Globally 20 March is celebrated as the ‘International Day of Happiness’. It was in 2012 that General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed this day as the International Day of Happiness. The active recognition of happiness as a universal goal reflects the fact that our personal wellbeing adds to our quality of life, and we as individuals can work towards it. It’s also a reminder for policy and decision makers to take cognisance of this fact so that at a macro level, they can work towards building robust and resilient communities and systems, which adds to life satisfaction and wellbeing of people.
For 2022, the theme is ‘Build Back Happier’. This is pertinent in the context of covid-19 and its impact on each one of us. The prolonged uncertainty, isolation, social distancing, and grief that has surrounded all our lives has changed the lens with which we view the world and has re-shaped our idea of happiness. Given this, it’s important that we choose to work towards building individual habits and systems that add to our long-lasting happiness.
There is an extensive science of happiness which talks about exactly this. Research data over the years shows that human brain can be trained to change old ineffective patterns of looking at the world and in turn develop signature strengths, practices and perspectives that can help us build a meaningful life. Over the years I have taught about this science across children’s reading groups, colleges and even in therapy sessions. What has astonished me the most is that everyone, across age, gender and race, inherently knows what these secrets are. All they need to do is reclaim and make it their own by putting in effort and inculcating them in their life. No matter how old or young you are, now is a good time to start.
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Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the book The How of Happiness describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Understanding this definition is the first step towards becoming aware so that one can learn to savour and stay with these experiences as they unfold. This allows us to enjoy good experiences and soak in the good moments. The act of eating slowly so as to relish a favourite dish, a parent cuddling with a child a little longer in the morning or looking at old pictures from the family album, which bring you joy are conscious acts of savouring.
Our happiness is reflected in moments where we feel fully present in the moment, experience a feeling of being centred or in sync and at other times when we feel seen and heard, or experience generosity and love from those who are dear to us. Identifying these moments is where the trick lies. Along with this, cultivating strengths such as self-regulation, patience, gratitude and curiosity contributes to our overall happiness.
What comes in the way of our ability to enjoy moments of happiness is our anxiety about the past or the future and shows up in the form of catastrophising.
At the same time, human beings are at risk for ‘Optimism Bias’. Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist, describes this as “Our tendency to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing good events in our life and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events”. Between both these extremes of catastrophising and Optimistic Bias lies realistic optimism and grounded hope. This primarily refers to belief in the future with a focus on facts, challenges that lie ahead of us and also an awareness of what can be changed and what cannot be. We all have a capacity to learn what it means to develop verified trust and also realistic optimism which in turn adds to our happiness.
The capacity for developing nurturing and deep intimate relationships, friendships and be part of a community adds to our quality of life. The engagement and purpose making we get from our jobs also adds to our overall wellbeing.
Maybe we all need to repurpose our idea of happiness and mindfully build a life where there is room for happiness.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.
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