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Discover the happiness formula

Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher wrongly celebrated for being a bon vivant and gastronome, was actually a man of simple tastes. Like all of us, he sought the key to happiness — and may have indeed found it. He believed the three major platforms to creating a happy life were to nurture deeply held friendships, to always examine the life you lead and to enjoy personal freedom through self-sufficiency.

Reducing happiness to a formula may be a simplistic approach but, nearly 2500 years on, these teachings may be the most cutting-edge self-help advice yet.

The happiness formula

Like Epicurus, other philosophers for thousands of years have beseeched us not to embark on the vain pursuit of happiness but to instead search for our own meaning and purpose in life. Happiness, by definition, is an ephemeral and elusive notion. We grab at it in a variety of forms, including love, money, status and power, and yet we are often thwarted by disappointment and anxiety.

By the very nature of life, happiness is inevitably short-lived and fleeting. The problem, of course, is that you can see it as a prize or outcome rather than as a consequence or by-product of daily life. You put stock in notions of happiness that do not render true in actuality.

Parenthood is a prime example of it. We think having children will make us happy. However, research (and undoubtedly the lived experience) shows that parenthood is one of the unhappiest periods in people’s lives. As a therapist, I see this in my daily work: marriages can come under threat when children are young and demanding. But, despite lost sleep and the lack of adult intimacy and connection, parents undeniably cite parenthood as the most meaningful experience in life.

Effectively, you happen on happiness during the course of life as you work on your fundamental relationships with others and living true to your values.

The fact that housework rates higher on the happiness scale does not diminish the unbending commitment and self-definition that raising a child brings. Indeed it’s a life-pursuit that many still choose despite knowing the pitfalls.

Evidence shows that when you are driven by a passion, a cause or purposeful action, you are diverted from an ardent fixation on being happy. Effectively, you happen on happiness during the course of life as you work on your fundamental relationships with others and living true to your values.

Connection, not connectivity

In a recent survey, Millennials responded that the happiness formula was to combine fame and fortune, in equal amounts. This is a perennial notion and not one confined to this age group or this era. Since time immemorial, people have thought this was the path to happiness. And time has proven that this road leads to an emotional dead end.

However, these new kids on the block are contending with challenges that generations before them didn’t have to counter. The advent of social media where there is constant scrutiny and judgment along with the compulsion to outdo your peers, to be more beautiful and to have more likes can be overwhelming and ultimately undermine any chance of happiness.

It’s interesting to note that technology behemoths like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs were vigilant in reducing screen time for their kids. While making the rest of us addicted to their devices, they were very mindful that the social development of their own children relied on real-time, face-to-face interaction, outdoor play and leaving them to their own devices not of the technological kind.

There is a significant difference between texting and talking. When you speak to others, you pick up all the nuances in communication in physical responses. This helps in developing skills in empathy and compassion. In this busy world where everyone is so time-poor, we can take for granted that simple human transactions can have a significant and positive impact. When you receive a heartfelt smile from a passing stranger, your spirits lift. A smile is equivalent to a block of chocolate in terms of the release of your happy hormone, dopamine.

Our increased online use is severely interrupting how we relate to each other. It’s having an impact on how we feel.

Developmental psychologist Susan Pinker has researched extensively the effects of face-to-face versus Facetime socialisation. Social media oftentimes bypasses real human support and, moreover, is prone to misunderstanding and judgment. She contends that our increased online use is severely interrupting how we relate to each other. It’s having an impact on how we feel.

Pinker asserts that, when we have direct interaction with another, “a whole cascade of neurotransmitters” is released and that “eye to eye” contact produces oxytocin, your love or bonding hormone, and reduces the stress hormone, cortisol. This biological argument is compelling in light of the fact that so many of us are taking antidepressants to artificially produce these happy hormones.

In the psychology world, therapists have always known this. They continue to advocate the one-on-one interface which they deem essential in developing the therapeutic bond. Clients feel supported and safe in this environment and the rise in therapy may be an inevitable reaction to the rise in the impersonal nature of technology.

When surveys ask what people want, the most reported response is “happiness”. This seems obvious but perhaps oversimplifies the truth. When you pull apart this notion of happiness, what you are really seeking is to be seen, to be heard and to be valued. The rise of chronic loneliness in Western countries supports this view.

Young people are making exactly the same mistakes as their generational predecessors in putting too much stock in money and fame; however, they are particularly vulnerable now as they tend to take greater refuge behind their screens. They are looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Moreover they are losing their ability to share in real time with real people. Virtual sharing is a poor and ultimately diminished substitute for human touch.

There are no shortcuts to happiness. Control-alt-delete won’t eradicate pain. We have to give and be courageous. To love and to be loved and to know what matters in life is the first part of this epic happiness journey that will become a lifelong pursuit. No shutting down the mainframe here.

Shakespeare shaking up happiness

Egged on by self-styled motivational evangelists, we have been told that happiness is there for the taking. These self-help gurus sermonise with zealous conviction that you only deserve happiness if you work hard for it: you are the master of your destiny, not anyone else, and should be accountable for your happiness. But this simplistic and even idealistic approach does not take into consideration the factors out of your control that can derail the happiness express.

There is welcome comfort and solace in the works of the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. He understood that luck and circumstances play a pivotal role in our sense of wellbeing and level of contentment. Happiness is happenstance at the best and in the worst of times.

Virtual sharing is a poor and ultimately diminished substitute for the human touch.

In the bard’s famous play, the ill-fated hero Hamlet contemplates how to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune after he himself confronts unbearable sadness. Shakespeare reminds us that the human experience is a fragile one as we suffer inevitable loss and unexpected misfortune. Some loss can indeed be so “outrageous” it cannot be endured. The loss of a beloved child, experiencing paralysing loneliness or financial hardship, for instance, not only test our resolve to find happiness but prompt us to question the point of life at all.

And this is why Shakespeare’s hero is so instructional. In times of heartbreaking adversity, he implores us not to abandon ourselves but to “take arms against a sea of troubles”.

This is where our philosopher, Epicurus, comes into his own. In times of need, if you have friendships based on unconditional love and support, you can endure those pesky slings and arrows. When you hold fast to what you believe in, your tenuous hold on life — and consequently happiness — can be bolstered until you are once again surefooted and clearheaded with a reason to get up in the morning.

The longing to belong

Loneliness is becoming a chronic issue in Western society with our increasingly fragmented lives. Not only can this affect your disposition, it can also severely impact on cognitive functioning over time. In short, loneliness kills.

Tribal communities survived for millennia not only because they worked well together in a co-operative fashion but because there was a strong sense of belonging. It’s in our DNA to belong. Performing rituals and rites of passage bound these tightknit first communities, forging bonds of trust and loyalty. Outcasts had shortened survival rates, not only because they lacked protection but because they lost their bonds of connection.

In contemporary settings, when you walk past a homeless person failing to acknowledge them, you render them invisible. You may even do this every day with the people who inhabit your own life. We live today in our family tribes, social groups and communities, but many slip through the cracks.

A sense of belonging is critical to your wellbeing and personal safety. Counting on others and for others to count on you are integral to knowing you matter. Belonging is a cornerstone in the happiness puzzle.

Happiness begins at home

The old saying that charity begins at Home can also be said of happiness. It’s where our formative bonds are created. These are the determinative relationships that dictate how you will love and be loved. The more secure and supportive beginnings you have, the better equipped you are to deal with life’s adversities.

In the longest study on happiness, which spanned 75 years, the most significant conclusion was that constant and caring relationships keep us not only happy but healthy, too. The Harvard Study of Adult Development followed a large cohort of men from a range of social and economic backgrounds from the time they were boys until they reached their twilight years. What was fascinating was that close relationships with the subjects’ partners, friends and community trumped diet and exercise for longevity and mental health.

This research was corroborated by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University, who surveyed middle-aged people to ascertain longevity. Once again, the research was conclusive in what factors promoted a long, happy life. The most powerful predictor was social integration. This was to do with the amount of interaction had with others during the day — not just the familial and social bonds, but the incidental ones, too.

The happy exchange with your waitress or the chat at the bus stop with a fellow passenger are not deemed as inconsequential but as moments of feeling unconsciously uplifted. Think about that smile from a passing stranger and how it makes you feel. It also works when you are the one handing out the smiles. Every day you are presented with opportunities to connect with others, and these micro-interactions contribute daily to your own happiness bank.

The second major predictor was close relationships, which echoes the Harvard research study. Once again, these are friendships and relationships that can be relied on in good times and bad.

It’s interesting to note that women outlive men the world over. The reason is obvious. From book clubs to mothers groups, from bridge teams to girls’ nights out, women tend to make a ritualistic practice of bonding. Girls and women seek each other out from early on, prioritising and nurturing friendships that take them, in some instances, from cradle to grave. Women are each other’s life witnesses and many friendships outlive or outgrow marriages and significant life changes. Men do not have these networks and rely predominantly on their life partners.

Stop searching — happiness will find you

Sadly, there is no quick fix for happiness. It’s a state of impermanence and perhaps that’s what makes it so special and wonderful. We are all searching for it and maybe this is not what we should be seeking. If we seek to live truthful lives, filled with friends and love, then we have a shot at happiness by default.

You do have some part to play in your own happiness. Taking a leaf from the happy Buddha, whose life was marked by contemplation and releasing himself from worldly attachments, happiness comes when you give without expecting anything in return. Being open-hearted enough to forgive and to accept the failure in others and in yourself is part of the lifelong journey to contentment.

And there is joy to be found in the everyday when you show gratitude for all you have. It’s also the joy you give to others, especially when they need it most. Happiness is not a goal but a way of life.

So stop the futile search for love and be in life; and, along the way, you might just happen on happiness — by sheer accident!

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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