19th March 2019

International Day of Happiness, What does happiness mean to you?

happiness blog

20th March is officially International Day of Happiness. Do we need a day to remind us to be happy? And what is happiness? Why is it so important for us to be happy?

In 2011 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising happiness as a fundamental human goal. In 2012 the first ever UN conference of Happiness took place during which it was agreed that the international day of happiness would be celebrated on 20th March each year. This year’s theme is Happier Together, focussing on what we all have in common rather than on our differences.

What does happiness mean to you?

If I asked you what happiness means to you what would your response be? Would it be having a lovely house, car and holidays, being financially stable? Is it being around family, or is it simply sitting outside in the sunlight enjoying a beautiful day. I have seen, as a counsellor, many people come to me with depression, anxiety, fears and phobias because ultimately they are unhappy with their lives, they have spent their life striving to be happy, and yet they have not been true to their natural selves, they have tried to live up to others expectations or live lives that suit other people so happiness as a fundamental human goal is not a flippant new age philosophy but something that can majorly impact our emotional wellbeing.

What were you told as a child about being happy?

Research shows that income and environment accounts for only 10 per cent of our satisfaction with life and that in countries that are driven by consumerism this may actually be making us sadder.

Genetics and upbringing influence about half of our ability to be happy, and we are all born with a happiness set point.

As this is a programme that you will have carried with you into adulthood, were you brought up in a family where happiness was a priority? If so what was your family’s definition of happiness. Was it built on financial success, possessions or having a lot of laughter in the house? Were you brought up to believe that happiness was frivolous and that you had to work hard to get anywhere in the world. People define happiness in many different ways. You will have carried your family definition of happiness into your adult life whether you are aware of it or not.

Do you know who lives in your street? I don’t know who lives in mine!

We are living in a world where in some ways we are more connected to other people around the word and to each other than ever and yet many of us live very isolated lonely lives, often pretending that we are OK and that everything is fine. We often mask this isolation by having lots of possessions, and to the outside world looking as if we are surrounded by people but we still feel isolated. Modern technology means that we can easily communicate with people without ever talking to them. We can have hundreds of friends on social media but most of them barely know us. We can play games on consoles in our rooms with strangers we will never meet, living next to neighbours we do not know.

Barely a generation or two ago, working class neighbours all knew each other, families tended to live nearer each other and there was a sense of community, now we seem to need to be reminded that we even belong to a community. We tend to look back on these times with a sense of superiority and those people from generations past are often depicted as not having a lot to show for their lives, which as far as possessions go is true, and the fact is that many people from past generations lived very hard lives with no job security and yet they had more connectedness than many of us have today, they understood how to be part of a community. It is ironic then that this year’s theme is about being happier together. It is also the genetic imprint left from these generations that many of us are fighting today.

Work is just work, you don’t have to be happy there!! Really????

The working class from previous generations often took whatever work was available, without expectation of enjoyment or happiness. They came from an era of no unemployment benefit, no NHS and to many of them having a job that gave them a good pension at retirement was worth taking. The parents who had no long term job security wanted security for their children, encouraging them into jobs that had this security with the best intentions but that may not have been suitable for their child, and with children realising that they were desperately unhappy but scared to leave these jobs as somehow they would be letting their parents down.

I remember at age 16 being encouraged to go into a job that had good long term prospects and a good pension at retirement. A conversation repeated with families of many of my peers, no mention of enjoyment or changing jobs to find one I was happy in. This is where the genetics and upbringing come into play.

When our personalities get in the way of what others think is best for us

I have always been a person who struggles to work anywhere that does not make me feel happy, this has resulted in me changing jobs many times, whereas a lot of my peers remained in the same job, some for 30 years enabling them to retire early. Whilst part of me would love to be sitting with a lovely pension I’m fully aware that I do not have the personality to sit in a job I do not like for 30 years, I am a person who needs to get some fulfilment from work and when I don’t or I am in an environment that does not recognise that you can have fun and still be very productive, it really affects me emotionally. And yet I was not brought up to be happy at work, I was brought up to take long term employment with good pension prospects and stay there. The result for me is a constant battle where I have stayed at jobs that I do not like, purely as my upbringing and genetics have kicked in, rather than following my own path.

Many of my generation are the same, sitting in jobs they despise but are afraid to leave as they were brought up to get safe jobs with a good pension.

The younger generation have a different working environment to go into as they are entering an employment market that is more unpredictable and less secure on a long term basis. The world of work seems to be getting even more challenging and cut throat. Will this add to challenges with their emotional health? It is often younger people who are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression starting at school age where they are expected to achieve by parents and schools.

If you ask any parent what they want from their child they will say they just want them to be happy whatever their child chooses to do,(but often this is not actually the whole truth as the parent has missed out the bit about wanting their child to pass their exams with good grades, to get into a good university, to go into a good career and to be successfulthe parents definition of success that is). The old genetics and upbringing are in play again! We are constantly being told how lucky this generation is and yet many are struggling with day to day life. Something must be going wrong somewhere

The role of social media

Social media has positive and negative impacts on society. There is no doubt that it allows us to stay connected with friends and family across the globe. One of the most negative impacts is that it depicts people living positive and often perfect lives. Instagram stories show them partying, their pictures are often heavily filtered, and of perfect poses with family and friends. Despite us all knowing that these are unreal and manufactured images, when we are feeling isolated and depressed it is hard not to buy into the image that everyone else is happy and living perfect lives except me. Many young people are buying into the culture of celebrity and their glamorous lifestyles and yet as we saw this week with a previous contestant on Love Island’s suicide, celebrity comes with its own challenges that are hidden from the general public. Facebook is also full of people showing us their fantastic nights out with friends, and at times such as Christmas all of social media is full of Christmas trees and huge family dinners. No mention of the arguments, and family fights that are prevalent at Christmastime.

The reality for many people is Christmas time spent alone, either many miles away from family or with no family contact. Many of these people will tell friends that they are fine and refuse all offers for Christmas day but will be spending the day alone, watching TV. .

Work/Life balance. Is it achievable for many of us?

In an age where there is so much emphasis on getting a good work/life balance, seeking happiness and enjoying life, many of us are working longer hours. People often commute long distances to jobs that are unrewarding and drain them physically and emotionally. At work they are expected to hit targets and are always reminded that they are easily replaceable. These are the same people who then go home to families wanting them to take part in family activities, to be happy! They are bombarded on social media with images of others seemingly enjoying life and working less hours, who have achieved. This leads to people labelling themselves and being labelled by others as failures, non achievers, when actually they are achieving amazing things every day.

Peer group pressure and expectations

Whatever our age we are heavily affected by our peers. We judge ourselves harshly against others. We are quick to label ourselves and others, holding high expectations of ourselves and of them, and they are quick to label us.

As a child I remember most people on our street had parents with similar incomes, and backgrounds, whereas now we live in areas where our neighbours may have vastly different incomes and lifestyles to us, our families often live many miles away from us and it is easy to look at others and see everything that we do not have, the cars, beautiful houses, holidays, and idyllic relationships and family life.

Teenagers have always looked at how their lives will progress and imagine how they will be living when they are adults. There has always been an expectation that once they are at a certain age they will have achieved, and achievement usually means possessions, the idyllic family lifestyle, a rewarding career and luxurious holidays. As a counsellor I see many people who have bought into this and who are now labelling themselves as failures as they are still working long hours, their finances are not healthy, their relationships have ended or are falling apart and they are looking at their peers and seeing them living the lifestyle that they promised themselves as a teenager. Many look at the careers that they have gone into and the success that they have spent the majority of their lives striving to achieve and question it all. Once again the genetics and upbringing come into play, as we have often gone into jobs to suit our parents (or to spite our parents- but that’s a whole different story waiting to be told).

What if my happiness upsets others

So we are born with a set point for happiness and we are moulded and shaped by our parents and the generations before them, which basically means we are already carrying a lot of generational baggage before we even get to what we actually want. We need to be able to step away from all of this and look at what happiness truly means for us, not our parents, or our upbringing, but what makes our hearts sing, our souls fly and we sometimes have to work at it, find time for it, look for it, dive into the abyss to find it, and not play safe.

It often means stepping out of our comfort zone and mixing with other like minded people. Not easy if you feel happy working in a bar and your parents wanted a top lawyer, imagine the conversations that one will generate round the dinner table, or you feel happy living a nomadic lifestyle whilst your family are pushing you to be settled. No wonder many of us are living unsatisfied lives as this happiness lark seems to be either too hard to achieve or might upset those around us, so we compromise with being happy within the parameters that we set ourselves. You hear people say ‘If my partner is happy then I am happy. If my children are happy then I am happy. It’s OK to be only a little bit happy as long as it doesn’t upset their partner or family. People who go off the beaten track or do their own thing are seen as selfish, uncaring about others. We can’t win can we? On one hand we are told to be happy and then when we do things that make us happy we are selfish. No wonder we are all so confused. Well I’ve done my bit, I’ve told you about the genetic history you are carrying, the reasons many of you choose particular lifestyles and careers, now the rest is up to you.  As the UN says:

Happiness is a fundamental human goal.

Over to you! Your happiness is in your hands –if you allow it to be.