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One of London’s top doctors on the science of happiness – and how to achieve it

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Luc Braquet

How would you define happiness? Is it being content with your lot, having a loving family, or being immensely wealthy and successful in your career? Ironically, it is usually the pursuit of happiness that can hold us back. Also known as ‘destination addiction’; ‘if only I was in the right relationship, or had this amount of money, or owned that house’. It is often relative, and some of the happiest people have incredibly simple lives. That is not to say that certain trappings will not make your life more comfortable. Our levels of happiness are largely determined by the interplay between our internal operating systems and our environment, but the question we should be asking ourselves is: do I want a more sustainable sense of positivity or transient and fleeting moments of heightened joy? (Perhaps all of the above). What is certain is that you need a healthy contrast of experience, not just the highs but sometimes the lows, in order to bring perspective.

The science is now catching up with our age-long fascination in the search for happiness, from the ancient Stoics and hedonists (Plato, Marcus Aurelius and Epicurius) to the present day psychologists. As is often the case, elements of the earlier philosophies and Buddhist practices have converged with modern science to provide some fundamental principles in rewiring our brains from ‘glass half empty, to glass half full’.

Happiness has shown to be 50 per cent genetic, 10-20 per cent life circumstances and 30-40 per cent related to our thoughts and actions. It will be the many small changes of positively reinforced habits that add up over time. Below, I have listed the current science-backed hacks in achieving sustainable happiness:

1. Simple maintenance via the four main pillars of wellbeing, which I have unpacked in my previous articles: Quality sleep, diet, exercise (aim for 10,000 steps daily, ideally in nature) and stress management. Building successful daily habits to achieve these is an art form in itself. The very essence of structure and small achievements through the day can improve your level of happiness.

2. Managing negativity: Learning to respond rather than react. Pause and take time to notice your emotions before acting on them; this is a form of ‘mindfulness’ (there are many apps out there to help with this). Techniques can be used to ‘rewrite the story’, by reframing negative experiences in to positive ones. For example, the pandemic can be seen by most as a disaster, but it may have offered quality family time, self-reflection, appreciation for what we take for granted and a chance to reset our values. The psychological method to manage negative situations is called ‘Learned optimism‘. It helps to depersonalise the situation, recognise its impermanence and relative insignificance.

3. Positive reinforcement: ‘Smile and the world smiles with you…’ positivity is infectious, the more you smile and show enthusiasm, the more this will be reflected by those around you.

4. Play to your strengths (personality attributes): Knowing and building on your own character strengths has shown to boost happiness. There are 24 character strengths based on values, culture and upbringing. You can identify yours here, if you use your highest ranked traits and match them to your career/hobbies, you will find more satisfaction in life.

5. Finding your ‘flow’: As described by Dr Seligman, this is a concept used in performance and sports psychology, which is a state of ‘being in the zone’, totally immersed and energised, where challenge and focus are in perfect balance. This can be related to any creative process, cooking, art, sports, or indeed focus at work. The more you infuse your life with periods of ‘flow’, the happier you will be.

6. Journaling: Either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, for 10-15 minutes. Writing down your thoughts, concerns, ideas or quotes. Self-reflection in this way has shown to improve mood, performance and sleep.

7. Gratitude: Every morning and/or evening, think of three things you are grateful for (simple moments, kind gestures, family etc). You could combine this with your journaling. Studies have shown this to have a large impact on overall happiness, in as little as two weeks of practice. We are hardwired to think negatively, this technique pushes positive thoughts to the forefront and can rewire our neural pathways.

8. Experience: Studies have shown longer lasting satisfaction from spending your money on experiences rather than material goods (once the desire has been quenched for that item, the joy is fleeting). Be present in the moment, rather than videoing or trying to capture it. Experiences, particularly outdoors in nature, has shown to have a positive influence on wellbeing.

9. Generosity and random acts of kindness: Giving your time or money to a cause that is important to you (for a sense of meaning and purpose). It could be giving three compliments per day or a charitable donation to a valued cause. Directing your own kindness to others increases your own happiness, despite feeling counter-intuitive. This has been well-documented in several studies.

10. Audit your possessions: Find objects in your house that no longer give you joy and give it to a friend or a charity shop (social compliance can help, so find a friend to collaborate with). Decluttering your environment along with the act of giving will multiply the effect.

11. Socialising: Gathering in groups is not the easiest with the restrictions, but this sense of connection is incredibly valuable. Loneliness and isolation has been associated with poor physical health. The intimacy of touch, hugging and general human contact releases the feel-good hormone ‘oxytocin’. Unfortunately, having lots of ‘friends’ on social media cannot replace real connection.

12. Strike up a conversation: Even with random people, you will be surprised how friendly they will be. It is known as ‘the liking gap’, we often presume they are unlikely to reciprocate and that it is embarrassing, but trust the process. You can also reach out to an old friend you have not seen in a while or tell somebody close to you how important they are in your life. These small but simple forms of dialogue can activate the empathic centres in the brain, increasing happiness.

13. There’s a limit to how much happiness money buys: Studies have shown that money can buy happiness, but the ceiling is usually reached at an annual salary of around £50,000. Surprisingly, happiness starts to plateau at this level.

14. Reduce your exposure to daily news: Too much can instil fear and negativity. It is important to know what is going on in the world around us, but constantly checking may cause more harm than good.

15. Reduce your social media engagement: We are naturally competitive beings and streaming people’s edited lives can create a false impression of reality. There will always be someone better than us at something, but frequent reminders can lead to a negative mind set. Sadly, our digitally ‘connected’ world can lead to increasing loneliness and depression.

In summary, happiness can be formed through simple daily gestures of kindness, connection and positive thinking. It does require a little effort, but if you implement just a few of these points, life may begin to feel a little lighter and more enjoyable.

Dr Tim Lebens is a private GP in Central London, with a subspecialty in health optimisation and latest advances in medicine. You can follow him on Instagram @_modernmedicine

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