The world is not a happy place at the moment, if the news is anything to go by. From natural disasters to political scandals, from economic woes to social unrest, every day brings a litany of stories each one more shocking than the other. And yet, it can’t be denied…we’re happier.
In fact, there’s a whole lot of happy going around these days.
Maybe it’s the change in season. Maybe it’s hearing Pharell Williams song ‘Happy’ every day for last few months. Or maybe it’s the fact that the UN recently celebrated the second International Happiness Day (March 20). The lovely long stretch in the evenings has me definitely feeling more upbeat. The dark days are gone. The storms have passed. We’ve come through it. The sun is shining. The cherry trees are starting to bloom. In the words of songsmith John Spillane: “Well done everyone!”
Happiness is very popular these days. Magazines are full of articles on ways to be happy, the 10 habits of happy people and how our wellbeing affects our health and longevity. Happiness books have become very popular and you only have to watch all those happy people being happy in advertisements to know that happiness sells.
Psychology has been slow to study happiness, or wellness for that matter. For the first hundred years or so, scientists only studied mental illness, not mental wellness. In the 20th century most psychology studies focused on what makes people miserable. 21st century science wants to know what makes us happy. This new area of study is called Positive Psychology.
It’s a tricky business to try and study happiness. How do you define happiness? One person’s happy can be another’s wretchedness. Some see happiness as an exhilarating explosion of unbridled joy, while others define happiness as quiet satisfaction. When positive psychologists talk about happiness, what they mean is a sense of deep contentment. It is a Universal trait recognised by all humans on the planet from the Sahara desert to the Mongolian Steppes and every bustling city in between.
I recently got an insight into happiness from an unlikely source. I was watching a young, brash African-American comedian. He was commenting on his recent and unfamiliar state of general wellbeing. He said that he knew he must be happy, because he went for a walk. “You’ve got to be happy to go for a walk.” He then found himself feeding some pigeons: “and you’ve really got to be happy if you’re in NYC in the middle of the afternoon and you’re going for a walk and feeding pigeons.” As a former urban dweller, there was a ring of truth to his comments that made me, well, happy. My life changed drastically when I moved from being a city dweller to living in the countryside. Over the years that has changed my perspective. The most fundamental change has been what makes me happy.
If I’ve learned one thing after living in West Cork for over twenty years it’s that my happiness is definitely linked to the landscape and the people that surround me. A few sunny days, a walk on Inchydoney, or a potter around the garden and I’m a happy camper. Sighting a heron, a fox or a sparrow hawk is like being handed a glass of champagne to celebrate the day. I saw all three this week and it feels like I won the lottery (bonus points if I spot a stout, an owl, or a badger!). I’ve also learned to appreciate the solace of a fire on a wet and windy day. In other words, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Friends, family, and the feeling of belonging to a community makes the whole so much more than the sum of its parts.
Recent data seems to confirm that most people feel the same. The London School of Economics asked 22,000 people to log their emotional states throughout the day. They also logged in their location. One million entries were collated in the study and here’s what they found: “Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot for most. In fact, participants were found to be substantially happier outdoors in all natural environments than they were in urban environments.” People recorded the highest levels of happiness on coastal locations, followed by mountains and moors, forests and farms. Being active in an outdoor setting, or even just birdwatching, also raised happiness levels.
Maybe that’s why Ireland consistently rates so high on the Happiness Index. Despite the economic downturn, Ireland has scored in the top ten happiest countries for many years. The most recent data covered 2006 to 2011, in other words from boom to bust. Ireland still ranked third in the world for average life satisfaction, behind Costa Rica and Denmark, and tenth overall. The fact is that no matter where you are in the country, you can always get on a bus and go for a walk by the seaside. If the sea is too far away, there’s sure to be hills, bogs, fields or mountains in the area. Better yet, should the weather turn, there are many congenial spaces to meet up for a drink, a chat and a bit of a sing song. Welcome back Spring!