The last time I felt joy was at an event that would be many people’s vision of hell: a drunken Taylor Swift club-night singalong in the early hours of the morning a few weekends ago.
I certainly experience joy, either as peaks of euphoria or in quiet, unexpected bursts. But as I go about my everyday business – sprinting to meet deadlines, standing in front of the open fridge – I wouldn’t say it looms large.
I am not alone. Many of us treat joy like the good china, only warranted on special occasions. Even if we know it is within our reach, we may not see it is within our control.
But this is a mistake, according to happiness experts. Nataly Kogan, the author of Happier Now, says: “Happiness and emotional health are not extras, or bonuses, or nice-to-haves – they’re actually at the core of what helps us live well.”
Seeking joy may sound frivolous, but being happy has been shown to promote habits and behaviours that are important to our health. A 2017 study of roughly 7,000 adults found that those with positive wellbeing were more likely to be physically active and to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Being happy has also been linked to better sleep, better weight management, lower stress levels, an improved immune system and even increased life expectancy.
Despite the myriad benefits of joy – and the obvious incentive that it feels good – many of us don’t prioritise it. But experts point out that our resources and energy are finite; what we put off will fall by the wayside. So, as with any goal, the first step to a joyful life is to make it a priority – which may mean you need to let go of other commitments – and then do the work. In other words, we need to start taking joy seriously.
As the founder and chief executive of the wellbeing business Happier, Kogan helps companies to improve their workplace culture and professionals to foster joy in their lives – lessons born out of her experience of career burnout and personal dissatisfaction in her late 30s. She likens herself at the time to a ship on the ocean – fine in favourable conditions, but at the mercy of any storm.
Now 44 and based with her family in Boston, Massachusetts, Kogan says she has landed on practices and tools to harness happiness as a steady, sustainable presence in her daily life. The first of these is not to think of happiness as something to pursue at a later date, when your life is in order. “I lived with this idea of: ‘I’ll be happy when …’ as I know so many people do,” she says. “We have to look at emotional health as a skill, not a destination. And, as with any skill, when you practise, you do better.”
The gains have been established in research into baseline happiness – what in psychological literature is called our “hedonic set point”. It varies from person to person, but the key point is that our baseline is only half determined by genetics. “That means the other 50% is up to us,” says Kogan. “I think that is incredibly empowering.”
So, what can we do to make 2020 a more joyful year?
Identify the problem
Start by identifying where joy is most lacking. Sarah Waite, a London-based psychologist, suggests the “wheel of life”, a personal development exercise derived from the Buddhist theory of balance. Draw a large circle, divide it into eight or 10 segments and label each to reflect a different area of life that you want to assess.
There are templates online, typically along the lines of fun and recreation, physical environment, career, finances, personal growth, romance, family and friends, and health. Shade in each wedge to reflect your level of satisfaction.
The finished circle should be an overview of the areas of your life that you feel you have under control, and those that may need further attention. When it comes to deciding where to allocate resources, “it’s not necessarily the one you’ve marked the lowest; it’s the one you really value the most,” says Waite. It may be that your job is not a priority for you, so it doesn’t matter if it remains only two-thirds filled.
The goal is to get perspective and clarity. The brain has evolved to be much more sensitive to negatives than positives as, historically, it has been more important for us to be attuned to hazardous situations than satisfactory ones. This “negativity bias” distorts our perspective, meaning it is hard to make a good decision under stress, says Kogan. “People can focus on things that are not ‘as they should be’ … We all have our stories of why we are not happy, at work or otherwise.” But small, practical steps taken to boost joy in one part of life can improve happiness across the board as momentum builds.
The big picture
Kogan’s first tip is to start by writing a list of what you like about your job, no matter how small. “Be specific, think broadly and don’t judge your list as you write it.” It doesn’t matter what they are, or how many there are; the idea is to shift your mindset.
Kogan suggests making it a daily habit to note three small, highly specific things that you are grateful for every morning, perhaps before you reach for your phone. “It’s not about pretending that nothing is wrong, it’s about helping your brain to get out of that negativity spiral.”
Just three weeks of this consistent “gratitude practice” has been shown to establish new neuron connections facilitating optimism, with the effects lasting for six months. Mindfulness and self-compassion are similarly powerful, says Shamash Alidina, the author of Mindfulness for Dummies and the co-founder of the not-for-profit Museum of Happiness – and more attainable than people may think.
Many equate mindfulness with clearing one’s mind of thoughts entirely. This means they often give up out of frustration, says Alidina – but “it’s not about not thinking, it’s about being aware”. Spending just a few minutes noticing your thoughts pass you by like clouds, experimenting with what Alidina calls your “flexibility of attention”, can equip you to stop negative spirals before they start. “People associate meditation with being calm or relaxed, but it’s really just about not getting lost in your thoughts,” he says.
What does it all mean?
Finding lasting happiness is also about what we do, particularly what we do for others. Kogan says it is important to have a sense of purpose – to find what she calls “the bigger why” among our deadlines and meetings. “It’s not possible to be a happy human being if you don’t feel like what you’re doing is meaningful,” she says.
Assessing your to-do list – particularly tasks you find mundane or frustrating – through the lens of “Who does this help?” can increase motivation, lift your mood and improve your ability to manage stress, she says. “When you say: ‘This project is going to help a lot of people’ – my team, customers, readers, whatever – your stress has context and you feel more resilient getting through it.”
Helping others may seem like a circular way of boosting your happiness, but Kogan says even small gestures, such as pulling out a chair for a colleague or checking in with them about their day, releases oxytocin in the giver and the receiver. Over time, it also fosters a sense of belonging at work and can lead to office friendships – one of the most common factors in job satisfaction.
Play is an effective mood‑booster that is often neglected in adulthood
The mindset shift encouraged by practising “intentional kindness” means it is worth doing for your own happiness, says Kogan. At 3pm every day, she receives a reminder to “be kind”. Sometimes that is as simple as texting someone she hasn’t spoken to in a while and telling them that she’s thinking of them: “I cannot tell you how much that means to people.”
It is well known that strong relationships are important to happiness, but what those look like – and how to forge them – can be ambiguous. “Happiness can feel very abstract,” says Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. “My approach is to think about what you want, then break it up into manageable, concrete actions that you can actually take.”
In terms of improving relationships, that might look like making a regular time to call or meet a friend, committing to attend a reunion or throw a party, or having a daily exchange with someone in public. Every five days or so, Rubin’s family email each other an update on the “boring everyday stuff” of their lives, freed from any pressure to entertain or an expectation to reply. “We realised that, by staying in touch with the little minutiae, we would feel more connected – and it’s absolutely working.”
Making warm greetings and goodbyes habitual at home is another small but effective shift (“I always think that I don’t want to be less enthusiastic than my dog,” says Rubin). Such low-level commitments are less daunting to start and easier to keep up – and they make a real impact. We all have different definitions of happiness, Rubin says, whether it be joy, peace, satisfaction, bliss. “My way of thinking about it is: today, next month, next year – are there things you can do to be happier?” she says. “And if there are, why not do them?”
If Rubin comes across an improvement at home that she can make in less than a minute, she does it immediately. For her, “outer order contributes to inner calm”, so happiness can be as simple as a clean kitchen bench or a decluttered shelf. “It feels trivial – and yet over and over people say: ‘When I have control of my environment, I feel like I have control generally,’” says Rubin. “Like making your bed every morning – it gives people a lift, more than really makes sense.”
Often this is understood as minimalism – but there are many happy, successful people who take pleasure in being surrounded by their possessions, says Rubin. It is not a moral failing to prefer abundance, and making your personal space reflect your values and interests “can be very pleasing”.
Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of The Aesthetics of Joy, agrees. “We’ve been taught to think about our homes through the lens of other people: what’s trendy, what the design books say,” she says. As a result, many of us are out of touch with how our spaces measure on our own “joy meters”. We may view a neutral grey palette as the height of sophistication when, in fact, what brings us pleasure is a neon front door.
Even the presence of different shapes can have an impact, with people finding angular objects more subconsciously anxiety-inducing than round ones. Rounded objects also tend to make environments more playful, says Lee: “Not only because your mind is unconsciously set at ease, but because you’re less worried about bumping into sharp edges.”
Play is an effective mood-booster that is often neglected in adulthood. Rubin says she marks holidays such as Halloween and St Patrick’s Day with themed meals, just because, while the Museum of Happiness’s pop-up installations in London and Manchester later this month are testament to the transformative effects of a ballpit on otherwise sober adults.
To bring some of that spirit into your home, Lee advises trying to imagine you are visiting for the first time: “Notice how it makes you feel, almost the physiological sensation in your body, as you move from room to room. What are the things that, when your eyes land on them, make you smile or feel drained?”
The key is not to feel burdened by your possessions. “Owning less means you are surrounding yourself with only your favourite things,” says Joshua Becker, who writes the blog Becoming Minimalist. Being intentional with the things that we own – and, by extension, our money – means that our lives align with our values and passions: things that really matter to us. “Minimalism removes distractions so that we can free up our money, time and energy on those things that bring us real joy in life,” says Becker.
Early to bed
Play, gratitude and kindness may factor into a life full of joy, but so can discipline. A sense of control is more important to happiness than many people realise, says Rubin. Prosaically enough, this is inextricable from exercise, sleep and good money management. Too often, happiness is located solely in the moment, she says, when it could be achieved through giving up sugar or alcohol, or setting an alarm to go to bed on time. “Sometimes, to be happier in the long run, we have to ask more of ourselves or deprive ourselves of something,” says Rubin. “A happy life is not one that’s focused only on the present.”
In the same vein, putting off a difficult or boring task can detract from your daily experience more than getting stuck into it. Waite says she rolls her eyes at the framing of self-care as “baths and candles”: “I love those things, but if doing your tax return is really making you anxious, maybe the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to make a start.” It may not be what is typically understood by joy, but sustainable, long-lasting happiness involves recognising that there are many shades on the emotional palette.
Research shows that occasionally accepting the presence of harder emotions means you experience them less intensely and for less time. In fact, the first step towards a joyful life may be letting go of your ideas of what that looks like – and recognising that it is down to you.
“Part of this exercise is to recognise that there isn’t anything out there that is going to make you feel good 100% of the time,” says Kogan. “That’s actually great news, because when we let go of this particular idea of happiness we give ourselves more opportunities to be in alignment with our lives.”