Small Steps: Boost your wellbeing by asking yourself the right questions
Happiness is unique in the enormous variety of pseudoscience and claptrap that surrounds it. “No medicine cures what happiness cannot,” wrote Gabriel García Márquez. False. “Sanity and happiness are impossible combinations,” said Mark Twain. Incorrect.
“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” That’s George Burns. Funny… but false.
Fortunately, the study of happiness has over the past few years vastly improved, and, among the waffle and chaff, there are some useful, scientifically proven principles that we can all apply to our lives.
We bring you an expert panel comprising of: Dr Dean Burnett (DB), a neuroscientist and the author of The Happy Brain; Prof Felice Jacka (FJ), the director of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research; and Paul Dolan (PD), author of Happiness by Design and professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics.
If this A-team of happiness won’t make you feel better, nobody will.
Here, they answer 12 frequently asked questions about happiness.
1 What does ‘happiness’ mean?
DB: ‘Happiness’ can be described as an umbrella term for all the different ways in which we can feel positive. At its basic level, it’s your brain’s way of encouraging behaviours that it thinks are beneficial to you and there are neurological chemicals and processes involved.
One of them is dopamine, the neurotransmitter that allows the reward pathway of the brain to function. Endorphins come in as well. There’s also oxytocin, (the “cuddle molecule”), and serotonin seems to be a mood regulator. But these chemicals do not cause happiness; they’re more like the materials you need to build a house.
2 Is happiness predetermined?
DB: Our biology is always going to have a role to play in our mental state. Data suggests some people have a different level of sensitivity in their reward pathway, often meaning that it takes more stimulation to make them feel standard amounts of pleasure.
A lot of it is developmentally based, too: the age of four is key for forming a long-term ability to process emotions. And then there are conditions such as borderline personality disorder. But if you exercise, eat better, and so on, your body becomes better able to support your brain with the conditions it requires for happiness.
3 Pleasure or purpose – should I prioritise?
PD: Happiness is our experience of pleasure and purpose in our lives, and we need both of them.
Pleasurable things are things that make us feel good while we’re doing them, like spending time with our families, watching television, and eating food we like.
Purposeful experiences are those that involve delayed gratification, such as gruelling exercise or learning something new or working on a demanding project.
Both of these things are important, and we really need to strike a balance between them.
4 What makes me happy?
PD: We tell ourselves lots of stories about what should make us happy: the job and the marriage and the house and the kids and so on. But what counts is moment-to-moment happiness, not our abstract evaluations of our lives. This is something people often lose sight of.
For example, people sometimes stay in jobs they don’t like for reasons such as the job’s prestige, or simply because they hope to earn money to enjoy later. Or they read a book because it’s highbrow, but don’t enjoy any of it. That’s not a sensible approach: you can’t rely on recouping that happiness. Lost happiness is lost forever. Humans are so bad at evaluating their own happiness that it’s often more useful to ask friends or family: people who know us well tend to have a clearer view of what makes us happy from day-to-day.
5 Can exercise help – and which kind?
DB: The link between exercise and well-being isn’t as clear as people like to make out, but, broadly, anything that improves your general health will also improve your ability to be happy. Interval training, in which you alternate between working very hard and resting, tends to be the kind of exercise most recommended for rapid improvement in health.
Exercise in a group tends to be associated with better mental health. But keep pushing yourself, because your brain stops responding to anything that is too familiar.
6 How much does food affect mood?
FJ: We now understand that your gut microbiome seems to be very important in driving mood and behaviour, and diet appears to be the most important variable that affects the microbiome. Your gut microbes ferment dietary fibre, and the molecules they produce in that process have a large range of functions within the body. Gut microbes influence our metabolism, body weight, blood glucose, gene activity and the health of our brain, and all of these factors have a tight relationship with mood and even depression.
A leaky gut lining, which can be caused by a bad diet, allows food and bacteria to leak into your bloodstream. This prompts an immune response from your body, which results in what we call inflammation. Inflammation is a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and depression.
By eating and drinking well, you can change your microbiome and thus, potentially, improve your health and happiness within days.
7 So what is a good diet then?
FJ: You need fibre – it’s great for your gut bugs. A diverse range of vegetables and fruit should be your starting point. Then wholegrain cereals, as unprocessed as possible: quinoa, barley, brown rice, and rolled oats. They also provide important types of fibres. Legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas and beans, also provide really terrific substrates for your gut bugs to ferment.
Healthy fats, too, seem to be particularly important: the monounsaturated fats that you get from olive oil and the sorts of fats you can get in fish and seafood. Fermented foods are really wonderful too, because they provide prebiotic substrates, which means they provide food for our bugs.
8 Can I still drink alcohol?
FJ: Alcohol consumed in small amounts is part of a Mediterranean-style diet and doesn’t seem to be harmful. Moderate consumption may be linked to improved well-being because of the social interaction it usually involves, but the problem is that as soon as we exceed small amounts, that promotes leaky gut, and anything that promotes leaky gut is going to promote inflammation, which will be problematic for your physical and mental health. Binge drinking is extremely problematic.
9 Is it possible to change habits?
PD: Psychological theory has traditionally told us that intention leads to actions, but it’s the other way around. Willpower is finite and all of us need help forming habits. Don’t just set yourself a goal like “doing more exercise” – break it down into manageable steps, and prime yourself into following them by doing things such as proactively putting gym trips into your calendar. Involve other people, whether it’s by telling them what you plan to do, which makes you more likely to actually do it, or by having them join you in whatever activity you’ve planned. And rehearse how you will respond to obstacles: “If I am tired, then I will still go to the gym”; “If I’m having a meal with my family and my phone rings, I’ll turn it off.”
10 When are we happiest?
PD: All humans are happier when they’re around nature – even proximity to pot plants has been shown to have this effect. Socialising is good for us, and so is exercise. Laughter has been shown to relax us. Doing things for other people makes us much happier. Finally, pay attention to the activities that make you happy. We are what we attend to – distractions such as mobile phones ruin our focus on pleasurable experiences.
11 Can sex really make me happy?
DB: People have different wants and needs when it comes to sex. It’s not possible to have the wrong amount of it – it really depends what you and your partner are into. If you have different sex drives, that can be a problem, but it’s not insurmountable. As with love, we need to detach our individual sexual preferences from what society tells us is the norm.
Like love, sex can make us very happy, but relationships are about interaction and sex is just one part of that. Doing things together, such going for a walk or even cleaning the garage, help us feel companionship once the initial phase of madness and lust is over.
12 What about the role of work?
DB: We need money to meet basic biological requirements, such as food and shelter, but there are qualities, sensations and positions that the human brain responds to because of the way it’s evolved.
Autonomy is one – doctors and teachers have this. We want to feel that we are good at something, because the brain is egocentric, and we also want to see the consequences of our work. Getting on well with our colleagues is important, and so is anything that allows us to work towards our ambitions.