happiness index instead.

"Many people in the positive psychology area argue if you're going to measure the wellbeing of countries it's not their economic success that's important, it's the wellbeing and sense of wellbeing in the country.

"You don't need to be rich to be happy."

A Canberra story

For a young Canberra family, happiness was spending time with each other, boating on the lake, playing music together and taking the time to exercise.

Michelle Fischer, Galen Ashley and their three-year-old daughter Maleah said boating in the special wooden boat handmade by Ms Fischer's father was one of their "happiness activities".

Mr Ashley said as he got older, he was becoming better at making his own happiness with his family.

"I always had something I had to do to in order to get that last bit of happiness," he said.

"Now we concentrate on it more directly, which actually seems to be more effective. We do specific activities, rather than accomplishment activities that we think will make us happy."


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