Trying to find happiness, an age-old adage runs, is enough to make a man miserable.
How many of us sometimes feel this way? We all want a life filled always with contentment and often with joy, with constant fulfilment and regular delight.
Yet, so often, this most existential of emotions can seem elusive. Happiness is almost impossible to define and can feel as difficult to achieve. It is – like love, the universe and the enduring appeal of the Fast and Furious franchise – one of life’s great mysteries. It raises, surely, more questions than answers.
Do we find it in health or in wealth? Is it dependent on success and security, family and friends? Are moments of pleasure more important than years of satisfaction? And what on earth was The Count of Monte Cristo author Alexandre Dumas talking about when he declared happiness is ‘a palace guarded by dragons’? Eh? Come again, old boy? And yet... the UAE is, according to the World Happiness Report, one of the happiest places on earth. Positivity positively thrives here. And so, taking that as our inspiration, Friday has attempted to have a crack at the complexities of contentment.
Hundreds of proverbs – oft-repeated by thousands of modern gurus – claim to give us a quick, easy insight into what leads to life satisfaction. But, we wondered, which ones can help us find happiness in the 21st century?
Happiness depends upon ourselves
In plain English: You can’t control the natural ups and downs of life but you can control how you react to them. Focusing on the good is key. In short, be positive.
Origins: Aristotle. Not happy with producing a vast body of work on physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, linguistics, and politics, this was the Greek genius’s bash at summing up the key to contentment. In four words.
It may be true: Studies have repeatedly found that happiness is a state of mind. Ingrida Geciene of Vilnius University in Lithuania questioned people in 31 European countries and found those who felt they could positively shape events around them were happier than those who believed themselves incapable of doing so.
‘Anecdotally,’ says José De Heer, life coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Dubai, ‘we find that people who look for the good in situations are more fulfilled.’
Perhaps the American essayist Agnes Repplier put it best: ‘It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves and it is not possible to find it elsewhere.’
It may not be: Sometimes remaining upbeat in the face of problems is to not acknowledge the reality of a situation, which can make you less capable of dealing with it. ‘You have to view things in proportion,’ says José. ‘Yes, that means having a positive attitude. But by the same token, you must not bury your head in the sand about problems.’
Verdict: While ‘look on the bright side, old chap’ might not be the best immediate advice to offer someone who, for example, has just lost his job and had his wife walk out on him, it does seem that having a glass-half-full attitude generally results in greater life satisfaction. As Abraham Lincoln noted: ‘Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.’
The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer somebody else up
In plain English: Helping others will help to make you happy.
Origins: One of the many musings of author Mark Twain.
It may be true: Studies have drawn a link between well-being and kindness. Donating, volunteering, charity work and philanthropy are all thought to create a ‘helper’s high’. Most famously, a 2005 study in the Review of General Psychology found performing five random acts of kindness one day a week for six weeks actually increased volunteers’ serotonin levels.
It may not be: It is possible to focus so much on others that we forget to focus on ourselves, says José. ‘Helping someone – even with something as little as asking if they’re OK – is a sure-fire way to get a small buzz,’ she says. ‘But we must remember a balance needs to be struck. You can’t concentrate so much on others that you’re drained and have no time for yourself.’
Verdict: Probably true. Being selfless, it seems, is good for the self.
Money can’t buy happiness
In plain English: You might be reading this article as you relax on your yacht in the Mediterranean while your model spouse sunbathes besides you and your personal chef prepares the finest caviar but, admit it, you’re not really happy. Er, are you?
Origins: A more poetic version of this was first said by the Greek philosopher Democritus: ‘Happiness resides not in possessions and not in gold, the feeling of happiness dwells in the soul.’
It may be true: Certainly Democritus is not a man most would argue with. His capacity for reason was so vast even Aristotle is said to have called him The Brain. He walked it like he talked it, too. When he was left a vast fortune, he spent every penny travelling the world to satisfy his passion for learning – and came back almost broke. Modern studies also appear to support him. Research by San Francisco State University in 2014 found that those who gave a greater proportion of their money to charity and good causes were almost always happier than those who spent it on themselves.
It may not be: Even if wealth doesn’t buy satisfaction per se, it undoubtedly prevents the miseries of poverty. That’s Daniel Gilbert’s view. In his book, Stumbling On Happiness, the Harvard University psychology professor hypothesises that travel, new experiences and time with friends are all vital to leading a fulfilling life. And all those are reliant on having disposable income. ‘The key,’ he says, ‘is to spend money on moments and memories rather than material things.’
Verdict: Money may not buy happiness but being able to afford a family holiday in the Seychelles certainly doesn’t hurt.
Healthy body, happy mind
In plain English: It may not feel like it when your muscles are screaming as you hit the gym but being active boosts happiness.
Origins: A very 21st-century take on the more common ‘healthy body, healthy mind’. It may be true: ‘What man is healthy?’ asked the (you guessed it) Greek philosopher Thales. ‘He who has a healthy body.’
It may be true: Science seems to support the contention. The body’s serotonin levels – a chemical that produces feelings of positivity – is naturally boosted by exercise. That means physical activity tends to result in a more positive mindset. ‘Being active makes us happier as well as healthier,’ says Dr Mark Williamson, director of Action For Happiness, a UK-based movement that aims to encourage well-being. ‘It instantly improves our mood and can even lift us out of depression. We don’t all have to run marathons – there are simple things we can do like spending time outdoors, eating healthily, and getting enough sleep.’
It may not be: Feeling forced to do exercise that you’d rather not has a limited effect on those serotonin levels. In essence, the positives are less pronounced than in those who genuinely enjoy being active.
The Verdict: Being healthy may be scientifically proven to boost happiness but doing something you dislike will negate the positive impact. Choose an exercise you enjoy and build it into your schedule.
Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know
In plain English: Existence is futile, life is pointless, and those with the capacity to understand this are doomed to discontent.
Origins: Perhaps Ernest Hemingway’s most famous quote. Not least because he later shot himself dead.
It may be true: A seemingly disproportionate number of the world’s finest minds – scientists, artists, writers and politicians – have suffered depression.
It may not be: Most theoreticians believe this is a myth. Seng is a US-based organisation dedicated to Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted. It stresses: ‘There is no empirical support for higher levels of depression among the gifted’.
Verdict: The science suggests that we all posses the ability to be happy no matter what our intellectual capacity.
Be happy in your work, and never work again
In plain English: Nothing is more joyful than waking up and not hating the place you’ll be spending the next nine hours.
Origins: A reworking of the famous Confucius proverb: ‘choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’
It may be true: ‘Absolutely correct,’ says Carmen Benton, managing director of Lifeworks in Dubai. ‘Apart from anything else, the sheer amount of time you spend at work means that if you’re not happy and fulfilled there then that will spill over into other areas of your life.’
The key, she says, is a career that offers a purpose you believe in. ‘Doing something you’re passionate about is far more important than doing something to get rich.’
It may not be: Remember you need to – key word – balance. ‘If you love your job so much that you allow it to take over your whole life, that’s not good,’ says Carmen. ‘Remember, family, hobbies, connections – you must make time for all these.’
Verdict: Being happy in your job is half the battle won. But other areas need focus too.