24 October 2016Last updated

Features | The big story

How to exercise your happiness muscle

Washing hands? Wallowing in grief? Not going to a friend’s birthday party? A new book offers some unusual advice to wash away your blues, says Colin Drury

By Colin Drury
10 Jun 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Shutterstock Image 1 of 2
  • Author Rachel says happiness is a nuanced, individual thing – there’s no one-size-fits-all.

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 2

‘Be happy for this moment,’ the revered philosopher Omar Khayyám famously declared in the 11th century. ‘For this moment is your life.’

It’s, incontestably, good advice. Yet in the 21st century, and especially in big cities like Dubai, it’s not, it seems, always easy to follow.

Busy schedules, myriad commitments and stressful professional and personal lives mean many of us are feeling unhappier and mentally unhealthier than ever before.

Studies continually support this: a 2014 Ipsos Mori survey found a quarter of people in the developed world identified as discontent, while the use of antidepressants has increased hugely during the past decade, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In some countries – including the US, Australia and Iceland – more than 10 per cent of adults now take such medication for depression.

In the UN’s 2016 World Happiness Report, the UAE ranked a very respectable 28 out of 157 countries, a rating driven by the government’s ongoing mission to prioritise the well-being of people here.

Yet, there is no doubt that many of us still succumb to bouts of negativity, despondency, stress and anxiety.

So, here’s some good news: researchers at Kyoto University in Japan have lately discovered a so-called happiness muscle. They say that an area of the brain called the precuneus is larger in people who are predisposed to positivity. And – the really significant bit – like any other muscle, its size, efficiency and power are all boosted if we give it regular workouts.

Now a new book, which complements these findings, suggests a whole range of methods and techniques by which we can give this piece of grey matter a thorough exercise – and, thus, train ourselves to be happy.

Walking On Sunshine by British journalist, mental health campaigner and self-confessed anxiety-sufferer Rachel Kelly offers 52 such routines. But while some are the well-charted territory of almost every other self-help book – positive thought, meditation and a good diet all get plenty of space – there are also a whole bunch of more unusual hints and tips.

‘Happiness is a very nuanced and individual thing,’ says Rachel, a 50-year-old mother of five. ‘Yet people can get very messianic about it – “You must do this if you want to be as happy as me”.

‘I don’t believe that. There’s no one-size-fits-all. I believe everyone is different. This book isn’t about saying all these techniques will work for everyone. Rather, it’s a salad box of ideas for people to pick and choose from.’

Indeed, with that in mind, Rachel explains why eight of her more off-the-radar routines may assist even the most stressed of us to achieve happiness…

1 Wash your hands

Soaping your hands is advice more usually connected to hygiene. But Rachel insists it can genuinely help lift mood.

How so? By giving you a moment away from the hustle and bustle, the questions and conversation, of everyday life – and allowing you to be at one with yourself.

‘People are suspicious of the word mindfulness,’ she says. ‘But that’s what this is. It’s just about choosing an activity you can fit easily into your day – it doesn’t have to be washing your hands; it can be brushing your hair or cleaning your teeth, for instance – and then using that moment to clear your mind and bring yourself to the present and enjoy the physical sensations of that particular activity.’

It is, she says, a small pocket of peace. You leave the bathroom feeling not just cleansed of hand but refreshed of mind too.

2 Take a pet


Animals in the house are expensive, time-demanding, messy, and, when the dog chews up yet another pair of shoes, extraordinarily stressful.

They are also thought to be one of the single biggest boosts to human mental well-being there is. Study after study has found that owning a pet bumps up our serotonin levels, lowers our blood pressure and, by requiring regular exercise, improves our physical fitness.

Their demands for affection, meanwhile, have also been shown to lower the heart rate of the person tasked with administrating stroking duties.

They are, in essence, walking, breathing feel-good providers.

3 Miss your friend’s birthday

Controversial, maybe, but this really could boost our feel-good hormones. The theory runs that, in a city like Dubai where making professional and personal connections is ever important, one of the largest causes of unease is Fomo, Fear Of Missing Out.

As a result, we frazzle ourselves trying to get to every social occasion going.

We don’t need to do this, says Rachel. Instead, we need to grasp Jomo, the Joy Of Missing Out.

‘The secret is this: even if I did manage to accept every invitation and never miss any event I’d still be missing out: on the serenity and freedom of doing nothing,’ she says. ‘It’s known as the opportunity cost.

‘Whatever path you choose, an option has been foregone. So instead of fretting about missing the party, learn to savour lying in bed with a hot-water bottle and a detective novel.’

4 Make mistakes

There is an old English postcard: ‘I’ve made so many mistakes,’ it runs, ‘and I’ve learnt so much, I’m thinking of making some more.’

Herein lies the secret to boosting one’s joy even when faced with a tough decision. Simply remember, whatever you decide, the consequences will be both positive and negative.

Everyone makes choices they end up regretting, but successful – and content – people react to that regret well. They see setbacks as opportunities, and they are happier as a result.

‘The difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how we use them,’ says Rachel. ‘When I learned this, making tough choices suddenly stopped seeming so painful.’

5 Binge on box sets


Received wisdom is that watching too much TV is bad for you – socially, physically, and when you open the curtains and realise it’s the morning and you’ve spent all night in front of The Wire, from a sleep point of view too.

Received wisdom may just be wrong, however.

Science says scary or dramatic stories boost a sense of personal well-being by activating the production of our happy hormones, dopamine and serotonin. 
It’s similar to riding a roller coaster, essentially: exhilarating, thrilling and a little nerve-tingling.

‘These controlled experiences of fear help us feel more empowered by increasing our tolerance for the unknown and unexpected while simultaneously highlighting our relative safety and contentment,’ concludes Rachel.

6 Clean the house

Probably no one in the world ever sought nirvana through dusting the shelves – but they should have.

Physical clutter in the living and work space is a known cause of mental clutter; and mental clutter means stress.

‘By clearing away mess, organising our space into some form of order, and throwing away things we don’t need instead of hoarding, we set ourselves free from the worry and concerns that we associate with this,’ says Rachel.

In short: clear house, clear mind; clear mind, happy mind.

7 Ignore praise


Getting good feedback at work, praise from a friend or a suitable compliment from a stranger?

These are all things to feel good about, right? Wrong.

If we allow ourselves to be too built up by the admiration and flattery of others, the inevitable reverse is that negative comments, indifference and outright insults will leave us feeling entirely empty.

We must be balanced about both, says Rachel. This way we can rely on our own self of worth for our own sense of happiness. ‘I don’t want to be a killjoy,’ she says. ‘But the problem with believing the “I’m so special” phase that follows a success is that, when your luck changes, you are likely to believe just the opposite: “I’m so worthless”. In fact, neither is true. Cherish your midpoint.’

8 Sometimes, wallow



It can feel counter-intuitive to dwell on the cause of our unhappiness. Doing so will surely only make us unhappier.

Not necessarily, it seems.

Sometimes wallowing in our sadness is entirely positive. Not to do so – to try and move on without dealing with the cause of a certain grief – is to bury our head in the sand. It is to not address the emotions we are experiencing at our core.

In fact, we should be embracing these feelings. Break them down. Understand and process them. Reason with them. And then allow them to dissipate without lingering.

This is a technique called constructive wallowing and was devised by the author Tina Gilbertson. ‘And for me,’ says Rachel, ‘it is absolutely cathartic.’

Sometimes, it seems, the best way to boost your happiness muscle is to allow your unhappiness to take hold for a little while.

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury