What Does a Happy Life Look Like?

We all recognise him; the red-faced, clench-fisted man who leaps out of his car, slams the door and rains expletives  – maybe someone has taken ‘his’ parking space or hooted in a way he found personally affronting. No one deeply satisfied with their life behaves like this. The same could be said of those who post hate on social media – they would not need to if they were genuinely happy, surrounded by love and kindness. 

So what do we know about happiness? There are two common types, one called hedonic and the other eudaimonic – but never mind the labels. The first is what most people aim for – wealth, beauty, stuff and status. It is about winning, having the latest and best of things, dancing till dawn or going on holiday. We all feel great when we have a good time, buy something new or win a race – ecstatic even. This is to be treasured in the moment because this is where this kind of happiness lies. We might have photos, great memories and a cabinet for our prizes but long-lasting deep happiness is not found in these things – even though all the ads and media messages tell us that this is what matters. 

The second type of happiness gives real satisfaction and can be within reach. It is not so much what you have or what happens to you but how you think about and respond to this.  

Positive Relationships 

Our connections with others are the crux of our happiness or misery. A positive relationship is far and away the most important factor for wellbeing. Although close relationships matter most, our interactions with colleagues, friends and neighbours all contribute. So, what is a good relationship? There are whole libraries devoted to this question so here are just the headlines. It is where no one dominates with each supporting the other in the tough times and celebrating together when things are good. There is warmth, trust, loyalty, kindness and reliability. Communications are positive, focusing on what we value about the other person. You can usually tell when relationships are positive because people are relaxed with each other and there is laughter and affection instead of walking on eggshells. When disagreements arise each person listens and they either come to a compromise or accept they just take a different view. And are prepared to admit when they are wrong. So spend time with people who lift you up rather than those who bring you down. 

The seeds of healthy relationships are sown early in life, where a child is loved for who they are but parents also make it clear that treating others well matters. Secure attachment with carers enables children to explore their worlds with confidence and reach out to others. Kindness is its own reward – generous hearts make people happier. 

Emotional Literacy 

Our red-faced man has a finely tuned amygdala – the seat of emotional memory in the brain that triggers flight, flight or freeze. He sees threats everywhere, probably because he has a history of hurt. People who do not understand their feelings or know how to regulate them live with a level of stress that is not only toxic for relationships and mental health but also for physical wellbeing. They are likely to have raised cortisol levels, cardiovascular problems and a lowered immune system. 

Wayne Dyer says “Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in hostile world. Same world”. It is our expectations that determine how we see things and therefore our capacity for happiness. If we were taught social and emotional learning in school, we would all have more chance of building positive relationships as well as coping with a range of feelings. 

Meaning and Purpose

Have you heard about the man who won the lottery but returned to work making celebration cakes? He said no amount of money could match the satisfaction he felt when creating a cake and handing this over to a delighted customer. He had clearly found his purpose in life. It doesn’t really matter what this is but having something that gives you meaning brings deep seated happiness: this could be music, sport, family, social activism, gardening or many other things. It is useful to have a backup so that if one thing becomes out of reach for some reason, you are not suddenly stranded without purpose. 

The Power of Now

We might imagine that hospices are miserable places full of people at death’s door. In fact, when pain is well managed, they are often joyful. When people realise they only have a short time left every moment becomes precious. We spend so much of our lives fretting about the past, worrying about the future or focusing on what we don’t have that we risk missing the joy of the now.

Mindfulness is one way of tuning in, but it doesn’t take training to appreciate and be thankful for the magic that exists in music, nature, laughter or even just a cup of tea with a friend. Happiness is there for the taking, and you don’t even have to look far. 

By: Sue Roffey

Dr Sue Roffey is a psychologist, academic and co-author of Creating the World We Want to Live In (Routledge) available now £19.99.