The Science Of Happiness (And How To Find Yours)

Science of Happiness

Brendan Kelly has written a bloody useful book. Because seriously… what’s more important than the science of happiness? Who wants to be a depressed Ferrari collector or an ungrateful yacht owner? As much as those people sound like walking oxymorons they are unfortunately far more common than most realise. The fact that these scrooges should take notes from stoked and smiling kids across less fortunate regions of the world, who seemingly find joy in life’s simplicity, shows us just how little our preconceived notions tell us about happiness. 

There’s no simple remedy for happiness. You can’t buy it. Unless you’re an innocent child innately thrilled with life, you need to build it.

Using years of data from various research projects, and anecdotal evidence from a cast of historic sages that include the Dalai Lama, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Lao Tzu, and numerous modern writers and researchers, Kelly compiles a list of facts and theories around what makes human beings happy. 

Science of Happiness

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A few facts to kick things off: 

  • Finland is the happiest country in the world. In fact, four of the five happiest countries in the world in 2020 were Scandinavian or Nordic. 
  • Rich countries tend to be happier. Countries with severe poverty and political instability are the unhappiest. 
  • Women are more likely to get depression, but men are more likely to suicide.
  • Having a child makes parents happier for the year before and after birth but happiness then recedes in following years. 
  • 47 is the unhappiest year. This is consistently proven across all cultures, nations, classes, and genders around the world.
  • Our happiness follows an inverted bell (or U) shape over our lifetime. People report being happier early in life, with a decline into the 30s and 40s, that then bounces back in the later stages of life (once the stress of child raising, careers and taxes diminish, and you can comfortably piss your pants in a nursing home knowing that some poor sucker will not only come and clean you up, but probably feed you some quality pharmaceuticals and sit you in front of the TV with a cold beer for the evening). 
  • DNA is a major influence on how happy we are. While genetics seem to pre-determine just how happy we can and will be, it is important to acknowledge that we still have plenty of room to engineer our lifestyle and foster happiness. Genetics only account for about 50% of the equation. 

Now, Brendan Kelly’s six principles to happiness are:

1. Balance

Kelly refers to Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching to explain this. 

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.”

“Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”

You get the picture. Material things will only satisfy you to a certain point. Too much gym can get obsessive or cause injury. Trying too hard gets annoying. Dial it down. As Matthew McConaughey likes to say, “Find your frequency”. Hit the balance point in as many aspects of your life as you can, and you’ll notice a controlled calm in your routine. 

2. Love

Essential for human life. Parental love leads to a well-adjusted, happy adult. Love releases hormones like oxytocin and dopamine in our brains. Socialising with those we care about is key to a happy lifestyle. But even love for a hobby or passion can give us meaning and a sense of better wellbeing. 

3. Acceptance

The ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Seneca.

What you get is what you get. The better you are at accepting what you cannot change the happier you will be. Here’s where Kelly calls upon the stoics to regale us with ancient proverbs and quotes. Who would Hercules be without his enemies? Why get out of bed if there’s nothing to surmount? Buddhist ideas come into play here too. Mindfulness can help us catch negative thought loops while ‘letting go’ is key to accepting our lot. 

4. Gratitude

Gratitude is thanks on steroids. From gratitude journaling to the Resilience Projects G.E.M principals (Gratitude, Empathy, Meditation), to the latest apps, it is becoming a cemented practice in the wellbeing space because of the overwhelming evidence behind it. Gratitude is defined as thankful appreciation for what an individual receives. Practising it makes you happier. Listing three things you’re grateful for at the start and/or end of each day is a great help. 

5. Avoiding Comparisons

Science of Happiness

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” was once espoused by Teddy Roosevelt. Companionship over comparison is the advice here. Ditch the social media (or at least curate your gram to combat the envy generating rubbish it hooks you with), and give people compliments instead. Stop defining yourself and your worth against the achievements and accolades of others and you’ll not only be a better friend, but a healthier, happier person. 

6. Believing

Research shows that religion boosts happiness for the individual. However, contradictory evidence shows secular countries have more overall happiness than religious ones. Religion seems to help the individual but not the collective. More evidence is required in this area. One could argue that the sense of community and support gained from being involved in a religion, paired with faith in a higher power would likely boost happiness, however, the oppression, guilt, and conflict that religion creates in communities may be the reason for national happiness levels being lower. Regardless of all that, there is strong evidence that conservatives are happier than liberals when it comes to political beliefs. 

So, if you really want to be happy, do you need to be a conservative Buddhist male from Finland, whose parents cuddled him and blessed him with wealth, praise, and a genetically sunny disposition? Some quick math says this can only account for 0.03% of humanity at an absolute stretch… so no. But you can adopt some simple habits to build your happiness. Here are a couple more tips.

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Get your daily fruit and veg. A two-year study on Australians showed that an increased level of fruit and vegetables in their diet increased happiness. Furthermore, organic food is enriched with the vitamins and minerals your body (and mind) crave. Growing your own fresh produce is the ideal option here, but for those limited by circumstance, there’s always the humble herb garden. 

Get a J.O.B. Losing your job sucks and decreases happiness dramatically. 

Get physical. Exercise influences mental wellbeing massively, and vice versa. This is a cyclical dynamic that gains and loses momentum easily in either direction. Get moving. Get stoked. 3 x 45-minute moderate sessions are the recommended baseline for healthy adults. 

Get your zzzs. Our brains don’t function well without good sleep. Things like empathy, decision making, and mood are all decreased without it. Good sleep hygiene can decrease depression and increase happiness. There is a mountain of evidence for why a good night’s sleep is key to a healthy life. 

Daydream. Apparently, it’s worth doing. Although letting it distract you from important tasks can be detrimental and overindulging can detach you from reality, so Kelly suggests putting aside time to let your mind wander. Reflecting on these wanderings can help us get to know our subconscious or address priorities better. 

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Meditation is a totally different kettle of fish. Practising mindfulness is proven to grow the pre-frontal cortex of your brain, which leads to better empathy and the ability to rationalise and accept situations so you can respond calmly instead of reacting rashly. 

Connect. We were made to mingle. Whether it’s a chat with your local barista or a smile to a fellow commuter, there’s no denying that human beings are social animals that thrive on connection. Happiness is also contagious. Surrounding yourself with a happy crew is a solid policy. Use your phone for meaningful communication and you’re winning. But remember, screen time is linked to unhappiness, so avoid mindless scrolling or jumping on your phone without purpose. 

Get lost (aka find your flow). Kelly suggests immersing yourself in a foreign culture as a prime example. However, a flow state can be found when you enjoy a task that is both challenging, engaging, and attainable. Rock climbing, skiing, running, cycling, knitting or even a jig-saw puzzle can get you there. Being a responsible psychiatrist and professor, Kelly stresses the importance of finding your flow safely. So, one glaring omission is a discussion around drugs that can help you take a holiday from your head. While the guarantee of doing this safely is up for debate, there does seem to be a growing body of evidence legitimising the use of certain drugs to increase your overall happiness

Brendan’s parting advice is, “it’s not always possible to pursue happiness directly… sometimes it is better to focus on creating the conditions for general wellbeing in our lives with the hope that happiness will follow.”