When I think about happiness, I’m often reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
Scrooge is an unexpected blueprint for wellbeing, joy and contentment. After his famous night of ghosts and guilt the old miser awakens with a new attitude, but here’s the important bit, it’s not until he actually does something selfless, changing the lives of Tiny Tim and the others, that Scrooge truly starts to feel happy himself. It’s only through these acts of service that he becomes physically well and practically effervescent, until he is “as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world”.
On this International Day of Happiness we can learn a thing or two from Scrooge. Because Dickens knew well that that happiness is very hard to generate ‘from the inside’, instead, the very best way to feel good is to actually do something good.
I promise you that it’s possible to feel better than you do right now. Too many of us are suffering from an unhappy mess of low-level illnesses, unmanageable stress, loss of purpose and lack of confidence in how we look, in our relationships and in ourselves. We worry constantly about threats large and small, and struggle to feel hopeful about the future. None of the ‘happiness fixes’ we’re sold seem to work for long. From mindfulness to medication, every day a new diet, product or practice is launched to help us feel better. Each works for a while, yet somewhere down the road leaves us in our rut once again, wondering why we are so overwhelmed, tired and lost.
Our unrelenting diet of fear from the media feeds that misery. ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the unspoken mantra of newsrooms. Ever since the first newspapers, followed by television and now the internet, the media has always known that bloody sensationalism sells. Competition for our attention has never been greater, with ratings and huge advertising revenue as the prize, and what draws us in is horror, anger and fear. Bad news far outweighs good, with as many as 17 negative news reports to every one that is positive. The result is that watching the news today can be psychologically risky. Being glued to your television, reading the paper or surfing the latest crisis online increases ratings and market share for the media companies, but it also raises the probability of your own unhappiness and even the likelihood of depression.
A little extra yoga or an upbeat soundtrack isn’t going to make a dent against that. The very best, in fact the only, antidote to fear is action. And specifically, action for others rather than yourself.
Following a lecture on mental health, the famous psychiatrist Dr Karl Menninger was asked: ‘What would you advise a person to do, if they felt a nervous breakdown coming on?’ Most people thought he would say: ‘Consult a psychiatrist.’ But he surprised everyone when he replied: ‘Leave your house, find someone in need and do something to help that person.’
This is the secret to happiness and mental wellbeing. Not repeating mantras telling yourself that you’re great, but going out and doing great things for others. I call it ‘happy heroism’.
Stephen G. Post is one of the world’s leading experts in this emerging field of ‘give and thou shalt receive’ research. His team have revealed the promise of a ‘helper’s high’. When given the opportunity to help another, two-thirds of the people he studied felt a positive physical sensation, while around half said they actually felt emotionally ‘high’. Others felt stronger and more energetic, warmer or calmer. For a lucky 13% of people, the act of helping others even relieved their own physical aches and pains.
Particularly generous acts of goodness, like volunteering your time, have been proven to deliver especially big paybacks. Volunteering makes you happier, raises your well-being and can even reduce depression. Importantly, this isn’t just a ‘perceived’ benefit: the wellbeing you experience from doing good measurably affects your brain chemistry. When you act to help others or make a difference, your brain produces its own healthy version of heroin, called endorphins. The helper’s high is exactly that: a totally natural buzz generated by your own body.
And it doesn’t take much to feel that hit. There are ‘big heroes’, like firefighters, who do extraordinary things every day. But there is also a different kind of heroism, one that can be found in kitchens, offices and schools, if you look hard enough. And there’s a lot of it about, with over £57 billion’s worth of care given freely every year. Everyday heroes making things better for all of us.
Does that sound too hard? Often we think we should ‘start big’ and save the world overnight for it to count. But why not start with something tiny? Take a deep breath and think of something small you can do right now, either for another person, your community or the whole planet. It’s got to be so small you can do it without any preparation or planning. Thank someone for making you a coffee? Make someone else a coffee? Pick up a piece of litter? Recycle? Donate? Smile? There. You’ve started! That’s it – that’s how easy it is.
Next, try just three more acts of happy heroism on this #HappyDay.
And when you go to bed tonight, just before your eyes close, congratulate yourself for making the world a little bit of a better place.
I promise that you will wake up happy.