What’s the meaning of a happy life? You may have zero headspace to consider this right now, and if so, that’s perfectly OK. But, on the flip side, you may find that being stuck at home allows you a unique window of time to reflect on the things that really matter.
That’s the hope of Harvard Business School lecturer Arthur C. Brooks, who runs a course on happiness that he’s just translated in a new column for The Atlantic.
“In our go-go-go world, we rarely get the chance to stop and consider the big drivers of our happiness and our sense of purpose,” he explains, so his aim in running the series during the coronavirus pandemic is to “help you leverage a contemplative mindset while you have the time to think about what matters most to you”.
Brooks then goes onto explore different equations of happiness, one of which is especially pertinent during lockdown. It’s all to do with the elements that bring balance to a so-called “happiness portfolio”, as based on years of longitudinal research. Here they are:
Brooks terms this as “faith” but it comes to the same thing, and it’s not at all prescriptive. Faith, or belief, doesn’t have to mean religion. It’s simply anything that gives you a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life; and also something that connects you to others.
“The key is to find a structure through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others,” Brooks writes.
For example, volunteering might fall under the belief category. Studies show that people who donate their time are likely to feel more socially connected and live longer as a result of their altruistic efforts.
The reason for this effect is complex, but it may well come down to the strong sense of purpose and connection that unites people who volunteer for a common cause.
“Volunteering likely exerts its positive effects on health by connecting people to others as well as to an activity that they find meaningful,” writes scientist David Fryburg in Psychology Today. “Achieving connection, purpose, and meaning is critical to attenuating stressors of life—particularly loneliness.”
It should go without saying that love is incredibly important to wellbeing. But it isn’t just the grand, Hollywood-style romantic love that makes the difference. Indeed, that type of love may lead to heartbreak and divorce, which can be major life stressors of their own.
Instead, science shows that love of all kinds makes us happy. Our friends, our family. The local community and neighbours who power up an everyday yet crucial sense of belonging. Even an incidental chat with a stranger has a positive effect on wellbeing that is far more profound than we might first assume.
Time and again, studies show that the quality of our relationships in life are one of the leading variants of emotional and physical wellbeing; more so than factors such as smoking, obesity or how much we earn.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development, spanning eight decades of research, brings this point into razor-sharp focus.
“People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected,” says the study’s current director, psychotherapist Dr. Robert Waldinger.
It’s not just any relationships that count, though (and especially not toxic relationships, which have the opposite effect). Instead, as Brooks says, “The key is to cultivate and maintain loving, faithful relationships with other people.”
Last but not least, work plays a vital role in living a happy life. Needless to say, being miserable in your job, or being unemployed, can cause unprecedented stress that has real and lasting consequences. But it’s more than just that.
It doesn’t really matter what you class your work as. You might be a high-powered banker, a volunteer art teacher or a stay-at-home parent. “What makes work meaningful is not the kind of work it is, but the sense it gives you that you are earning your success and serving others,” explains Brooks.
The serving others part links to the benefits of connection and kindness that we touch on above, with the example of volunteering.
Earning your success is something that’s linked to lots of different factors, but autonomy may play an important role here. Studies show that when we have a sense of freedom and direction over what we do, we feel happier as a result.
Learning new skills is also key. Learning helps to build confidence and creativity, and it also wards against the kind of stagnancy that can creep over months or even years of doing the same thing.
A happier life
So what does all this mean? This odd intercept of lull time that some of us are facing right now may be a good opportunity to decide how the various elements of your life add up.
Have you got enough purpose and direction? What’s getting you out of bed in the morning? (read about the Japanese concept of Ikigai for more on this). Are you giving the most important relationships in your life the time and attention they need?
This global pause may feel uncomfortable, but one tiny silver lining is the ability to take stock and consider how you can re-jig the building blocks of your life for a happier way forwards. Read more on The Atlantic right here.