Despite more people around the world having access to more riches than ever before in human history, it seems this doesn’t lead to increased happiness.
There are many theories on what constitutes ‘happiness’, but the general consensus is that happiness is an evolved trait that optimises our behaviour for successful living and therefore survival. We are usually happiest when we eat, sleep well and have sex, for example. So no surprise then that behaviours that harm ourselves and the planet are increasingly lowering our well-being and vice versa.
The good news is that by identifying key areas where sustainability and well-being meet, easy gains in happiness can be made. Here are 10 simple ways to be happier, and guess what? They’re all eco-friendly!
1. Live more locally
The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet – James Oppenheim
Modern transportation in general and the car in particular were expected to result in a new era of individual freedom. However, the way our society has restructured around the car has resulted in a range of unforeseen social problems.
The car is blamed for pollution, noise, stress, congestion, the demise of local communities and urban sprawl as well as obesity, respiratory problems and traffic accidents. By spending less time travelling on a day to day basis people have more time for their families and leisure pursuits, and they also gain greater safety, improved city air and better health, as well as happiness.
Living la vida local isn’t just about reducing transport use though. If it’s impossible not to commute, you can still more locally consuming local produce. This can contribute to happiness in many ways: children grow up with a better understanding of how food is grown, food is fresher, and small, local food supply chains can thrive.
Shopping more locally also increases your regular contact with people in your community, and of course, better interpersonal relationships are consistently found to be the most important correlation with human happiness.
The good news is, the more you stay in an area, the more you’ll get to know your local barista, newsagent, and neighbours–and building those relationships will lead to increased happiness.
2. Get moving!
Happiness consists in activity. It is running steam, not a stagnant pool. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
The consensus that regular physical exercise is a vital part of maintaining health and wellbeing has existed for at least a decade. Walking, cycling and/or using public transport instead of car travel can have dual health benefits by providing the required physical activity levels and reducing the adverse health effects of motor vehicle transport.
Active transport is more important now than ever before, as obesity is increasing globally. Most adults in England are overweight, and one in five—around 8 million in total—is obese. Globally, obesity has nearly trebled in the last 20 years.
The most likely causes are increasingly sedentary lifestyles combined with changes in eating patterns, which are now more solitary and random, as opposed to joining a family or friends for three meals a day.
Ultimately, this impacts happiness: obese people are more likely to become depressed, but many studies on well-being have shown that active people show improved well-being, higher self-esteem and also greater confidence in their ability to perform active tasks, along with better mental functioning.
3. Connect to Nature
If you want to be happy for an hour, get drunk;
If you want to be happy for three days, get married;
If you want to be happy forever, make a garden. - Chinese Proverb
Edward O Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis proposes that as a consequence of evolution, humans have an innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes. However, modern ways of living as prescribed by Western industrialised culture stand in stark contrast to our evolutionary history, and as such, may have significant adverse outcomes for human happiness.
Being out in nature brings pleasure to us on a primal level, and focuses our attention away from material goods, which helps to avoid the angst and self obsession that is a by-product of our individualistic consumer times.
So what can you do if you live in a city and can’t imagine moving to the countryside? Plant a garden, grow herbs in a window box, visit a local park and admire the beauty of the trees and flowers. Visit the countryside at weekends, walk barefoot in the grass, hang a birdfeeder from your balcony…the possibilities to enjoy nature are endless, and will be beneficial to your state of mind.
4. Limit Your Choices
Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them one’s self? - Ralph Waldo Emerson
The expansion of Western capitalism has successfully sold us the ‘myth of choice’–it’s presumed that the more choice we have in what to wear, buy, eat and do, the more prosperous and better off we are. However, as illustrated in this sensational TED talk this proliferation of choice is actually a very mixed blessing. Some choice is good; too much choice paralyses us and makes us anxious.
For people who care about the environment, choices are greatly reduced, offering some relief, and happiness in the knowledge that they’re making the best choices they can in the circumstances. Such people shop less, eat locally, work ethically, travel responsibly–those choices are easy. Making decisions based on a higher principal (rather than marketing or peer pressure) is liberating and satisfying.
5. Appreciate What You Have
‘Affluenza‘ is the term for the pursuit of always wanting more, and as societies get richer, it becomes worse. The hedonistic treadmill means those afflicted will never be happy with their new possessions or money; they adapt and need more. Status Anxiety pitches them in unending competition with their peers in an unwinnable race.
Francois Lelord, a leading French psychiatrist, has caused a sensation with his book ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’. He says “in Western countries material affluence has increased threefold but our life satisfaction has not increased… in the West we live in fear that we may lose everything; there is more apparent freedom and choice but it increases our anxieties.” In a Times interview, Francois mentions three key needs we must fulfil to be happy: to feel useful and recognised; to have friends and to feel an excitement about life. And none of those can be bought.
Those who truly appreciate what they have an see how material wealth is a constructed, corporate illusion of plenty, are undoubtedly the happiest people.
6. Find Enjoyable Hobbies
We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements in life, when all we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about. – Charles Kingsley
Hobbies can make us happy a few ways: first, by allowing us to have a creative outlet, if your hobby is writing, painting, or something else that engages the artistic side of your character. But any hobby can also give a sense of flow, that near-meditative state where we lose track of time and feel removed from the stressors of life.
People who consistently enjoy activities that they engage in purely for the joy of it, as opposed to for a reward, regularly report a boosted sense of wellbeing, so pick up a surf board, paint brush or book–whatever makes you happy!
7. Develop Yourself
Joy is a flower that blooms when you do. – Anon
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed his highly influential theory of a Hierarchy of Needs.
The lowest levels are occupied by physiological needs and are termed ‘deficiency needs’. As these are met, higher levels of needs emerge, and the person moves up the pyramid. The higher levels are termed ‘growth needs’ and are associated with psychological needs. While our basic ‘deficiency needs’ must be met, our growth needs are continually shaping our behaviour. Personal growth creates upward movement through the hierarchy.
Maslow studied exemplary people such as: Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass who one might expect to have reached the pyramid’s apex. These people share common traits:
- They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them.
- They are creative.
- They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others.
- They feel genuine closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life.
- They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority.
- They judge others without prejudice, in a way that can be termed objective.
In short, the happiest people have developed in such away as their lower level needs have been met and they are now turning their attention and creative energies to what truly makes them feel fulfilled and happy. Why not be one of them?
8. Get Social (but don’t just network!)
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. - Dalai Lama
Did you know that not staying in touch with friends and family is one of the top five regrets of the dying – don’t let yourself have this regret! Spend time with those you love and truly care about–that’s one thing you won’t regret.
But happiness can also come from spending time with strangers, and if you help them out, that’s a double bonus: researcher Shawn Achor learned that those who spend about two hours per week helping others rank amongst the happiest people in the world. This is backed up by a German study of volunteering, which demonstrated that those who helped others in care centres and soup kitchens became more depressed when deprived of the opportunity to lend a hand.
When socialising, ensure this is for true pleasure. Bask in the company of people you genuinely like and who you’d do anything for; not just those you think could advance your career or whose approval you’re seeking–that’s just a recipe for anxiety.
When out with loved ones, for an extra shot of happiness, consider picking up the cheque: in Achor’s book, he notes that when interviewed, people who had spent money on activities with others, such as by going to concerts, group dinners or shows, were happier than those who spent money on material purchases, such as watches, shoes or electronic goods, for themselves.
9. Connect to Animals
Getting a pet not only takes you outdoors more and makes you exercise (if you get a dog), it can also be a great conversation starter with strangers, thus connecting you to others.
But a pet can actually have health benefits, too: The American Heart Association has linked the ownership of pets, especially dogs, with a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity.
Studies have also found that pet owners suffer depression much less than those without pets, and that they have higher levels of serotonin an dopamine (‘feel good’ hormones) than those without.
One reason animals help us feel happy is that they fulfil a basic human need to touch–even toughened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in behaviour after interacting with pets, and many of them experienced mutual affection for the first time.
Even if it’s impossible for you to have a pet, just going out and feeding the birds or even watching fish in an aquarium can increase happiness and reduce anxiety, which is why many dentists put fish tanks in their offices. There are also increasing numbers of ‘cat cafes’, where you can stroke a moggy whilst sipping a cuppa, all the while feeling happier.
10. Rise Above
A human being is part of the whole called by us ‘universe’ … We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive – Albert Einstein
One way of escaping the madness of modern society and reconnecting to our place in the universe is through meditation. It literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life.
Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that this can go on indefinitely–regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness. There’s a myth that meditation is difficult, but in fact, it’s as easy as pie. Click here to see how, and find your bliss.
This article first appeared in Eluxe Magazine.