Happiness is simple - if you're not feeling it you're doing something wrong
Ten ways to bliss
Laughing, time with family and pets, being at the beach, reading books and being kind. These are what children without long to live “wished they could’ve done more”. Also telling special people they loved them, and, eating ice cream, said their paediatrician Dr Alistair McAlpine.
The simple stuff that makes these kids happy also makes adults happy, say therapists, doctors and academics.
The pursuit of happiness may be elusive, but these 10 tips could bring it closer.
SleepSleep is essential for the body’s recovery and memory and to cope emotionally, says Professor Kevin Thomas, who specialises in neuropsychology at UCT.
“We need sleep to remember, sleep to forget. Sleep helps to dampen down the emotional tone of the day’s events and process emotions,” he says.
UCT’s sleep research lab has proved that people who don’t get enough sleep after a traumatic event are much more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We know from neuroscience research that we have a much more negative bias when we are sleep-deprived. We are able to take on daily stresses better after sleeping.”
Challenge negative thoughtsStress is inevitable but cycles of negative thinking — which erode happiness — are not, psychologists say.
Dwelling on distressing thoughts fuels anxiety and depression, conditions which affect up to one in five adults in South Africa.
Cognitive behavioural therapist Despina Learmonth says: “If individuals struggling with negative ruminations were to write down and then say all of the negative thoughts that went through their minds in just five minutes, I think they may be shocked.”
She recommends breathing and meditation to quieten the mind. “Simply staring into a candle's flame and repeating a word which has a calming or empowering positive effect on the mind, and subsequently body.”
The first step in changing negative thoughts is to identify and not judge them, say psychologists. Be gentle on yourself. Next, challenge these negative thoughts — are they based on facts or feelings?
Cognitive behaviour therapy offers practical tools for people to do this.
Avoid common “thinking traps” like anticipating the worst (catastrophic thinking) or jumping to conclusions, says Johannesburg psychologist Shai Friedland.
A practical example is the water scarcity in Cape Town. Thomas says: “There is no sense in panicking about Day Zero. Control what you can, for example, saving water at home, and cut out that which is not helpful.”
Feeling out of control is a major source of stress.
“Identify the triggers for your sense of hopelessness; for instance, are you spending a lot of time on social media? It may be helpful to get tips but not to read every single post which fuels a sense of hysteria.”
Slow down, be in the momentMindfulness — defined as being attentive to the present and alert to your thoughts and feelings — is increasingly being adopted as way to reduce stress and find contentment.
Cape Town psychologist and mindfulness specialist Linda Kantor says: “Our minds perpetually wander, usually to ‘me, myself and I’ or the past, and we miss what’s in the present. We have the power to regulate our thoughts.
“It is increasingly important to teach people to slow down and stop, to be intensely focused in the moment. Happiness is often in the moment,” she says.Andreas Banetsi Mphunga, a registered counsellor in Khayelitsha, says mindfulness helps to counter depression, which is common.
“From day to day I practise mindfulness, being fully aware of my emotions and surroundings,” he says.
Savouring the moment is a key tenet of the Positive Psychology course taught by happiness guru and author Dr Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard University.
“We need to start thinking about our lives as connoisseurs,” he said. “The wine connoisseur savours, slows down, smells, sits, enjoys. This is how we can approach our life, as life connoisseurs.
“It could be spending time with my family, my best friend. It could be making love. It could be reading a favourite book, watching movies. That is our fuel to stop, to savour, to breathe in, to enjoy, to experience because when we do that we open ourselves up to heartfelt positivity, we open ourselves up ... what I call the ultimate currency: happiness.’’
Choose relaxing habitsMake it a habit to take time out, however brief, to relax every day, therapists say.
Mphunga has a routine that allows him “to rezone and leave stress behind”.
He suggested activities like going for a walk, meditating, listening to smooth music, dancing or colouring.
Daily walks boost health, especially with friends and dogs, repeated studies show. People with pets are happier and healthier.
Be activeAny exercise — simply getting up and moving — is an antidote to depression and anxiety.
Learmonth says: “Exercise (gives) the chance to experience your body's own amazing feel-good endorphins.”
The benefits of exercise increase by being outdoors in the sun, and in tranquil and wild places. Being in nature has a quietening effect on the brain, science finds.
Friedland said that people struggling with low moods often isolate themselves which then perpetuates this state, but getting out and being active has the opposite effect.
Time for friends and sexSpending time with friends and family members you like makes people happier and more resilient, studies prove.
Meeting people face to face is more beneficial than connecting online since technology can create barriers.
Mphunga suggests: “Communication is always better face to face when we can observe emotions which words cannot communicate.”
In the couple counselling he offers, everything begins with communication.
Sexual intimacy is good for relationships too and boosts immunity.
Thomas says interpersonal relationships should provide support, but also individual partners need to look at their own needs.
“It can sound selfish but in marriages and other intimate relationships, people need to think about what they want and how to make a relationship work beyond the intense romantic phase.
“In the middle phase, couples learn that one person cannot meet all their needs, to understand time apart can be healthy and to treasure moments together.”
To be happy people don’t need to be married, however, studies show.
Friedland said: “People can find close relationships with friends, siblings and community members.”
Social isolation is more of a health risk to longevity than smoking and high blood pressure.
Put screens secondThe benefits and harms of social media are known, but, reacting like Pavlov’s dog to the constant distractions online, people still let screens dominate their lives.
This has potential to interfere with productive work, relationships and sleep.
Thomas advises: “It’s not healthy being up on work e-mail at 1am. We need to set firm boundaries and everybody can do that.
“As parents, if we blur these boundaries early on, then kids think it’s okay. We need to limit time on social media.”
The psychologist and author of iGen, Professor Jean Twenge, says: “Tech bosses limit their kids’ time on smartphones. Why shouldn’t we?”
Friedland reinforces this point about boundaries, warning that with the rise of technology people often never leave their jobs. Even when they have left the so-called office, they believe they need to be available online 24/7.
“The problem with this is that mentally the person never leaves work, which can also lead to stress and burnout.”
Value communityPeople need time out to connect with those around them and communal events, like the therapeutic drumming circles or beadwork therapy Mphunga runs in Khayelitsha, allow this.
“If we restore family and community, we can build a resilience,” says the therapist.
Making your home in areas with green and public meeting places, like parks and libraries, boosts wellbeing.
The World Happiness Report reveals that social support is listed as the second biggest contributor to happiness, following income per capita in first place.
Healthy life expectancy was third, followed by social freedom, trust and generosity in fourth and fifth place.
US psychiatrist Dr Alan Teo says that getting together with friends and children in person helped adults over 50 years old ward off depression, in a way that e-mail or phone calls did not.
Create meaning and order
Money gives security and opportunity, but meaningful work and free time are as important to being happy, experts said.
“There is a common misperception that success is happiness. Success is a temporary high. We very quickly go back to where we were before. We need to start thinking about life in a different way,” says Harvard’s happiness guru.
He lauds the value of creativity, spirituality, music and humour in his work on happiness.
Gretchen Rubin, the author of Happiness at Home, has another angle: suggesting people de-clutter and get organised to enjoy their space.
Her one-minute rule, “Do any task that can be finished in one minute”, is useful.
Giving away quality possessions can be a rewarding experience.
Be kind and gratefulBeing altruistic, generous — in time and money — and grateful all contribute to people’s sense of wellbeing and purpose in life, researchers have found.
McAlpine says he prioritises kindness after his patients, four to nine years old, said how much it mattered to them.
“They were especially grateful for kindness, for anyone who held their hand or had a kind word for them.”
Science proves that showing kindness makes both parties feel good, as does the adage of “counting your blessings”.
Learmonth suggests: “Count the gratitudes! Start implanting more positive thoughts into your mind and you will retrain your brain to seek out positive ideas.”
McAlpine’s young patients are an example of this. They are not moping about their lives being cut short or having lots of regrets.
He says: “By and large they were not angry or upset. They were positive about what they had had.”