Over the past two decades more and more people have become interested in positive psychology – the little things people say, do and think that can have a favourable impact on their own lives and also that of others.
Research in this field has spawned the term ‘the science of happiness’ and there are now specialist institutes, online education courses, TED talks, countless books and more which look at ways in which happiness can be embraced to make life more fulfilling.
Andy Cope, the UK’s first ‘Doctor of Happiness’, has spent 10 years researching positive psychology, which culminated in a PhD in Happiness; he has studied people who experience happiness on a more regular basis than the average Joe to try and find out what makes them different. Those who have mastered it, he says, have usually worked out that happiness is right there in front of them.
‘I think happiness is mis-sold to you from a very early age,’ says Andy, ‘like a pot of emotional gold at the end of a rainbow. From childhood we’re taught that happiness is lovely and you want more of it, but it’s over there somewhere. So you’ll be happy when you move to another place, or you’ll be happy when you retire. All the time you’re putting it off to some time in the future, and therefore you’re missing the point because you never really get there.’
The answer is to learn to feel happy now, right here. As Andy says: ‘Most people miss it because they’re looking in the wrong place.’
Making an effort to be happier is certainly worth the effort. Studies have shown that happiness is good for you. It helps you to be more creative, it’s good for your well-being and energy levels, and it’s good for your longevity.
‘Also,’ says Andy, ‘your happiness is much bigger than you are, because it’s contagious, which is great for the people around you.’ It reaches three degrees of people removed from you, he says, meaning that people who are upbeat can pass on their good vibes to their friends’ friends’ friends. That’s potentially thousands of people who could be positively impacted by one smiling face.
All of which makes it sound like happiness is something we’d all like a bit more of, please. But how? Read on for Andy’s top tips.
1 Choose your mood
The modern world is pretty demanding, often seeming to race past at breakneck speed. Andy says that most people are infected with a kind of ‘busyness’ which causes them to rush headlong through each day, surviving to the weekend before there’s a brief pause and then they throw themselves back into another frantic week. ‘It’s likely that you have a very long list of things you need to achieve by the end of today,’ he says, ‘and this ‘to do’ list will shape your day. I’m more interested in what I call your ‘to be’ list. This is much more important because it shapes who you are being while you go about your activities.’ So, ask yourself what version of ‘you’ will you be today? Is it bland, slightly negative and low on energy? Or is it full-colour, positive and bursting with life? You can choose.
2 Invest in people
Andy says this is almost too obvious to mention but argues that it still deserves a place in the list: it’s a reminder that happiness is more closely related to relationships than money. ‘So a cool long-term strategy is to create strong relationships,’ says Andy. ‘Spend time with people rather than in the shops. Oh, and spend less time on electronic friends and more time with real flesh-and-blood ones.’
3 Be grateful
Write a list of 10 things you’re lucky to have but often take for granted. Chances are that your health and your friends/relatives will feature very heavily on it. ‘For example, I get out of bed every morning being grateful that I don’t have toothache and that my kidneys are working,’ says Andy. ‘Being able to get out of bed is the best thing ever. Keep your list by your bed and look at it every morning.’ He says that this ‘gratitude list’ can help you to switch your thinking, and that rather than grumbling about what you haven’t got, it helps you to feel grateful for what you already have.
4 Enjoy experiences
Continuing the list-making theme, our happiness expert suggests that you write another top 10, but this time jot down the happiest moments of your life. You’ll almost certainly find that there are no products on there – just experiences, with people you love. And none will involve wi-fi! ‘This backs up the research that suggests you’re better off investing in experiences rather than ‘stuff’,’ says Andy. A technical but important point: if you really get a kick out of buying things, then buy treats that will help you have experiences like climbing gear, a tent and so on.
5 Perform random acts of kindness
When was the last time you did a random act of kindness for someone? Andy says it’s something you should strive to do more regularly, because it will make you feel good. ‘The act can be as simple as letting someone out in the traffic or buying flowers for the taxi driver,’ says Andy. Studies have shown, he says, that one of the quickest ways to raise your happiness is to do a good deed for someone else. ‘I’ve been experimenting with acts of kindness and there are two rules that work for me,’ says Andy. ‘First, the more random the better. And bizarrely, I find that the anonymous ones give me a bigger hit of happiness. My favourite was on the M4 England-Wales toll bridge when I decided to pay for the car behind me. I’m hoping they felt good to be on the receiving end; all I know is that I grinned all the way to Cardiff.’
6 Notice the good
Your brain is configured to notice problems and danger: it’s why we’re drawn to bad news. It also explains why one awkward customer or bad driver can dampen your day. ‘What happens is that this makes you delete all the lovely customers and courteous drivers that you’ve encountered so far,’ explains Andy. Instead, he says, you should focus on the good stuff and learn to reframe situations. ‘For example, ridiculous temperatures mean you’re fortunate to live somewhere hot; bad traffic means the economy is booming, your teenage son spending hours on his Xbox means he’s not wandering the streets and so on.’ Andy does caution that it’s best not to overdo it, though. ‘If you do that, you become Pollyanna,’ he says: ‘Whoopee, grandma died, what a fabulous opportunity for a funeral and some lovely sandwiches.’
But don’t kill yourself – Andy reckons that 20 minutes a day is fine. ‘It might feel like a chore at the time but it releases all sorts of lovely chemicals which will infuse you with energy,’ he says. ‘And, guess what, as you start to look good, you’ll feel even better.’
8 Be positive in relationships
‘There’s a basic rule that says relationships need at least three positives to every negative,’ says Andy, ‘so if your ratio falls below 3:1, it will struggle.’ With children, he says, it’s better to be ultra-positive, so a positive-to-negative ratio of 8:1 is better. ‘That doesn’t mean you have to be ridiculously smiley and upbeat, but asking your children, ‘What’s been the highlight of your day at school?’ is better than, ‘How was school?’’ You’ll know you’ve taken your positivity too far, he says, when your grin starts frightening people.
9 Just be
Your mind is expert at pulling your thoughts into the past or future – in fact it’s really adept at taking you anywhere but now. ‘Try tackling this with mindfulness, which is the oldest happiness trick in the book,’ says Andy. ‘Keep it simple. I describe mindfulness as the awareness of being aware. Learn to notice the ‘beautiful ordinary’ – the small things that other people rush past.’ Remember that happiness can come from whatever little joys are in your world right now, so try and notice the sunrises, the raindrops, the smiles and so on.
10 Hug people
‘This hugging tip is extra special because it comes from a non-hugger,’ admits Andy. ‘I love my family and I hope they love me, but I’ve never been particularly huggy. That is, until I learned this: the average hug lasts 2.1 seconds. However, for the love to transfer, a hug has to last seven seconds or longer.’ He agrees that this is a very long time to embrace someone and suggests that your happiness homework for the weekend should be to experiment with your hugging. ‘Use your common sense,’ he says, pointing out that you probably don’t want to be hugging strangers in the park. ‘Reserve your seven-second hugs for people you love,’ he says. ‘If you treat them to the full seven seconds, you’ll be rewarded with a special feeling of being enveloped in pure affection.’ Just don’t count out loud or it will spoil the effect.
Andy’s company The Art Of Brilliance (artofbrilliance.co.uk) delivers workshops all over the world. His book, Happiness, is out soon.