Happiness is that all-elusive quality that you can't find simply by wanting it, or by trying hard to get it. But a charity dedicated to the topic claims to have identified ten activities and attitudes that consistently tend to impact positively on people's well-being.
Action For Happiness, a UK-based movement, has pulled together a comprehensive summary of recent psychological studies and in-depth research into what makes us tick as human, sociable beings.
Its divided the subsequent ten categories into the words "Great Dream". "Great", the first five steps, stands for how we interact with the outside world in our day-to-day life, in terms of giving, relating, exercising, appreciating and trying out. These are based on research into well-being conducted by the New Economics Foundation.
"Dream", the next five steps, represents what's going on inside us and internal drivers of happiness. So direction, resilience, emotion, acceptance and meaning.
Come find out more about the 10 keys to happiness, as according to Action For Happiness, below.
1. Giving - do things for others
Doing things for others - whether that's volunteering at a local women's aid shelter or simply a kind word or gesture - has been proven to be a powerful motivator of happiness. Not only does it lend a sense of meaning and competence to our lives, it also helps us connect with people on a wider societal scale and tends to mean we put our own troubles in perspective.
A wide-ranging 2005 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that altruistic behaviours and emotions are linked with greater well-being, health and longevity. In other words, being kind to others can actually prolong your life, as well as making you happier.
2. Relating - connect with people
The degree to which our happiness is affected by how we relate to people around us cannot be underestimated. Our connections to families, friends, neighbours and colleagues are central to happiness - both our happiness, and theirs. Numerous studies have shown that social connections are important, not only psychologically, but to our health. Good social support has been connected to lower stress levels, a better immune system and even a lower risk of heart disease and mental decline in later life.
A 2009 paper published in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology found that it's the quality of our relationships that matters most, and that in turn is influenced by positive emotional expressions, shared novel experiences, intimacy, and the benefits of shared positive events. The situation here is also circular - so good relationships make you happier, and happier people in turn enjoy greater, longer-lasting relationships.
3. Exercising - take care of your body
It's a no-brainer that taking care of your body improves your well-being generally. Physical activity instantly lifts your mood, even if it's something as simple as turning your phone off and going for a brisk walk in the park. It can also boost your self-esteem and help you concentrate, sleep, look and feel better.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden this year found that exercise actually detoxes harmful chemicals from the body and can alleviate depression, by purging the blood of a substance which accumulates during stress. Their research indicates that during exercise, the muscles begin to act like the liver or kidneys and produce an enzyme which clears out a molecule linked to depression.
4. Appreciating - notice the world around you
You know the whole hype over the importance of mindfulness? Well this is it. Mindfulness is often defined as "the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present". By being actively aware of what is around us (what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste) and what's happening within us (our thoughts and feelings), the idea is we avoid getting caught up in thinking and worrying. We are accepting in what we observe, with control over what we give our attention to.
Social scientists have connected mindfulness to a whole ream of benefits in daily life, from better quality relationships to better performance at work. One such study from 2003 found that an increase in mindfulness over time led to a marked decline in mood disturbances and stress, and enhanced self-awareness.
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5. Trying out - keeping learning new things
Learning new skills boasts our self-confidence and sense of worth and keeps us curious, alert and engaged. When we're intensely involved in learning and doing new things, our well-being blossoms and this effect becomes more pronounced as we get older. So learning should never begin and end at school - our minds are like muscles, and we need to keep exercising them in order to make them work properly. This doesn't have to mean undergoing a PHD, but even something as simple as joining a choir, learning a new language online or anything that takes you out of your comfort zone and involves a degree of focus, meaning and purpose.
In fact learning something new can even help with the process of learning as a whole, making you more receptive to other skills. US-based neuroscientist Nina Kraus recently published a number of new studies that show that learning about music can facilitate getting better at other things, like language skills and hearing in noisy places - and can do so in ways that last for decades.
6. Direction - have goals to look forward to
We all need goals to motivate us in life; achievable missions that will challenge and stretch us, without being overly stressful or unrealistic. Setting goals is a way of turning our values and dreams into reality. They grow our confidence and give us something to look forward to, building a sense of belief and interest in the future. They work best if they are something that we personally want to do for ourselves, as opposed to what other people want us to do. Interestingly the act of working towards a goal has been shown to be as important to creating happiness as actually achieving the goal in question.
7. Resilience - find ways to bounce back
We all face challenges and tragedies in life, but the key is how we cope with them. Crucial to happiness is our ability to cope with and "bounce back" from the tough times. We need to know how to bend, adapt and persevere when faced with difficulties, rather than breaking apart in the face of them. Of course, this very much depends on the situation and is much easier said than done, but resilience expert Dr Ann Masten describes it as "ordinary magic" that can be drawn from our everyday capabilities, relationships and resources. The same quality also helps us become more willing and open to take on new opportunities, which again contributes towards a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. In this way, resilience involves growing and learning, as well as being an essential survival skill.
8. Emotion - take a positive approach
Just as negative emotions narrow our perception of the world, positive feelings broaden our universe, making us more creative, flexible and more receptive to those around us. Numerous studies have shown that emotions such as joy, gratitude and contentment alter our thinking and actions to make us more open to new experiences and more trusting of others. And those new experiences that result from positive emotions can lead to lasting changes in our lives. Over time, positive emotions like laughter and enthusiasm will help us build relationships (by being able to connect more quickly with people) and gain greater knowledge (by being more open to different ideas and experiences). There is also evidence to suggest that upward spirals of positive emotion counter downward spirals of negativity; so we recover more quickly from negative thoughts or experiences if we are in possession of a generally positive approach to life.
9. Acceptance - be comfortable with who you are
Self-esteem or self-acceptance is a crucial psychological factor that helps determine how good or happy we feel. This means we need to know our strengths and our weaknesses, come to terms with our past and feel good about ourselves while being aware of our limitations. It doesn't mean we need to ignore or bypass mistakes or weaknesses, but rather move forward with them.
Renowned psychologist Albert Ellis said we had two choices; accepting ourselves conditionally (such as when we pass an exam) or unconditionally (under all circumstances). The first option he described as "deadly" - if we don't fulfill the conditions we set for ourselves, we see ourselves as a failure and a loser, rather than accepting failure as a normal part of life and moving on. Low self-esteem means you may want to change an aspect of yourself, meaning you dwell over what is wrong and can't move ahead with yourself, and with a happy life.
10. Meaning - be part of something bigger
Scientific research shows that having a connection to something bigger than ourselves - a spiritual side to our lives, being a parent or doing a job that makes a difference - makes us happier and healthier. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, describes meaning as a vital component of happiness and well-being. "For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self," he said.
It doesn't matter how you achieve it or what it constitutes, but having this meaning or bigger purpose means people are happier, more in control of what they do and get more out of their actions. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression, various studies have shown.
For more information and details, visit Action For Happiness. Photos: Getty Images