Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

The happiness industry hunts an elusive target

It isn't an easy task, getting on the happiness road and staying. Maybe it's because bad news has ruled the airwaves since 9/11 - or is it that in our hi-tech lives we have less human contact with other people? - but the search for happiness is getting ever more frantic.

Schools have started teaching it, self-help writers produce books about it and columnists do their best to spread it. Yet it remains an elusive target, hard to identify, then to find and lastly to preserve.

Last year, I passed on some sage advice by the former Times columnist Nick Baylis (The Science of Happiness) in an Ulster Museum lecture. I let Nick see what I'd written, to make sure I'd heard him right, and my reward has been a copy of his major opus, Learning From Wonderful Lives (obtainable from www.nicksbook.com).

Health is key factor

As I remember, the key to happiness was all about staying healthy, physically and mentally, sleeping eight hours a night, regular exercise in a team game, keeping friends about us and staying away from TV. Music could help, but be careful about alcohol.

If that was a bit vague, he's gets down to business in Wonderful Lives, providing a detailed strategy that anyone with sufficient determination, and need, should be able to follow. It isn't an easy task, getting on the happiness road, and staying there in the face of adversity is one of the main challenges.

In case this sounds too technical, there are plenty of examples from the stories of admirable people who can claim to have found most of the answers. Why try to invent the wheel when people like Bill Gates, Kelly Holmes and Tiger Woods can describe what made them healthy, wealthy, wise and, as a bonus, happy?

In the introduction, Baylis lists his guiding principles - companionship, why loving friends and soulmates are so important; developing our passions in life and playing to our strengths; respecting our instincts and helping others bring out their best.

It's elementary, but maybe it isn't surprising that many of us fail to reach our potential when Baylis estimates that at least half of a GP's patients suffer from a psychosomatic disorder - a physical problem that their subconscious mind has created in response to psychological distress.

They need the services of a mental health professional more than a physician, but at least a third of us would refuse such help, as "a slur on their sanity". While the healing professions of medicine and psychology have been artificially separated, in life they go hand in hand.

Throughout the book, the author comes up with great examples. For instance, when US orchestras are recruiting new musicians, they have learned not to let the testing official see the performer. Since screens were used, many more women are being hired.

Genuine smiling helps

Reading faces is more of a science than you would think. A Berkeley University study of 140 women graduate photographs showed that 30 years later the genuine smilers were much more happily married and satisfied with life than the ones with forced smiles.

Sleep deprivation is the enemy of happiness, just as healthy exercise can be its friend. Bill Clinton reckoned that the majority of his biggest mistakes, both professional and personal (!), were made when he was excessively tired. And if you tend to depression, 45 minutes of sweat-inducing exercise three times a week can prevent or cure the blues.

Bayliss firmly believes that hypnosis - either induced or self-applied - can help anyone overcome difficulties in their life, which might otherwise overwhelm them. It has commonly been used in America since 1958, but is rarely sanctioned under the NHS.

Lemons into lemonade

Widening our horizons, and trying new experiences, is part of keeping our happiness level high. Listen to Bill Gates, the world's richest and most generous man: "I make a point of reading at least one news weekly from cover to cover because it broadens my interests. If I only read what intrigues me then I'd finish the magazine the very same person I was before I started. I read it all."

The main point is that if we don't learn how to progress our relationship with life it doesn't get any easier or more enjoyable as we grow older. No time of life is intrinsically happier than another - it's what we make of our experiences, "turning the lemons into lemonade".

To sum up, he supplies his "to do" list, which could help us get a fix on what makes us happy, and what can see us through the bad times. Decide which personal relationships you want; what skills you would like to excel at; where you would like to visit and what new experiences you would like to have.

In your daydreams, what things are delightful to you? What alternative career would you like to have had? And if you had two years to live, with whom would you choose to live it and how would you spend it?

If that depresses you, consider what a survey of Nobel prizewinners showed, when they were asked to choose between 30 factors that had helped them to excel. Top of the list was "sheer joy and playfulness" - something I've noticed myself, when meeting anyone of real stature. Think of Nelson Mandela, for instance.

Finally, you know Baylis's heart is in the right place when he tells you that the first 5,000 copies of his massive 480-page book needed five tons of paper, or 120 trees from sustainable forests. His publisher wanted the title to be something like, How to be Happy, which he didn't, so he published it himself. Happiness Christmas, everyone!

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