By Clive Lindley-Jones | December 20, 2009 10:04 am

Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier.  The way it actually works is the reverse.  You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.” ~Margaret Young

What better time to consider this, perhaps, than at a time so associated with happiness and joy for some and yet so linked to a hollow travesty of true happiness for others who find themselves lonely and shut out or, almost worse, confined in close proximity with those they can’t get along with.

The burgeoning field of academic Positive Psychology, according to one of its founders, Professor Martin Seligman[1], has three pillars:

1. The study of positive emotion

2. The study of positive traits, foremost amongst them the strengths and virtues but also the “abilities” such as intelligence and athleticism.

3. The study of positive institutions, such as democracy, strong families, and free inquiry that support the virtues, which in turn support the positive emotions.

The Extraordinary Power of Happiness

By now you have probably heard something of this exciting field and the sometimes astounding truths research is uncovering. Perhaps it is less surprising that we, as a nation, are no happier than we were fifty years ago despite tripling our national wealth, or that, beyond an average income of £10,000 pa, wealth, in stable, democratic countries, seems not to add much to our overall happiness. We may have allowed human relationships, our true source of happiness, to get squeezed by our push for economic benefit.

More surprising, perhaps, is the powerful effect that happiness has on our health. While numerous studies have, perhaps counter-intuitively, failed to find having children as a strong signifier of happiness, being married, on average, adds seven years to a man’s life and four to a woman’s. Of course, the key question you might ask is, “Married to whom?”

But marriage is not the only factor. The now famous Milwaukee nuns study suggests, quite powerfully, that a set point fixed high for happiness in early life can strongly increase your life expectancy. While smoking has an average effect of minus three years, a happy disposition can add nine years to your life: up there with regular exercise! We are social creatures and so we need love and connection above all. Having strong friendship groups actually seems to have a powerful immune supporting effect.  Just as we are learning more each month about the negative effect of our standard diet on our health and our risks of depression[2],so we are learning more about the way we have structured our society and its impact on our happiness.

Paradoxically, and here you might scoff in disbelief, but taxes can, if they lead to a more equal society[3], lead to greater happiness for all levels of society, by reducing the gap between rich and poor, something that all eventually benefit from. Just as a much greater control on advertising would probably lead, not only to better physical health, but less comparison with others and greater happiness, so access to psychological therapy might be a better investment for many than purely keeping on taking the tablets.

Even if therapy is not your thing, the growing field of coaching might help you or someone you know, take on the task, through powerful questions that might challenge those tired old worn out thought patterns, help you play to your strengths, count your blessings  and gain that all important sense of meaning that makes a life blessed and vibrant.

And so we come back to Martin Seligman, a self confessed pessimist and grouch who had “spent fifty years enduring mostly wet weather in his soul”[4], has done as much as anyone to garner the hard scientific proof that this stuff is learnable and we can all change, learn and improve a bit in the happiness stakes.

While I agree with Eleanor Roosevelt that, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product,” what we can learn, like Seligman, is to slide our ‘set point’ 10-15% higher up our own capabilities for experiencing more of this, the one thing so many of our actions are directly, or indirectly, aimed to achieve: happiness.

Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, said those who offer gratitude are less envious and resentful. They sleep longer, exercise more and report a drop in blood pressure [5]. According to Emmons’ research, there are three main things that determine your happiness: circumstances, genetics, and intentional activities. Cultivating gratitude fits into the happiness equation by being an intentional activity – one you can practice that has been shown to increase happiness levels. So just like all great wisdom traditions have taught us over millennium, it turns out one can prove that cultivating gratitude can not only make one happier, but healthier as well.

So there you have it, we are back to those ten warning signs of health I mentioned last month!

Had enough of all this banging on about happiness just when you are almost enjoying feeling really fed up?  Well never mind, enjoy it, just as long as you don’t buy into the pernicious pessimists’ mindset that tends to see every set back as; permanent, pervasive and personal: “It is going to last for ever, it’s going to undermine everything and it’s my fault”!

Unless of course you are a lawyer, this is the only profession, understandably, where pessimists do better!

[1]Seligmann, M. Authentic Happiness:Using the new positive psychology to realise your potential for lasting fulfilment. Pymble, Aus: Simon & Schuster, 2002, p. xiii.

[2]Anderson, Pauline. Diet Rich in Processed Food Linked to Increased Risk for Depression. Brit J Psychiatry. 2009; 195:408-413

[3]Across whole populations for example, rates of mental illness are five times higher in the most unequal societies compared with the least unequal societies. As Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. point out in their important new book The Spirit Level: why more Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, 2009.

[4] Seligman M. Op. cit. p.28.

[5] Emmons, R. Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Geneva: Mariner Books, 2008.


  1. […] like the movements to put a scientific basis to positive psychology I have mentioned before,  ( read more about it here) there seems to be a legitimate arm of all these moves towards refocusing us away from what we can […]

  2. […] like the movements to put a scientific basis to positive psychology I have mentioned before,  ( read more about it here) there seems to be a legitimate arm of all these moves towards refocusing us away from what we can […]