Did you know that in recent studies analysing the percentage of happy people in different countries, the Netherlands scores in the top ten? Finland comes out tops with 94% of the population claiming to be happy and then Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands landed in sixth place scoring 87%.
In the last few years, we’ve seen a giant upsurge in studies on positive psychology and the science of happiness. In fact, in the history of Harvard, the course with the most popular sign-ups ever was one on the “Science of Happiness” (yes, this course really exists!). Quite simply, what makes us happy? What brings us a sense of contentment and wellbeing?
Natural selection has wired us in such a way that it’s not the outcome but the process that makes us happy. Happiness comes from feeling we are making progress rather than achieving specific outcomes. This is why we should always break our big goals down into little goals.
Our pre-frontal cortex in the brain is prone to a cognitive illusion called the “impact bias” … what this means is that our brain vastly over estimates how happy certain outcomes will make us feel e.g. ‘If only I had X, I’d be happy’.
To be happy with work for example, three key needs need fulfilled:
- Autonomy – having control over our time and what we do;
- Competence – being excellent at a useful and valued skill;
- Relatedness – feeling connected to others.
Here’s a few key ideas and observations for you to think about:
- We overestimate the effect that acquiring material goods will have on our long-term happiness. That 60-inch TV, must-have handbag or hot pair of shoes will not make much of a long-term dent (other than to our bank balance) after the initial high. Once over a minimal threshold of wealth, increases do not bring much extra happiness.
- Here’s an easy one – Work out. It gets us into a meditative-like state and pumps natural painkillers through our brain. We’ve all heard of the ‘runners high’… and many of us experience it regularly first hand. Learning to push ourselves when exercising makes us more resilient when facing the inevitable hardships in life. Exercise also powerfully boosts our mood and alleviates depression among those unfortunate enough to suffer from it.
- For those who worry constantly about what people think of them: they’re thinking about you less than you imagine. Other people are thinking about themselves, not you!
- Take more chances. ‘Worst case scenarios’ don’t usually transpire and are not as painful as we imagine they will be. Terrified to ask someone out on a date? Do it. If they say no, you won’t be crushed forever with humiliation; it will be nowhere near as bad as you think it will be, and besides, all else being equal, you have about a 50% chance of them saying yes to you – not bad odds!
- Fulfilling, intimate, close relationships are important, but never reply on others for your own happiness and feelings of contentment… that should come from within you.
- Don’t just ‘count your blessings’; visualise how your life would be if those blessings were suddenly taken away from you. This elicits sincere gratitude.
- Chase your dreams’ is good advice. Find a way to make money doing what you would do if you couldn’t make money out of it – the thing that gets you into a “flow state”. But this must be tempered with a dose of reality: there is no magical occupation in life that will fill you with endless delirious happiness. Thinking otherwise will lead you to being relentlessly unhappy and dissatisfied.
- Simplify your life. You’re probably doing too many unnecessary things that clog up your schedule, stress you out, dilute your productivity and detract from the day-to-day enjoyment of life.
- If circumstances in your life are causing you unhappiness, sit down with a pen and paper and work out what the problems are and what steps you can take to eliminate the problems. Do not ruminate – eliminate!
- Not everyone will love and adore you. Some people will detest you and they will be multiplied if you become successful. Don’t waste your time trying to make everyone like you.
- We are wired in such a way that losing hurts us more than winning brings pleasure… but some suffering is inevitable; it is the flipside of having a mind capable of intense joy and love.
- Be friends with happy people. Get rid of toxic friendships or relationships. Who we surround ourselves with is crucial to our wellbeing, our life satisfaction and our success in personal endeavours.
As for the link with coffee and happiness?
It’s a pretty strong one to be honest. Quite simply, coffee also has the capacity to bring us great joy. It is the drink we want when catching up with our friends, the drink that rounds off a delicious meal, the drink we reach out for to fuel us through our busy lives and of course, the drink we reach out for at the start of each day… It is part of our communal life.
Perhaps it is no co-incidence then that the Netherlands scores so highly as a happy nation and also has one of the highest per capita consumption of coffee in the world. Get it? More coffee = more happiness!