What Makes Us Happy?


Firstly, apologies for the long overdue blog, I spent late April until coming away in July writing a book. Until now I had no words left for blogging (or speaking – I stopped making any sense by June).

We’re in California, and last night had dinner in downtown Santa Monica where we were served by the loveliest guy. He’d grown up in Florida and I asked him what brought him to L.A. Perhaps unsurprisingly he said, ‘fame and fortune originally’ but added ‘now it’s just to grow as a person’.

Ultimately growing as a person is a fundamental part of what makes us happy. When I say happy I don’t mean walking around with an inane grin, but feeling fulfilled and able to manage the highs and lows of life. But it often takes a huge knock in our expectations to get us to point where we truly realise that’s what life’s about. Most of the time, we trundle along in a world where being happier feels inextricably linked to ‘more’:

having more – a bigger house, a better car, a more talented child, nicer clothes

striving for more – a better job, a bigger position, more influence

being more –  thinner, prettier, younger, cooler, brighter

But it doesn’t make us happy. This is evident in LA more than most places, not only because it’s one of the richest cities in the world, but also created around an industry (i.e. film) which places huge value in ‘more’. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s fun and fun is an important part of life, but in and of itself it doesn’t bring lasting happiness. To the contrary it tends to breed dissatisfaction – there will always be someone who has more, has achieved more or is more. It’s like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

So why do we live with this funny old cycle of self-destruction? Seeking happiness by getting more but erstwhile moving further and further from where we want to be?  It comes back down to my favourite topic – our brain.

Why we’re unhappy…

The part of our brain which ensures our survival, doesn’t know we live in a world that has moved on 50,000 years from the one it evolved to fit. At a sub conscious level we are continually striving for ‘more’ in order to survive (or so that part of our brain believes). At a simple level for example, wanting a piece of chocolate cake or another drink – those things come about because our brain is programmed to want more food and drink whenever we can get it – in order to survive. The other ‘more’ factors above are also based on our survival in a world which existed 50,000 years ago namely reproduction (passing on our genes – e.g. younger, prettier) or belonging to a group (for shelter, safety e.g. – proving we’re good enough to belong through better job, more influence etc). These impulses aimed at keeping us alive have no understanding that the world around us has changed unrecognisably. Is it any wonder we get confused about what to pursue in order to be happy?

When our ancient ancestors were at rest and safe, their brain would switch to using what eminent psychologist Kahneman calls slow thinking, or as I call it the meaning driven brain. This part of the brain looks for significance and purpose, wants to give back and to belong at a more meaningful level (rather than just being in the coolest gang).

The problem is our fast-paced world doesn’t leave much room for slow thinking – while we may not think we face the threats of our forefathers, our brain thinks it still has those things to deal with. Yet they come in the form of seemingly unthreatening ‘things’ such as messages to respond to, news to catch up on, deadlines to meet, appointments to make etc. and they don’t go away. We have very little safe time to engage our slow thinking brain.

What’s the answer?

We don’t want to shut down our survival driven impulses – they keep us safe (e.g. stop us from getting run over) and enable us to have ‘fun’. What we want – ideally – is to know how and when to engage our meaning driven brain. To stop digging a never-ending hole of trying to prove ourselves, instead to recognise that there really is more to life than having the biggest house or the fastest car. We need to take deliberate action to slow down (this is something we’ve all heard before but I feel it’s important to understand why in the context of the brain).

How can we do it?

We can’t switch off the environment we live in: e-mails, traffic, crowds of people, artificial light stretching our days into nights, but we can understand how to limit the impact of the mismatch between our brain and our environment.

First create space for your slow thinking brain, in a way that works for you e.g:

  • Being outside in nature (read work by Prof Joules Pretty)
  • Walking, running, cycling, being active (preferably outside)
  • Meditating
  • Reading
  • Yoga
  • Chatting to friends (steer clear of the competitive)
  • Spending time alone.

Then engage your more advanced slow thinking brain to pursue what it’s evolved for:

Find meaning & purpose – slow down enough to look at what you do and why you’re doing it – is it what you really want from life? Your purpose may well be to become a movie star or CEO of a company – there’s no right or wrong, it’s whatever means something to you and provides you with a sense of personal growth. But you need to know that what you are doing is true to what you really want deep down, what you really want, not driven by a primarily survival driven need to prove yourself or impress others.

This is well worth exploring, having purpose has been shown to protect against heart disease, reducing the impacts of Alzheimer’s, improving our ability to handle pain, staving off depression, diminishing anxiety and lengthening our lives.

Connect with others – at a deeper (as opposed to superficial) level. Research has shown that this has helpful psychological and health related benefits: strengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of getting sick, decreasing levels of anxiety and depression and even lengthening our lives.

Give Back – to society, the community, other people. This doesn’t mean you have to go and volunteer in a soup kitchen (unless you want to). It can be as simple as listening to a friend or helping a stranger. Among other things giving back has shown to reduce depression, improve life expectancy and reduce heart disease.

Keep Learning – always keep growing, remain open and curious. The benefits include improving memory, staving off dementia, improving confidence, enhancing our relationships, improving communication skills and advancing career opportunities.

Ticking these boxes, rather than just seeking to continually ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ will boost your fundamental levels of happiness (as well as having the many other benefits listed). And ironically, if you can do it, it will not only make you happier but also more successful because it will allow you to optimise your capabilities.

But please don’t forget to keep having fun!

P.S. If you’re interested – my book will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in early 2018.

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