From exercising more to commuting less, from meditation to mindfulness, there’s no shortage of guidance available aimed at helping us be happier. Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the secret to being happy was as simple as choosing to be so.
But despite the wealth of advice and admonitions out there, more and more of us, it seems, are feeling gloomier than ever. The World Health Organization (WHO) cites depression as afflicting more than 350 million people of all ages across the globe.
One area that is rarely addressed is the happiness gender gap. In short, men are said to be less happy than women and, recent statistics from WHO show, around three times more likely to take their own life.
The World Happiness Report 2015 reveals males from their late teens to late 60s are, on average, marginally more disgruntled than females. But why? And could it be that men are simply wired that way?
Some experts certainly think so. Small biological differences in male and female brains may explain significant disparities in our capacity to feel happy, says consultant psychiatrist Dr Alberto Pertusa.
He told the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper that while both sexes may have the same ability to show empathy and experience emotion, it appears easier for men to ‘suppress’ an emotional response.
He described it as an evolutionary advantage ‘that stems from our Palaeolithic ancestors having to overcome their emotional or fearful response when hunting or fighting’.
Dr Pertusa, of British specialist mental health services provider Cambian Group, added: ‘There are also functional differences between sexes in response to emotional stimuli. The amygdala – a brain structure involved in emotional processing, particularly in fear – appears to be differentially engaged in men and women depending on situation or context.’
Neuroendocrinologist Dr Bruce McEwan, of New York City’s Rockefeller University, had previously suggested that sex hormones play a part in how each gender copes with emotion.
For women, their primary sex hormone, estradiol, comes into play when responding to stress. They tend to react with overthinking and depression. But men find it harder to process emotional pain and are more prone to resort to substance abuse, violence or antisocial behaviour. It is worth pointing out that while sadness in men may manifest itself more noticeably, Dr Pertusa believes this doesn’t necessarily mean men are less happy than women below the surface.
‘There is a plethora of reasons why men might be more likely to commit suicide than women while not, on the whole, sadder. And despite the differences in brain biology we are aware of, there may be other factors of which we are not,’ he says.
Dr Michael Craig, a psychology lecturer at King’s College, London, had a slightly different take: ‘From my research, I have found that men are predisposed to neurodevelopmental problems, such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and addiction, and women tend to be more susceptible to affective disorders, such as Alzheimer’s or depression.
‘But socially it would seem that women are more likely to present these symptoms to their doctors. Rather than seeking help, men deal with their emotional pain through drug use and addiction – which can then exacerbate the issue further.’ In the UAE, the easy availability of mental health services to address treatment for psychological disorders like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have helped the nation stay high on the global happiness index.
And in February, the appointment of a Minister dedicated to putting a smile on our faces was welcomed by all.
The UAE’s first-ever Minister of State for Happiness Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi said her role involved coming up with ‘new ideas and policies to help the government improve people’s well-being so they can have happy lives’.
An accompanying national plan includes initiatives for publishing scientific and cultural content on happiness and for encouraging reading of material dealing with the importance of positivity.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said: ‘Our aim is to make happiness a lifestyle in the UAE community as well as the noble goal and supreme objective of the government.’
The UAE ranked 28 in a recent World Happiness Report, in keeping with the aim to ‘make happiness a lifestyle’ here.
In fact, the country gets a special mention in the World Happiness Report 2016 where it was ranked 28th happiest place out of 156 countries (Switzerland topped the list). Last year, the UAE scored seven out of 10 on things like real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity, among others. The report praised the commitment to making happiness and well-being central tenets of the design and delivery of the UAE national agenda.
The Vice-President’s open letter to all Federal government employees reminding them of their core mission – providing world-class services to the people of the UAE with the goal of contributing to their happiness – was ‘testament to the strong commitment… towards making happiness a national policy goal’, the report stated.
So is it possible to measure happiness? Happily, recent studies have suggested that it can actually be measured in terms of its constituent components. Scientists have concluded that happiness is 50 per cent governed by genes, 40 per cent influenced by our daily activities and 10 per cent down to circumstance.
‘Although pessimists might read this as being rather weighted against the possibility of living a happy life if our genes dictate otherwise, one needs to be an optimist, and see the 40 that is in your control,’ he says. ‘It suggests that we all have a choice in the matter. We can choose to be happier, because we can choose to change the way we behave, the way we react and the way we think.’
Russell believes that one of the best ways to quantify happiness ‘is to judge how you feel against these two major influencers; how satisfied you are with your life in general and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis. That’s because happiness is about something more solid and stable. It’s not just a passing emotion or a fleeting pleasure, but rather a state of being that helps us make the most of the good times in life and allows us to cope with and bounce back from the inevitable bad ones.’ Lasting happiness, something we all search for, might actually be quite simple to find, say experts. The thing is, it’s all about looking in the right places.
For men who may be struggling to find happiness – and for women – a number of areas have been identified as forming the basis for achieving true personal happiness, and high on the list is having meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others.
‘Although it may sound obvious, this one may be more difficult to achieve,’ says Russell. ‘Busy lives, long hours at work and increasing amounts of time spent isolated on technology are all conspiring to eat away at the amount of time we actually spend enjoying human-to-human contact.’ Loneliness, says the relationship expert, has been identified as one of the major issues facing our society today, giving rise to feelings of anxiety, fear and having dramatic consequences on our health and mental well-being. ‘Good relationships are at the centre of everything that makes us happy and so it goes without saying that developing them and cherishing them should be our priority,’ says Russell.
This goes hand in glove with the second point on the happiness list: doing things for others.
Apparently, doing something to make someone else happy has a very beneficial personal pay-off – it spreads joy. ‘It doesn’t necessarily have to be related to money. Time is probably the most precious resource when it comes to this one – and it has the added bonus of getting us involved and giving us purpose too,’ he says.
All experts also agree that while happiness may be a state of mind, the receptacle of that mind is important. Clearly, for men and women, maintaining good health has enormous benefits when it comes to staying positive.
Exercise is a true mood-booster – men who indulge in some kind of sport have been found to be happier than those who don’t.
‘On average healthy people are 20 per cent happier and this may be down to the fact that exercise releases proteins and endorphins in the brain that make us feel good. It drives down our stress levels, eases anxiety by allowing you to shift your focus and boosts confidence levels. Taking care of your health by eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising also helps to keep us healthier longer and this also contributes to long-term happiness,’ says Russell. On average, men who indulge in some kind of sport or physical activity have been found to be happier than those who do not. Next on the Dubai-based hypnotherapist’s list: Having something to work towards. No matter how small it is, it gives us a sense of purpose and motivates us to make progress. That feeling of hope and expectation for the future is definitely part of that general feeling of happiness. ‘We all – men and women – need to feel challenged, but it’s important that your goals are also attainable.’
He says that for all, but particularly men, the more you strive for the impossible, the more unfulfilled you feel, and the unhappier you become. ‘But planning ahead and identifying those steps that can take you forward will help you to feel good about yourself when you actually achieve them,’ he says.
To be happy you always need to be involved in a process of learning. Whether that’s academic, or acquiring a new skill or simply just reading for pleasure, keeping your mind active and experiencing new things is vital when it comes to boosting our self-confidence and our mental agility.
And it’s that ‘newness’ that’s the important bit. Every time we divert from the path of what we already know and our curiosity drives us to discover something new, our brain forges new neural pathways as we repeat that new skill. Combine an active mind with an active body and the possibilities for feeling good about yourself are exponential. Maybe men who are unhappy can take a few notes on this.
Being confident and comfortable with who you are also sends a message to the world that your happiness quotient is high. We all probably know one or two people, perhaps at work or socially, who give off a sense of pessimism. It might be that they continuously see the negatives in things and like to overshare this with everyone else, or it might be that they don’t value themselves and this leads them into negative self-talk, finding it hard to accept compliments or encouragement from others, because they feel they don’t deserve it. This develops a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity that seriously undermines their ability to be happy.
True happiness is about being able to celebrate your strengths, accept the things you can’t change about yourself and have the strength to take the risk to change the things you can. It’s about strengthening your resilience quota to be able to roll with life’s punches, say experts.
‘Research shows that the more resilient you are the happier you are, because you’re able to see life with a degree of perspective, he says.
In a nutshell, prioritising relationships with others, enjoying the small good things that are part of our everyday lives like a good meal shared with friends, taking care of ourselves and trying to see the positives in ourselves and others are all things that we can work on to increase those good feelings.