Do you want to know how to live a happier life?
What is going on?
According to economists, we have never been wealthier. Yet …
Racism is entrenched, sexism is booming, 2.4 million people were subject to domestic abuse in the UK last year, stratospheric stress levels manifest as depression, self-harm running at over 40% amongst 14–15 years olds in a town in the UK, drug and alcohol abuse costing the US $600 bn each year, suicide rates are up.
Why are we so unhappy when, prior to the Coronavirus, we have never had more?
This article seeks what we want from life, what has been going wrong, and the simple steps we can take ourselves to redress the balance for a happier, healthier life.
What is wellbeing?
The people who study these things understand that we all want different things from life. But whatever we want at the moment seems to fit within a pattern that is useful to understand.
There are two primary sides to wellbeing — material wellbeing and mental wellbeing. Material wellbeing includes everything needed for physical security, comfort and entertainment. In includes things like having enough food to eat, somewhere safe to live, good physical health, clothes for protection against the elements. Mental wellbeing includes everything needed for mental harmony. It is not just the absence of mental illness but also the existence of mental wellness. It includes things like a sense of security, a sense of belonging, good personal relationships, feeling comfortable and in harmony within yourself, with your community and with nature.
Happiness, or wellbeing, is a function of how closely we are able to satisfy our needs, wants and hopes that are driven by our two natural propensities for wellbeing.
But before we can even think about wellbeing, we have a handful of non-negotiable basic needs. Our most basic material needs include enough food and physical protection to survive. Our most basic emotional needs include feeling confident our basic material needs will be met for the foreseeable future. They also include feeling enough of a sense of belonging and feeling valued enough that our self-worth is above zero. People at or below this level of physical or emotional poverty have no control whatsoever over their wellbeing. They need us to fight for them for a basic level of income or provision that assures them of survival, and for a sense of dignity that assures them of being treated with common decency.
For everyone else, we do have some degree of control over our wellbeing.
The basis of society is to generate the opportunity for wellbeing. I have written several articles about how society can expand the opportunities it delivers to its members. What follows is an introduction to ways we can supplement the opportunity society delivers to us by nurturing and developing our wellbeing capacity.
Managing Material Goals
Wellbeing is about satisfying our collection of needs, wants and hopes. For the sake of brevity, we refer to this collection below simply as needs.
In respect of our material needs, we can manage our wellbeing in two ways.
Firstly, we can reflect on our perception of our needs. If we can filter what we no longer need, we achieve a higher proportion of our needs that are satisfied.
We can think about whether we have prioritised our needs appropriately. How much do we need to spend on clothes, how important is that status jewellery, does the cost of an expensive holiday outweigh the cost of feeling financial stress? Where we define our needs by our personal circumstances, there is nothing more to be done. But where we let others define our needs for us, we have an opportunity to improve our lives.
Secondly, we have a tendency to focus on our unmet needs and discount those that have been met. So most of us underestimate what we have. This awareness directly raises our sense of wellbeing. If we satisfy 70% of our needs but feel we have only satisfied 50%, we feel less happy. What a waste! So simply becoming more conscious of when we do satisfy our needs, we become happier. This value of gratitude is commonly dismissed. Yet it has been shown to offer simple opportunities to increase our happiness. Techniques can be as simple as keeping a note of at least one thing we enjoy each day, or making a deliberate decision to discuss something daily or weekly of which you feel grateful with your partner, siblings, parents, children or friends. Mindfulness techniques nurture our focus our awareness on stuff we experience that makes us happy, such as pretty sunsets, a river or lake to cool down in, or a satisfying meal
We are social animals. So it is no surprise that our relationships are key to our wellbeing. I doubt any one of us has failed to experience at least one stressful relationship. We are a species of enormously diverse people, with a complete range of characteristics, experiencing a huge variety of conditions. It means we have our work cut out to find real friends or our soul mate.
An effective relationship is one which increases our wellbeing. So how do we form effective relationships with such a bewildering array of personality types to choose from?
Effective relationships are all about developing emotional connections. Its foundation is a desire for good things to happen to the people we are trying to connect to without any transactional “payback”. It has been described as “unconditional positive regard”. Where one party has an expectation of reward for being nice or simply out of a sense of entitlement, the relationship is not based on an emotional connection. An effective relationship is altruistic. It demands that we understand enough about the other person to know how best to support their needs. It requires empathy, a deep understanding of the other person, sharing the joy that they feel and understanding and appreciating of any pain or distress they feel. Empathy is an evolved skill, which means over 99% of us have it. But as with any other skill, it needs to be nurtured and practised regularly in order for us to hone those skills. Empathy is core to developing emotional connections. But whereas the connection can not be transactional — it is not a real connection if it is a one-way street. An effective relationship is one where both parties are able to develop a true emotional connection with each other.
Self-worth is another key component of mental security. We form our sense of self-worth partly by the way people treat us. If we relate with people who do not respect us, we find it difficult to respect ourselves. We need to feel we belong. It is a deeply ingrained instinct which is connected with our sense of assurance of being protected within the community. So managing relationships involves trying to spend less time with people who do not respect us and more time with people who do.
Similarly, we need to respect the people we relate with. An effective relationship has to be equal. Relationships can still flourish between people with different skills, backgrounds or degree of control over each other. But it can not flourish if the context is that one person thinks less of the other than of themselves. This is the essence of dignity. In the same way that we can not form good relationships with people who do not respect us, the same is true in return. Plenty of research has shown that we will struggle to respect other people if we do not respect ourselves first. So a key part of developing effective relationships is developing self-respect.
During our lives, we will encounter all sorts of relationships, with family, friends, lovers and colleagues. We form relationships with people in the wide range of communities we become part of during our lives. There are several aspects of developing good relationships, such as compassion, integrity and mutual trust. Effective relationships take quite a lot of investment of time and mutual respect. But for almost all of us, relationships form a key part of improving our wellbeing.
Stress might be one of the greatest threat we face today to mental security. Anxiety is the sense that we want to punch someone in the face or run away because we feel some sort of discomfort. It is part of our evolved “fight or flight” response. It arises when too much is expected of workers, when students are pushed unnecessarily hard, when we feel we are being pushed out of relationships or our other social circles. It is rife with people in poverty and for people who are economically dependant on others who seek to exploit that dependency.
We are all equipped to respond to an urgent “fight or flight” impulse. But we did not evolve to live under conditions of the unrelenting pressure so many people encounter today. It manifests itself in a variety of physical and emotional ill-health, such as depression, cancer and heart conditions. Research has even shown chronic anxiety can change our DNA. It is not a healthy state.
It should be obvious that the most significant improvement wellbeing can be gained by shifting the way we manage society to creates less anxiety in the first place. But until that happens, managing our own levels of stress has potentially huge gains for wellbeing.
Some of us have enough control over our circumstances to be able to remove ourselves from inappropriate stress. Options to consider include changing jobs, leaving toxic relationships, changing lifestyles and managing material goals. But that may take time to realise and, for too many, is not an option.
There are several self-help techniques for managing stress. Mindfulness which gives time for the brain to process and try to resolve stressful circumstances. Self-awareness helps establish a defensive barrier against peer pressure or being led by others into inappropriately stressful situations. Techniques to strengthen resilience start with identifying the areas of greatest susceptibility to stress and offering direct support to remedy those weaknesses.
There is a direct connection between successful stress management and wellbeing.
Managing Self Awareness
Self-awareness offers perhaps the richest opportunity for individuals to manage their own wellbeing because it depends on no-one else.
At the very core of each person is what some people call the soul. It is described by some religious groups as a pure white light, or even the presence of God. It is the self-protective part of our awareness that has no interest other than our wellbeing. It is compassionate towards us, it is kind, it is gentle, it is peaceful. We all have this pure inner core. It is an evolved state of consciousness. When we let this instinctive protection guide our thinking, we call it our “authentic self”.
The authentic self faces two challenges. One is social pressure for us to act in a way that our instinct tells us is wrong or is incompatible with our values. It makes us behave in ways that we believe is incongruous to our wellbeing. It makes us feel uncomfortable and easily develops into anxiety. The other challenge is that our instinct may not always have answers to some of the situations we encounter. This is especially true of our formative years. To compensate, we add layers of belief on top of our instinct to reflect what we learn through experience. An abused child, for example, will learn not to trust people even where their instinct may want them to welcome a kind gesture.
This presents us with two opportunities to improve our wellbeing. By becoming more in touch with our authentic self, we can become increasingly self-led. This allows us to become more settled internally as we chase out the anxiety that arises from incongruous behaviour. By becoming more aware of the lessons we learnt during our children, we can revisit them. Solutions or understandings that seemed logical as a child may not be so logical to our adult eyes. Self-reflection gives us the opportunity to “unlearn” beliefs that may no longer serve our interests. We can refer to these two combined skills as introspective intelligence.
A while ago, I had an encounter with a 20-year old woman. She had been put into care when she was 6 weeks old. By the time she reached 18, she has been in 19 foster homes and three care homes. On her 18th birthday, the local Council who had housed her until then, called her in for a meeting. They told her that she could not go home because they no longer had any duty to look after her. She told me she was so unprepared for this that, when she left the building, she did not know whether to turn left or right because she had nowhere to go. She spent two years living on the streets, enduring some scary and horrible experiences. A charity I work with had offered her an opportunity to live in a halfway house for six months. We offered her the opportunity to learn how to live with others, to learn new skills, to take therapy and to help her look for a job. To the charity, we were excited to be able to help a deeply neglected young woman. To her, we were just another authority not to be trusted. She rejected our help. Her learnt beliefs no longer served her new circumstances, she just did not know it. This example helps to understand both the strengths and the potential limitations in beliefs we all develop as we experience life, some of which we learn before we have enough experience to form more balanced understandings.
The world lays some of the most wonderful opportunities and life-changing challenges we can imagine at our door. Some of our wellbeing is driven by the hand life deals us. Our evolved nature also bestows on us plenty of opportunities to shape our own destiny.
They say charity begins at home. To some extent, that is true of happiness too.