“I wish that I had let myself be happier”
This quote is one of the top five regrets of the dying, as recorded by Australian nurse Bronnie Ware in 2012. Ware spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of life and put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
If today were to be your last day of life, what would your biggest regret be?
Interestingly, Ware noted that, “Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits.”
Happiness is a choice and it would be unrealistic to expect that we could be happy all the time, we will always have to contend with adversity and setbacks. There will be ups and downs, but you can get back to happiness by choosing to and working on it.
Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University supports this notion and suggests that: “Science has proved that being happy requires a conscious effort. It’s not easy, it takes time.” She further adds: “Being happy isn’t something that just happens, you’ve got to practice to be better at it.”
What Is Happiness?
What do we mean by happiness? You have to decide what happiness means to you, because it is different for everyone. You could get a pen and paper and spend a few minutes thinking about what makes you happy and note it down. This instantly gives you something to be working towards.
Similar to the regrets of the dying, if we take the time to consider what we really want from life, either for ourselves or for those we love most dearly, a frequent response is resoundingly simple – to be happy.
Yet our lived experience tells us that achieving happiness is far from simple and our quests to “just be happy” are often de-railed by happiness myths that lead us to have unrealistic expectations, to look for happiness in the wrong places and often overlook potential everyday sources of real happiness.
In our 1-1 work at Chimp management, we frequently help individuals to explore their dreams in life. Dreams are often built on misconceptions of what people believe will make them happy, for example:
- “I’ll be happy when I am successful”
- “I’ll be happy when I have the perfect partner”
- “Winning a gold medal at the Olympics will make me happy”
- “Getting this promotion will make me happy”
Contemporary research suggests that the things we think will make us happy rarely do, or that their effects are somewhat fleeting.
Every time a dream becomes a reality, it often doesn’t take long before the goalposts have moved and we have now identified the next thing to focus our efforts on, often dismissing our achievements at the same time.
It has been observed that humans will quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite major positive life events like winning the lottery, or negative life events, such as failing an exam. This is known as hedonic adaptation and suggests that we simply get used to the things that once brought us happiness and return to a baseline happiness and seek out the next goal.
In a similar way, when negative life events happen, they often don’t actually impact us as much as we thought they would and we find happiness again.
Understanding Happiness through The Chimp Model
The Chimp Model helps to simplify the complex neuroscience of the brain into an accessible working model. In this model, the inner Chimp represents the emotional thinking system in our brain, which is driven by an agenda to keep us safe and help us to survive.
In contrast, our inner Human represents our logical, rational thinking system, which has a very different agenda of achieving self-fulfilment and becoming the person you want to be.
As the two systems have different agendas, they also have different ways of thinking and operating and thus different views on happiness. It is important for us to understand and take into account the needs of both our Human and our Chimp with respect to happiness in order to lead fuller and richer lives.
For our Chimps, happiness is likely to result from those activities that give us pleasure and enjoyment, doing what feels good and meeting our fundamental drives and desires. This might include indulging in our favourite meal or watching our favourite TV programme. Whilst these can give us a short-term feel-good factor that can raise us into happiness, it is important to remember that our Chimps are fickle, their agenda of survival often doesn’t go hand in hand with helping us to experience positive emotion.
Considering happiness from the perspective of our Human often helps us to consider those things that lead us to feeling that our lives have meaning, value and purpose. This might be investing time and energy into our long-term goals, living in accordance with our personal values, showing concern and making a difference to the welfare of others e.g. by volunteering.
Three States of Mind For the Human and the Chimp
The brain releases different chemicals when it is anxious, compared to when it is relaxed or happy. Professor Steve Peters, developer of The Chimp Model, suggests using the Model to approach the way to happiness by defining three different states.
– extra additions for happiness
– relief of knowing all is well: contentment
– anxieties, worries and concerns
Things that can put you into a negative state of mind are anxieties, worries or concerns. This is typically because you haven’t got the functional aspects of your mind running smoothly. It means that you are not fulfilling fundamental things that the Chimp and Human need to feel relaxed and content. These might be things like:
- Recognise, nurture and manage your Chimp
- Look after and develop your Human
- Manage others in your world
- Have a fully functioning support group around you (Troop)
The neutral state of mind is when everything in life is generally going well, you will feel content, but this might not mean you feel happy. For some, content is happy, but for most happiness means something more.
The positive state of mind, means adding positives and qualities to your life and not just living on the basics. In order to feel happy, you have to actively do something to lift yourself into happiness. You need to add on extras in your life and bring quality to it. You have to put things in place to have the best chance of becoming happy.
Examples of Chimp Additions:
- New experiences
- Pleasurable activities
Examples of Human Additions:
- Satisfying activities
- Future planning
and’Seeing happiness in this way really simplifies our way of looking at happiness and shows how easily attainable moments of happiness can be. People can get caught up in believing happiness is about grand gestures, trips around the world, or buying a new house. When actually happiness can be a few moments spent sipping a hot cup of coffee, smelling the damp air after rainfall, or catching a friend’s eye and smiling. We can fill our days with these moments which can lift us into happiness, even for a few brief seconds.
These little moments of happiness can often pass by without us truly celebrating them and the positive feelings associated with them quickly fade. ‘Savouring’ refers to noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life by making an attempt to step out of our current experience and fully feel, appreciate and extend our positive experiences.
Savouring the past can be a good place to start using savouring. You simply need to spend a few moments thinking about a happy event that happened to you in the past week or month.
For example, it might be meeting up with friends, or going for a walk. Try to recreate the experience in as much detail as possible in your mind and use all your senses. Imagine the people there, the smells, sounds, sights and try to recreate the positive emotions you felt at the event. Let your mind focus on the positive emotions hold and on to whatever feels good.
Practising gratitude can help us to stop taking things and people in our life for granted and begin to acknowledge small everyday sources of happiness we tend to miss. Developing a simple habit of remembering and listing 3 positive things that have happened every day can help to cultivate a sense of gratitude which helps us to develop a positivity bias, whereby we can more readily focus on positive aspects of our environment.
Finding Pockets of Happiness
A good way to help generate pockets of happiness throughout your day is by creating happiness lists. A happiness list can help to identify things that are under your control that you could do on a regular basis to make you feel happier. Some things give us instant happiness include:
- Being outside
- Going for a walk
- Having a cup of coffee
- Talking to a friend
These are usually easily accessed so can be purposefully sprinkled throughout the day, adding moments of happiness to our days.
Other things need more time and to be planned, for example:
- A day out
- Dinner at a restaurant
- Meeting up with friends
- A holiday
It is good to have these things organised so that even just looking forward to them and thinking about then can give us a sense of excitement and make us feel happier.
By recognising that we are responsible for a large proportion of our own happiness, having a clear understanding of what happiness means to you (and your Chimp) and purposefully and consistently giving time and energy to things that contribute to your happiness we can stop happiness from seeming like an unattainable end goal. Rather, we can focus on enjoying and being grateful for the small things that bring us happiness in everyday life.
A common theme that crops up on our 1:1 sessions at Chimp Management, is clients saying that they feel responsible for other people’s happiness and the pressure and anxiety this can bring. For example:
- A client may come to a session saying that they are finding it difficult that their partner is very unhappy and they believe that they should be able to make their partner happy
- A parent might come in and say that they feel a pressure to ensure that their children are happy at all times
- Another client may discuss how they feel that they are finding it really difficult, because despite doing all they can for their elderly parent, the parent is unhappy
All of these situations are examples where people feel a responsibility for someone else’s happiness. You are responsible for your happiness and everyone else is responsible for theirs. It is not helpful to try and manage the emotions of others. This can be a liberating realisation for lots of people, who have spent their lives feeling responsible for other people’s happiness.
We can try and do nice things and look after people, which could increase the likelihood of them feeling happy. However, it is really important to recognise that everyone is responsible for their own happiness.
The Happiness Approach
To have the best chance of being happy you have to approach life and yourself in the right way. Professor Peters suggests that some people naturally have a more positive and optimistic approach to life and their beliefs and attitudes are slated towards seeing the best in every situation. The great thing is that this approach can be learned and cultivated. Here are a few things that Peters suggests you could try out for yourself:
- Try to develop the habit of looking for solutions rather than dwelling on problems.
- The thoughts in your head and the approach you take to life are your choice. You can choose how much you let situations bother you.
- Ask yourself how long you want to dwell on something unpleasant that has passed. Ask yourself how long you want to stay in that frame of mind.
- Learn to laugh at yourself and keep a sense of humour whenever you can.
- Try to deal with the cause of a situation and not the symptoms. Happy people will find and treat the cause.
Happiness is important to all of us, hopefully, this article has given you a few things to reflect on and try out. Spend time on the points that resonate with you and think about how they apply to you on a day-by-day basis. Developing happiness is like developing emotional skills. It takes effort and time, but you will get there.
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