Well & Good
As International Happiness Day approaches, Shabnam Dastgheib asks how you define the most elusive of human emotions - let alone achieve it.
Happiness has become political, with governments, including New Zealand, signing up to make it a key public policy plank.
All 193 United Nations member states in 2011 adopted a resolution calling for happiness to be given greater priority. The resolution was inspired by Bhutan, which has famously adopted the goal of gross national happiness rather than gross national product.
As a result, the UN created the International Day of Happiness, which will be celebrated for the second time on Thursday.
According to non-profit group Action For Happiness, the day is designed to reclaim happiness after it was "hijacked" by advertisers who link it with beauty, fame and money.
Separating happiness from material possessions is vital for general wellbeing, according to one of New Zealand's most prominent happiness researchers, Victoria University associate professor in psychology Paul Jose.
He says the commercialisation of happiness has run amok in many countries.
"New Zealand has a very striking commitment to the capitalist system. A lot of advertisements promise you are going to be happy if you buy their product and you use it."
Jose believed the New Zealand Government was already skilled in categorising happiness and wellbeing as important societal indicators.
Through his research he has found most people were mostly happy about most things most of the time but said the pursuit of ultimate happiness all the time was counter-productive.
He said one secret to his own happiness was counting three things every night for which he was grateful. Often these were small and mundane like eating a good meal, or taking a nice walk. "If you can feel grateful for those things you will have a happier outlook on life in general."
One aspect which New Zealand needed to work on was taking the time to enjoy happiness and expressing that feeling to those around them without feeling guilty.
Victoria University post-doctoral fellow in philosophy Dan Weijers agreed he had found New Zealanders could be very stoic. "It's a bit of a shame. It may be New Zealanders are to the extreme in not expressing our emotions. It doesn't allow us to savour our emotions. People who savour the good things can be happier."
Even happiness has its sceptics however, with Massey University associate professor Grant Duncan saying much of the research was based on a flawed model. The notion of government policy on happiness maximisation was pointless as it was so difficult to measure. "How can you not agree with happiness? But I don't think it's wise to be setting up happiness as a social or political goal."
Duncan said many of the greatest human achievements had come out of times of sacrifice and suffering. He pointed to high achieving athletes as an example.
But Duncan did have a few tips for achieving general wellbeing. "I do believe in good diet and exercise for reasons we all understand. I don't think that happiness needs to be a justification for that. Happiness needn't be the ultimate justification for everything that we do."
SIX WAYS TO BE HAPPIER
1. Be healthy. All the common sense stuff that keeps the body healthy is also vital for a happy mind. Get enough sleep, eat well and exercise often.
2. Experience life, don't buy it. Taking part in activities like trips away or simple walks can help boost a more authentic rush of happiness than the quick thrill of a purchase at the mall.
3. Maintain strong social relationships. Those with strong social relationships in many different parts of their lives report themselves as happier. Researchers say take time out from the internet and the screens in your life and interact on a human level.
4. Be financially independent. Though money can't buy happiness, having enough to minimise stress and meet basic essential needs is vital in being happy. New Zealand researchers found the more equality in society, the more chance everyone had of happiness. Another study found happiness came from freedom but money was a useful tool in securing that freedom.
5. Be grateful for the little things and live in the moment. Researchers say it is important to focus on what is happening in the moment, rather than always looking to the future.
6. Have good genes. When American-based researchers tracked identical twins separated as infants and raised by separate families, they found about half of our happiness to be hard-wired in our genes.
- Sunday Star Times
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