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What makes us happy... and what doesn't

Research has shown that there are things that make us happy, these findings allows us to see what contributes towards a happy life

These include:

Friends and family - research by Diener and Seligman at the University of Illinois in 2002 found that the happiest, and least depressed, 10% of the students shared a vital characteristic. They had strong family and friendship networks and were happy to spend a lot of time meeting and interacting with friends and family.   

Marriage - studies from all over the globe show that married people tend be happier and healthier than singles. They are also less likely to smoke or drink heavily or to suffer serious psychological distress. 

Savouring - luxuriating in what our senses tell us by taking time to smell the roses, by really tasting the wine; basking in the praise and congratulations of others; expressing your own gratitude to others; marvelling at how wonderful the world can be.

Love - 'There are few stronger predictors of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one's best friend.' David Myers: American Paradox.

Religious faith - religious people suffer less depression, are less suicidal, cope better with crises such as bereavement or divorce, and are less anxious - although it's not clear whether it's the spiritual side of things or the membership of a group with shared values that boosts their individual happiness. Interestingly, atheists and agnostics who organise their life around a framework of belief such as humanism, or faith in science's ability to solve humankind's problems, enjoy similar benefits as those who belief in a deity. 

Working at full stretch  - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on 'flow', the feeling that comes from doing work that stretches us yet is within our capability, reveals that people work at their best when they are in this state of consciousness. We all experience flow at some time or another - ometimes it's the total focus required to meet a tight deadline, or solving an unexpected and complicated problem. When we are in flow we feel strong, empowered and exhilarated. We don't notice the passage of time, we are in effortless control and are performing at the peak of our abilities. Csikszentmihalyi also calls this 'optimal experience'. It is 'a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like,' he says. We can experience flow anywhere - sitting in front of computer screen, working in a hospital ward, teaching in class, painting a picture, performing in an orchestra or on the sports field. The more flow a manager can encourage in the workplace, the better will be results. And it's not just productivity and profits that will increase, customers, clients, patients, students, pupils all benefit when the person they are dealing with is fully engaged with their job and is in 'flow'.

But people won't find flow if they are stressed from having to carry out tasks that are beyond their ability, buried under an avalanche of work, or struggling to maintain their self-esteem in a hostile or negative atmosphere. 

When work becomes an extension of the life we really want to have, then we are more likely to find flow. 

Everyday, small pleasures - In his book Making Happy People,Paul Martin reports that 'intensely pleasurable experiences have a surprisingly muted effect on happiness. This is partly because they can make everyday life seem bland by comparision.' He very much reinforces the view of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) who said, 'Happiness is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.' (For more information see the section on ' Flow' in Positive Psychology section.)

What doesn't make us happy:

While living in poverty doesn't make you happy, and in fact can make you physically and mentally ill, once your income reaches a very modest level anything that you earn above that level will not, in itself, make you any happier. Sociologist Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University estimates that Europeans earning less than $10,000 a year (around £6000 to £7000) are unhappy, oppressed by the daily struggle to get by. But above that level, the connection between money and happiness gets broken. More cash brings more conveniences, luxuries and pleasures, but it doesn't contribute significantly to happiness. 

Sociologists say this is due to 'Reference Anxiety', or keeping up with the Jones's as your granny would have called it. We compare ourselves to the people round about us. If your neighbour, your sister, or your workmate has a bigger car, more holidays, or a better house, then your level of reference anxiety can increase. 

When poor people lived close together in tenement buildings with low incomes and few luxuries, reference anxiety was lower because they didn't feel that they were falling behind their peers. To our grandparents an inside toilet and hot water might have seemed the height of luxury, but if our neighbour has a Jacuzzi, a conservatory and an apartment in Spain, many of us feel dissatisfied with our lot - despite the fact that compared to people in the Third World, or our grandparents, most of us live in astonishing luxury. 

The sharp pang of Reference Anxiety makes even the wealthiest unhappy. Many multi-millionaires get downcast if someone else has a bigger yacht, a personal jet, or owns their own island in the Caribbean. Reference Anxiety makes us look ever upwards at the people above us in terms of wealth and income, instead of looking back on what we've achieved and being satisfied with what we've got, we want to scale ever-higher heights - and get depressed when we fail. No matter what their level of income and wealth, most people feel they need a bit more before they can live a satisfying life. 

How can we break out of this upward spiral of envy and dissatisfaction? Well, people who believe that things are going to get better for them are usually happier than those who don't. So if you earn £25,000 a year and expect to be earning £30,000 next year you are likely to be happier than someone earning £100,000 who sees no hope of further financial advance. Optimism makes us happier.

So does reflecting on what you've already got, what you've achieved, the successes of your children, the strength of your friendships, the regard and esteem of your colleagues.  
We all suspected it, now science has proved the point - once our basic needs are met, money can't buy us happiness.

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