The Happiness Conundrum

I hear it everywhere, and it’s undeniable: 2020 was difficult, bewildering, challenging – and for some, heartbreaking. We need healing. We need to laugh, we need lightheartedness, happiness. And ironically, this is where we sometimes sabotage ourselves: do we deserve happiness? Especially when surrounded by suffering, isn’t it a bit ‘off’ to feel happy?

We can turn to research to reassure us that, perhaps surprisingly, cultivating our own happiness is one of the most prosocial things we can do. Academic research into happiness has exploded over the past decade – by now, we all know that happy people (and animals!) are healthier and live longer. But results also indicate that happy people…

· are less likely to hurt others

· are kinder to others

· are more generous

· pass happiness on to their social networks

The first and last points are possibly the most striking. In 2011, the University of California published a paper detailing how happiness helps to deter crime. The implications of that are staggering, and deep. It vividly reminds me of the quote by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help.”

Also surprising is the finding, published in 2008 in the British Medical Journal, that happiness is contagious through three degrees of separation: a longitudinal study of nearly 5,000 people over 20 years (1983 to 2003) found that a happy attitude propagates all the way to the friends of the friends of your friends. That’s the power for good that we hold – and, let me repeat it, this is simply through taking care of our own happiness!

Look after yourself this year, and for the rest of your life. Seek out opportunities to smile and laugh, spend time doing what you love, play, have fun! You deserve it, and we all need you to.

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