Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Are expectations the enemy of happiness?

'The Road Less Travelled' by M Scott Peck starts with the statement: "life is hard", as a truth to be universally acknowledged and accepted and without the acceptance of which Dr Peck believes we can not attain contentment.

Indeed, studies have shown time and time again that our expectations colour how we evaluate outcome. Recent research on patients undergoing knee surgery found out that those who were fully briefed and understood that they were likely to experience pain afterwards actually felt a lot better after the surgery than those people who did not expect any pain.

So a healthy dose of realism can actually facilitate happiness. Alter your expectations - know that you will sometimes have bad days and that you will screw up, that way when days come when things don't go your way, it isn't a surprise but just a normal part of life, a blip that can be overcome. Not everyone will like you, you won't say the right thing all the time - this is just common sense, being realistic, so why be unhappy when this happens at the expense of all the good things for which you should be happy.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Are you a Captain Kirk or Dr Spock?

It's obviously a lot easier to become happy if you know what it is that makes you happy. A first simple step that can help you determine the components you need to have in your days and weeks to be happy is to determine whether you're an introvert or an extrovert. For some people the answer to this will be very apparent, but think about it again because there is such a thing as a shy extrovert and many introverts are very confident and skilled in their engagment with others. The best way that I have come across to determine which of these categories you fit into is to ask yourself when you feel your best and most energized. Is this after a day spent with a full house of friends or is it after you've had a quiet walk in the park?
This is not to say that as an introvert you do not enjoy spending time with other people, it's just more tiring for you than for an extrovert. An extrovert on the other hand, will often feel more washed out after a day spent alone.

Both introverts and extroverts need time in other people's company as well as time alone for reflection, but the balance can be different. Most importantly an absence of time alone can make introverts feel very unbalanced and exhausted, whereas spending even just one day entirely alone can make an extrovert feel depressed for no apparent reason.

Sometimes it's simply a mistake in getting this balance right that makes us unhappy, but if you are not aware what it is that you need it is harder to improve. If you are an extrovert, you would do better to work in busy environments with lots of people around, and usually you are not overly bothered by noise. As an intravert, you tend to thrive in quiter environments and can do better when left to your own devices. No matter what your job though there are things that you can do to make it fit better with your extrovert nature.

Extroverts will find working from home, on their own, a challenge, but there are ways to overcome this. You could spend some of your working day in a cafe, or arrange to meet up for lunch with a friend, or go for an exercise class where you could befriend and chat to some of your class mates. Either way make sure that you incorporate some social activities in your day.

Similarly an introvert might find a job that involves a lot of talking and wining and dining of clients difficult. In this case I would recommend having some quiet time when you get home or during your lunchbreak - go for a walk or for a run, or just read your favourite newspaper for a while, until you recuperate.

Once you become aware of the correct balance of activities, feeling happy will be easier and you will certainly have fewer down days.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Farmer wants a wife? Of course he does!

Have you ever seen a programme called farmer wants a wife? Basically the concept behind it is that single farmers from accross the country get a chance to meet lovely single ladies who are looking for a life in the countryside with a farmer by their side.

Anyway, while you may consider this programme sweet or ridiculous, in terms of happiness those farmers are doing the right thing as there's been a subtsantial amount of research to show that people who are married are happier, especially in the first few years after their wedding, but the feeling persists, albeit to a lesser extent throughout their life.

So why does marriage make us happy and could people who are not married replicate this effect if they understand why it is that marriage has this positive effect?

There could be a few reasons for happiness caused by marriage but probably the main on is that it results in a substantial increase in social interaction.
As humans are social animals in need of social and physical contact and these are some of the main contributors to our level of happiness, it seems likely that this is a factor in the level of happiness that marriage brings. So if you're not married a way to make up for this is by spending more time with friends and family - which would be my advice to anyone wanting to get happier...

It seems that 'Farmer wants a wife' will only help the farmer become happier, and that the rest of us would do better to pick up the phone to our Moms, or at least to watch it with a friend.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Slow down to speed up

Sometimes we have to do what's counter-intuitive to increase our happiness and wellbeing. In my experience that certainly seems to be the case with urgent tasks and busy days.

When faced with a busy schedule or lots of fire-fighting tasks, my immediate and instinctive strategy is to go into panic mode and rush. Today I thought about why I do this - and realised that the very act of rushing makes me feel like I am accomplishing something, but of course this is not at all the case. Also there is a feeling of importance associated with being terribly busy.

In spite of my busy schedule today, I decided to relax and complete my tasks in a thorough and almost dignified way. I took time to get myself a cup of tea and thought about all the jobs I was doing as I was doing them rather than worrying about the next task or simply panicking about the sheer number of things I've still got to get done.

The result was quite amazing, not only did I achieve what I set out to do, but I felt calm and in control while doing it. In retrospect I feel like I lived my day more and I didn't make any of the mistakes I commonly make on panic days like putting marked-up documents as attachments on email or forgetting my contract file for a meeting.

I can't pretend that I'll have this kind of self control on all rush days, but today has certainly shown me that things can be done differently and better if I slow down.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Do a done list!

I freely admit that I am a list addict, I write many to-do lists every week, lists when I pack, shopping lists... and even lists of lists apparently...

Anyway, last week I was writing my annual review at work and I realised that in my personal life I only write lists of tasks and plas for the future, but never take time to think about what I have accomplished... So I urge you to write a done list, of things you've accomplished and are proud of.

Start with the really big and important things - relationships. Add to your list any relationship in your life that makes you happy and proud. This could be your partner, parents, family, friends. All of these relationships are significant achievements demanding time and effort, and we should see them as such.

Have you completed anything which you thought was difficult - a course, a project, a challenge. It can go from completing a degree, to doing a really good job on a presentation at work, to decorating your home in such a way that you feel cosy in it or achieving the time you set out to meet in a 5k run. Add all of these to your list.

Move on to skills. What are all the things that you can do? Can you cook, ice skate, sing, make a great margarita?

Now to more philosophical themes. Have you managed to make yourself independent? Do you have fun most days?

Ask people close to you to contribute to your list if you get a bit stuck.

Now look at your list...

What impressed me most of all with this exercise was not so much the number of things on my list, but more that quite a few of them were things that really mattered...

My list also left me feeling grateful - for the good relationships and for all the things I've had the opportunity to learn.

Now it seems to me that this is a list I should have done long ago, not yet another to-do list, but a done list.

Happiness and the sunny side of life

This blog is prompted by my keen interest in happiness - what is it? how do we get it and how do we keep it once we've found it?

As you get older the incredible shortness of life becomes very clear, so making the best out of this short time we've got is important. I would like to use this blog to discuss how to increase happiness and satisfaction with life and how much influence we really have over it.

I will be collecting works and ideas from everywhere I go and sharing them on my blog and I appreciate input from anyone who is also willing to try the methods proposed, or just wants to discuss them.