Long Reads

This is the global secret to happiness

Writer Helen Russell has spent five years researching the secrets to happiness around the world. Looking for an antidote to Blue Monday? Here, she shares her findings…

If you’ve seen the headlines today and you’re feeling low as a result, you’re not alone.

It’s easy to think that the world is becoming more miserable by the minute and negativity bias means that, as human beings, we experience ‘bad’ events more intensely than we do the ‘good’ – and we also remember them more. But that doesn’t mean that ‘bad’ is all there is. We have to make a conscious effort to remember the ‘good’, or we can’t make things better. 

So how can we stay hopeful in turbulent times and keep on keeping on? Resilience.

Resilience has been proven time and again to be one of the key indicators for happiness – and hopefulness – worldwide. And since I started researching happiness in 2013, when I left London to make a new life in rural Denmark, I’ve noticed that different cultures have different approaches to the elusive qualities of grit and the ability to bounce back from adversity. Here are a few of my favourites that I’ve been exploring for a new book, The Atlas of Happiness.

How can you stay hopeful in turbulent times and keep on keeping on? Resilience.

Þetta reddast, or ‘it will all work out’, is Iceland’s unofficial motto. The phrase characterises a nation of modern-day Vikings who are easy going with a core of grit – an unusual yet powerful combination. Iceland boasts a climate so brutal, and a landscape so otherworldly, that NASA dispatched Apollo astronauts to Iceland to train for the first moonwalk. Sunshine is such a rarity, even in summer, that workers get an ad hoc sólarfrí, or ‘sun holiday’, to savour an uncharacteristically sunny day or ‘an Icelandic heat wave’ of 18 degrees Celsius plus.

Yet despite all this, Iceland regularly ranks amongst the happiest countries in the world and it’s spawned more writers, artists and general badass modern day Viking legends than most countries twice its size. 

Resilience is something that every Icelandic child is raised with from birth, with children made to walk long distances and taught to be outside a lot from an early age. And when the weather’s really bleak? You stay in and read. Icelanders are encouraged to develop a strong interior life and books have a special place in most Icelander’s hearts. 

There is a well known term in Iceland that means ‘a man without a book is blind’ and the country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world. 

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Brain scans have shown that when we read, we mentally rehearse the activities, sights and sounds of a story, stimulating our neural pathways – and making us more resilient. Getting immersed in a book has also been proven to improve empathy and even levels of wellbeing, so being big readers also helps Icelanders to shore up their Þetta reddast and stay happy. 

If Icelanders can stay upbeat while essentially living in a fridge for most of the year, then so can we.

If Icelanders can stay upbeat while essentially living in a fridge for most of the year, then so can we.

Over in India, jugaad is a term used to mean frugal innovation, a hack, or a commitment to getting things done and making the best of what you’ve got – in other words, being resilient.

“It might not be perfect, but you’ll get there,” is how my friend Fatema from Mumbai puts it. “If things don’t go your way or turn out as you’d hoped, you don’t sulk or brood,” she adds. “You try something else, your plan B.”

Jugaad decrees that we don’t always need more resources: we can innovate within constraints and create something to fulfil our needs for the moment. As Fatema says: “I don’t tend to panic under pressure in my personal life or at work, for example, because I always find a way.” 

Of course, many Indians are living by jugaad because they have no choice, with poverty still widespread in India. Practising jugaad from a stable position is desirable. Practising it from need is not. But in places where your basic needs are being met, jugaad can help you fly. There is a cruel irony that the very Indian concept of jugaad as a philosophy for a happy, successful life works most effectively outside of India. We can all feel guilty about that. But we can also keep trying to make the world a better place and to be resilient and keep on keeping on, jugaad style. Things won’t ever be perfect, but there’s something to be said for the ‘good enough’ attitude to life – creatively making the best of what we have

In India, jugaad is a term used to mean frugal innovation, a hack, or a commitment to getting things done

Resilience as the route to happiness is also pursued a little closer to home. The Welsh have a strong history of sharp-elbowed resilience, thanks to Wales’ sense of being a little nation next to a larger, ex-imperial neighbour.

The Welsh concept of hwyl encourages us to live life to the full, no matter what. Derived from the Welsh word for the sail of a ship in full wind (hwylio means to go sailing), hwyl has come to mean doing something with gusto. It isn’t a cosy, warm feeling – instead it’s expansive, melancholic or dramatic, and the Welsh are good on drama. 

Wales has long prioritised the arts in all of their forms, with nationwide festivals of poetry, literature and performance (eisteddfodau) dating back to the 12th Century. Learning is viewed as having inherent value and education was historically seen as a way to spare children the hardships of having to work down a mine. 

Hwyl bred a strong community spirit and sense of solidarity amongst the Welsh. There’s a tradition of trade unions and fighting the good fight for progressive schemes, such as universal healthcare that eventually became the NHS under Welshman Nye Bevan. 

As one friend from Blaenafon puts it: “We’re not interested in pursuing a soft, easy life, necessarily: we prefer to live with welly”. Because that’s hwyl: a chest-expanding passion, resilience and zest for life that we could all learn from.

How to boost your resilience

Live like an Icelander with Þetta reddast

  • Get outside. Even when it’s cold. And wet. Or snowing.
  • And when the outside world finally feels too inhospitable, cultivate your inner life: read a book or make like an Icelander and write one.

Harness a jugaad mentality

  • Innovate within constraints, be flexible and think creatively.
  • Things not going to plan A? Try plan B. Never brood. Never sulk.
  • Don’t know how to do something? I’ll bet you know someone who can. Disregard impostor syndrome, dismiss the fear, and do that thing anyway.

Find your hwyl

  • Fill your sails, operate at full pelt, and fight a good fight when necessary.
  • Celebrate the arts and education, because they’re for all of us. If hwyl is about living life with welly, then we should always want to know more about the world around us.

Helen’s new book The Atlas of Happiness – the global secrets of how to be happy, is out now (Two Roads, £16.99)

Images: Unsplash

The evidence of stress in our lives is everywhere, from bad sleep to increased anxiety. So in January 2019, stylist.co.uk is dedicated to creating a life less frazzled. We’ll be focusing on uplifting news, feelgood features and recommendations for fun things to do, with the goal of making you feel calmer and more positive about the coming year.

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