Column for Nassau Bahamas, Tribune, August 13th 2019

How do we define happiness? If we were asked each of us would probably offer up a different answer or perhaps struggle for the answer. We often seem to think that happiness is or should be a kind of permanent blissful state with no interruptions or downside and that if we don’t feel that way, then something is wrong. If the question were framed differently as in ‘what makes you happy” then we would get a string of answers such as spending time with my family or significant other or my friends, going out for dinner; good things but more often than not it will be shopping for a new purse or a pair of shoes, going to the spa and so on. But some of those are temporary pastimes albeit enjoyable ones and when the ‘high’ or feeling of achievement has worn off, very often we suffer from ‘post-buyer blues’.

Eventually we recognise that happiness is not continuous. Human emotions go up and down subject to external happenings and influences as well as our own reaction to them. If we are to be happy in a deeply satisfying and enjoyable way, we will need to work on discovering what brings us joy, what makes us grateful and glad to be healthy and alive. We need to understand that sadness or worry is inevitable but misery is optional. In other words when troubles occur, as they will in everyone’s life, we will not only have to focus on resolving that particular issue but try to keep a sense of proportion, reminding ourselves that the things or people around us are still part of our happiness quotient. 

For some of us, a sense of happiness equates to feeling safe, secure and comfortable financially. For others it might mean the opposite, taking risks or rising to challenges. I think it is combination of all of those things but more importantly being able to find joy in small things such as listening to music we love or dancing, exercising, maybe gardening playing silly games with our children. The secret lies in being able to focus your attention on whatever it is that gives you real pleasure and not be distracted by thinking about the shopping list in your head of other things you have to do. Learning to be in the moment with an open heart and mind is an art to be cultivated. Savour the fact that the tree you see on your way to work is in full, glorious bloom, enjoy the colour of the ocean water – don’t just see it with half an eye as part of the landscape – take the moment to focus on that alone and marvel at how lucky you are just to be able to witness that.

I recently read a DailyHealthPost, an online newsletter, reporting that scientists say that travelling makes us happier than any tangible thing we might buy. Their reasoning being that shopping for things as noted at the beginning of this article, gives only temporary pleasure and then we have to go and repeat the experience over and over for short-lived pleasure – it’s an addiction. So while material wealth may make life less stressful and easier, it won’t give us long-term contentment – which is the thing we are actually seeking. To quote Thomas Gilovich a Psychology Professor at Cornell University, travelling is an answer: ‘There is a way to break that damaging cycle. The happiness derived when purchasing an item or travelling is the same. But here’s the difference the purchase pleasure diminishes whilst the memories and the travel experience will supply you with happiness hormones for a long time.” As Dr. Gilovich goes on to say: “your experience is a bigger part of yourself than your material goods. You may actually like your purchases and you may even go to the extent of thinking that a part of you is connected to that stuff; however, they are separate from your identity. On the other hand, your travel experiences are part of who you are. Your richest and most cherished memories aren’t from the material goods you’ve bought. Rather, they’re a total sum of the life experiences you’ve had.”

Robert Waldinger of Harvard University believes: “The results from one study revealed that individuals who most connected to their family, friends, community, and other people were the healthiest and happiest.” In light of that, Waldinger says that you need to deepen your relationships by doing new things together with the people in your life.” He goes on to explain that experiences connect you to others in a way that material things can’t. To Waldinger, some of the most important experiences in his life are travel. 

Something to think about and, to extract a line from one of my favourite quotes by Agnes Reppelier. “It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves and it is not possible to find it elsewhere.”  Let’s make sure we learn to pause, take a breath and be truly appreciative of our personal world and the people in it. We don’t need to buy a thing – happiness is wealth enough.