If someone asked you right now, ‘Are you happy?’ what would your response be? For most, this question would provoke an ambivalent shrug, followed by the hesitant ‘well… I don’t know… I mean, I’m not unhappy.’
See, it’s hard to be sure. We know what it's like to feel shit: recalling that terrible breakup, a traumatic experience, the death of someone close. And we know what it's like to feel okay, though we hope that this state of ‘normal’ is merely a taster of the happiness we could feel, but certainly, not the whole lot.
Philosophy tells us happiness is about living a good life filled with purpose. Psychology tells us it’s about positive well-being. You read cringe quotes of happiness being a journey and not a destination, of it being a heightened state rather than something tangible and you’re left feeling a little bit mugged off by life.
Is happiness the life milestones: riding a bike, graduation, finally telling your ex to stop messaging you at 3am because you’re not that kind of person (...anymore). Or is it the small daily pleasures: a cold pint at the end of a long day, your bus arriving on time, taking your bra off at night. And if happiness is this subjective, then how can it even be measured or defined?
According to science, though, it can be objective. There is a correlation between happiness and individual circumstances such as income and relationships. Since 2015, the UN have been creating an annual World Happiness Report which ranks countries in the world based on how happy the population are; the UK is 19th, if you were wondering.
It’ll come of no surprise that the top 5 is made up of Scandinavian countries and the unhappiest country in the world is apparently Burundi, East Africa. The study takes into account criteria such as social support, freedom of choice and life expectancy but what about all that other shit I just said about bikes and bras that science isn’t even considering?
The 10/50/40 Theory of Happiness
Psychologists believe that social and environmental circumstances are responsible for only 10% of our happiness because when life goes tits up, we normally return to our original level of happiness around 2 months later as we start to adjust to the new parametres of our circumstances.
50% of your ability to be happy is then decided by your biology, specifically your genetic traits. So if you’re sociable and stable, you may experience 'happiness' more often. If you’re now thinking that your gene pool is less than impressive, then don’t worry, because the final 40% of your happiness is determined by your thoughts, actions and behaviours. Which luckily, you can control.
So whilst there is no guarantee that your individual circumstances or your inherent traits will positively contribute to your overall sense of happiness, according to Dr. Laurie Santos, the professor behind Psychology and the Good Life there are certain actions all happy people do. She told GQ, ‘The data really suggests that happy people do certain things: they have really tight social ties, they make time for those social ties, they take time to experience gratitude, they're mindful in the moment. They sleep, they exercise, and they try to make time for themselves. It's not this deep mystery of human nature.’
What the above list suggests is that happiness takes time. Apart from the obvious, that you don't just feel happy overnight, you also have to invest time into your own happiness to create and maintain it. Whether that’s letting yourself sleep for an extra couple of hours, going to the gym or sitting in with your best mate chatting shit on a Sunday afternoon.
And we're not supposed to feel really happy all the time. Sometimes you'll be so happy you cry and then other times you'll feel so down that it physically hurts. And that's okay. It shouldn't be about getting to a point of being consistently happy (because that would actually be really exhausting and a bit weird), but rather, knowing the things you can do personally that can make shit situations more bearable and avoiding certain behaviours and thoughts that could make you feel unnecessarily rubbish.