Long Reads

What we can learn from Brazil’s unique approach to happiness

“Saudade makes you feel things more deeply… both the sadness and the joy”

How are you feeling? Up? Down? Somewhere in between? That’s OK. Really. Because to be truly happy we all have to make peace with the fact that things won’t always be sunny. And I know.

After struggling with my own personal happiness levels for decades, I started professionally researching happiness in 2013, when I relocated from a busy London life to rural Denmark and wrote The Year of Living Danishly, exploring what Danes do differently to stay happy.

Since then, I’ve spoken to people across the globe who’ve shared the happiness secrets of their own countries and what it means to live a good life internationally. Some of the themes that sprung out were universal, such as spending time with friends and family, getting outside into nature, and finding a balance in life. 

But others were intriguingly unique. 

Happiness comes in many forms

In these troubled times, it feels important to remember that there are concepts all over the world making people happy, every single day. Rather than just focussing on the countries already coming top of the official happiness polls, I set out to investigate the approaches adopted by people worldwide, as well as the cultures outside our own echo chambers. 

The result is The Atlas of Happiness: The Global Secrets of How to be HappyAnd first up, I’d like to take you to Brazil.  

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In the country of carnival, football, nuts, and extraordinarily depressing political news of late, there’s also a word for the absence of happiness. The Portuguese term saudade describes a feeling of longing, melancholy and nostalgia for a happiness that once was – or even a happiness you merely hoped for. 

And while Brazil may be famous for its very ‘up’ carnival spirit, the natural counterbalance to this, saudade, is so central to the Brazilian psyche that it’s even been given its own official ‘day’, which falls on 30 January every year.

Samba dancers in Brazil

It may sound counter intuitive, but scientists have found that experiencing temporary sadness can actually make us feel better: it provides catharsis, improves our attention to detail, increases perseverance and promotes generosity. That’s right: being more Brazilian even makes us kinder

Many of us will have experienced a bittersweet pleasure in moments of melancholy, such as flicking through old photos, or caring about anyone enough to miss them when they’re gone. Saudade is about that moment when you realise how important people are in your life, and the moments you’ve taken for granted. 

So it makes you grateful for what you’ve got – and aware it could be gone in a heartbeat. 

This is an approach to happiness that’s been around for millennia, with the Stoic philosopher Seneca recommending that we imagine losing everything – regularly – so that we learn to value what we have. And yet somehow, in the rest of the world, we’ve forgotten this. Negative emotions and thoughts – even ones that might ultimately be helpful – tend to get pushed down and buried under a fug of ‘busy’ or ‘just haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning’. But not in Portugal or Brazil. There, saudade makes you feel things more deeply, both the sadness and the joy.

Saudade can also describe the feeling of missing something that still exists, but that you can’t have any more – like Opal Fruits or ‘the one that got away’. Imagine if you’d ended up with your first love. Imagine a life with them. Strange, isn’t it? A little like ‘Schrödinger’s spouse’, the relationship with your first love might have worked, but then again it might not. That heady, intoxicating, all-consuming lust, where you ache for someone and feel like you’re falling out of a window, could never have lasted. Could it? If you found them again now, the spark that was once there might be gone. They might not be the same person any more. You certainly aren’t. It might have been for the best that you lost each other when you did. 

Imagine if you’d ended up with your first love…

Similarly, the woman in the old saudade paintings could suddenly find out that her husband had survived, and he could come back a changed man or having met someone else. There’s an ambiguity in saudade – or, rather, a complexity – and an understanding that some losses are unavoidable, and that that’s OK.

Psychologists agree that there is merit to this way of thinking. Acknowledging that sadness is part of our reality and that it’s ‘OK not to be OK’ is healthy; it helps us to come to terms with the fact that some degree of suffering in life is normal and that we’ll get through it. 

In Sweden, there’s also a melancholy to the national character that seems entirely tolerable; desirable, even. Swedes make time for pensive introspection on a regular basis. Swedes all have their own personal smultronställe, originally meaning ‘wild strawberry patch’ but now used to describe a quiet place to retreat or relax – often somewhere that isn’t easy for others to find. Many Swedes like to be alone, and having a private, personal smultronställe has been keeping them sane and happy for decades.

Closer to home, the Irish appreciate that there’s an upside to feeling down, with the unique phenomenon of craic. Although many of us probably associate ‘craic’ with a pint of Guinness and a dubious Ed Sheeran song, the origins of the word are rooted in storytelling – often sharing tales of woe around the fireside. 

These storytelling skills may even contribute to Ireland’s enviable position in the happiness leagues, since psychologists from Oxford University have found that hearing harrowing stories can help with group bonding, as well as triggering endorphins as our body gets ready to fight off imagined ‘pain’ in real life. So getting scared or sharing sad stories in a group setting can, incredibly, make us happier.

Getting sad sometimes is good for us – and what’s more, it’s unavoidable, so we have to know how to handle it. For me, saudade now feels like a love letter to loss: a necessary slackening to stay afloat, and a way to acknowledge the people we care for, as well as our hopes and dreams – whether they’ve turned out the way we envisage or not. Craic helps me re-engage my empathy levels and kickstart a weep when I feel one brewing. And when it all gets too much? I retreat to my smultronställe for five minutes before emerging as a new woman. 

You can, too. Cry, reminisce, feel, mourn – let it all out. And then, maybe you’ll feel like dancing. Carnival style.

How to experience saudade:

Look back at old photos of that friend you’ve lost touch with or the ex you still think fondly of. Instead of blocking out ‘the feels’, surrender to them.

Spend time remembering those you’ve loved and lost – then practise being more grateful for the ones still around.

Give yourself a whole day to celebrate saudade – Brazilians do it on 30 January but you can choose whenever you like. Watch a weepie; listen to music that makes you remember times past; dig out old love letters (Millennials: emails or texts will do).

Give yourself a whole day to celebrate saudade

How to enjoy the craic:

Tell your story and listen when others tell you theirs. Sitting next to a stranger at a wedding or at dinner? Delve deep. Find out what makes them tick.

Watch a psychological thriller, see a scary play, or share tales of woe with friends to build bonds, trigger endorphins and ultimately get happier.

How to restore yourself with a smultronställe:

Find your symbolic strawberry patch. For me, it’s the back of my walk-in-wardrobe (I know, get me!) where I’ve strung up fairy lights and can hide behind winter coats in my own personal Narnia.

Escape. Whenever you can. Preferably before you reach breaking point. Sit, breathe and reminisce.

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

Follow Helen on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook @MsHelenRussell 

Images: Unsplash

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