The 12 steps to happiness

The reasons why some people always seem to be cheerful.

Contrary to popular assumption, being happy is not automatic. The Dalai Lama calls it an art. Martin Seligman, the man who gave us the concept of positive psychology, says that while 60% of happiness is down to genetics and our environment, the other 40% is up to us.

In other words, it depends on how we think and on the way we live our lives. It is just like your general health -- you have to work at it and maintain it.

So what do generally happy people do to maintain their sunny outlook? Here are 12 key methods to put a smile on your face.

1. THEY CULTIVATE GRATITUDE

Not a demand to count your blessings, but a mind-training exercise that helps positivity. If you have no idea how to cultivate gratitude, start with a list. Write five things every day that you are grateful for. It can be anything -- your bed, your dog, your fridge full of food. Your mind will get the hang of it so that it becomes automatic.

2. THEY EAT RIGHT

There's no need to quote evidence that food matters, because at this stage, we all know we are what we eat.

If you eat processed rubbish, you will feel like processed rubbish. If you eat fresh and whole, you will feel fresh and whole. You don't need a degree in nutrition to know this -- mindful eating is a huge part of the new consciousness.

3. THEY MOVE IT

The more you exercise, the better you feel. Period. And it's never too late to take up an activity that connects you with your body. A Journal of Health Psychology study showed that people who exercise have a more positive body image, regardless of their looks.

Also, physical movement is a proven antidote to stress, anxiety and depression. Research by The Black Dog Institute found mental health was significantly improved by regular and moderate exercise -- for example, a 30-minute walk.

Increase this to an hour or so of more vigorous exercise and your mood will surge.

4. THEY HAVE QUIET TIME

Scientist turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, in his book 'Happiness', says that happiness is not an emotion, but a skill to be practised. Ricard suggests meditation as a daily practice -- that is, sitting quietly for 10 minutes and focusing on your breathing. Or you could do what Eckhart Tolle describes in his book 'The Power of Now' and stare at a flower. Just look at it. Really look at it.

A quiet half-hour or more, alone and undisturbed, away from multi-tasking and communication, is vital for ongoing happiness.

5. THEY TALK

Not about the weather, but about how they really are, and how the other person really is. In other words, they go beyond the mundane small stuff.

Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware, in her book 'The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying', includes the wish of dying people that their feelings had been truly expressed and that they had been completely true to themselves, rather than conforming to the expectations of others.

6. THEY LET GO

Anger is very detrimental to happiness, because rather than feel-good dopamine coursing through your system, you will have cortisol and adrenaline instead. Also, anger -- even justifiable, legitimate anger -- can cause you to ruminate and obsess. In recovery programmes, holding on to resentment is likened to swallowing poison and hoping the other person will die.

7. THEY CONNECT WITH NATURE

Go outside -- it's plain and simple.

Going to the local park is good, but going farther into the countryside is even better, and going to the mountains or the ocean or somewhere equally spectacular makes us happiest of all.

Birds, trees, butterflies, wildlife, flowers -- they are scientifically proven to make us happier.

8. THEY GIVE MORE THAN THEY TAKE

Not in a pious or grandiose way, but focusing on being useful to others makes you forget about yourself, which conversely makes you happier in the long run. Giving gives back -- it's called the helper's high.

9. THEY ARE IN FLOW

Flow is when you become completely immersed in what you are doing, so you forget all sense of time. You can experience flow through work, sport, or play. It can be anything from running to painting, from knitting to cooking or playing the xylophone. If it absorbs you and you love it, you are in flow, so aim for this state as often as you can -- at least once a week.

10. THEY KEEP IT SIMPLE

Taking delight in the everyday -- the magnificence of the ordinary -- is a sure route to happiness. Walking the dog, reading a good book, going for a walk, meeting friends, having a laugh -- this is the stuff of true, lasting happiness. The rest is just filler.

11. THEY HANG OUT WITH HAPPY PEOPLE

This is something of a no-brainer -- as happiness is catching, so too is misery. Spend too much time with moaners and they will bring you down, which is why happy people gravitate to other happy people. But there's something in it for you too -- being happy for your friend's good fortune makes you happy.

12. THEY VALUE RESILIENCE & FLEXIBILITY

Nobody consciously seeks adversity, but it's an inevitable, which is why resilience and flexibility are so important to happiness. It's how we deal with adversity that counts.

 

Case studies

MARCUS Hunter-Neil (30) is a make-up artist and is also known as the drag queen Lady Portia Diamante and lives in Bangor. He says:

I've been very lucky in that I've never experienced depression but a lot of the 12 habits are very familiar to me. I try not to hold on to friendships or relationships that are going nowhere. If something is over then that's fine, I just move on from it. I don't hold grudges or bear ill-will. My diet, like that of most people, can be good and bad. I try to eat healthily most of the time so I go for fruit, vegetables, and chicken. Sometimes, though, you need chocolate and other types of food which are not so healthy. I think I have about an 80:20 split.

Exercise is important for me. I walk as much as I can and I do sit-ups, push-ups and chin-ups in the house. I used to have a gym membership but I much prefer to work-out by myself. I don't meditate or have specific down-time but I'm a great one for a power nap. I work on-stage at night as well as a day job, so sometimes I don't get a lot of sleep. The good thing is that I can sleep anywhere. I'm a happy person in general and it takes a lot to get on my nerves. I don't like bullies and I don't feel the need to prove my point.

LYNDA Bryans (50) is a former broadcaster and lecturer. She lives in Belfast with her husband Mike and their sons Christopher (16) and PJ (18). She says:

"I suffered from both pre and post-natal depression when my first son was born. Being aware of my mental health is something that's very important to me now and I even give little talks about it. Over the years I've picked up lots of different ways to keep an eye on my mental health and most, if not all of them, are included in this list. I walk a lot with friends. I'm a great believer in getting fresh air. I have particular friends I meet to walk with along the Comber Greenway. I also love gardening -- all that digging in the dirt and lugging things around in a wheelbarrow. It's exactly the sort of activity that gets you active and you lose track of time too. It's vitally important to look after your mental health as well as your physical health.

CLAIRE Allan (37) is a journalist and author. She lives in Londonderry with her husband Neill and their children Joseph (9) and Cara (4). She says:

I'm generally a happy person and I would regard myself as quite content. I have a history of depression so my mental health is something I need to keep an eye on -- it can deteriorate quite easily. I like to think of this as positive attention. The best thing I can do is to go for a run or a walk -- I have my favourite little circuit and I have the songs I like on my iPod and I find it really clears my head. I can find it quite hard to let go of things because I over-think, but my friends help me with that. I try to eat well but sometimes you need that bag of chocolates. One stress-buster for me is my writing. When I'm immersed in it, two or three hours just seem to fly by.

 

INTERVIEWS BY KERRY McKITTRICK

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