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How you can learn to be happier

With companies appointing Chief Happiness Officers, and self-help books topping the bestseller lists, happiness is now big business. But sometimes it can feel like the happiness industry is pursuing us, instead of us finding our own path to contentment and wellbeing.

Here are some life lessons of happiness from modern-day practitioners of radically different philosophies, to learn how we can hack our happiness back.

1. Take a break from social media

Australian internet icon Essena O'Neill seemingly had it all: almost a million followers on social media and modelling contracts coming out of her ears. But, as she very publically announced when she left Instagram, none of it made her happy. In fact, despite being “at the pinnacle”, she says she had “never been more miserable.” Marco Iacaboni, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Science at UCLA says it’s natural to want what other people have because we have “mirror neurons” that instruct us to do just that – and Instagram gets them firing. Then if we don’t match up to our idols we can feel like a failure. You don’t have to do an Essena, and come off social media forever, but try giving those mirror neurons a break by making fewer visits to the Instagram hall of mirrors.

2. Sleep more

Getting forty winks is a crucial part of staying happy. It’s easy not to prioritise rest, but getting enough sleep can greatly increase our levels of happiness. In their research on wellbeing, academics Daniel Kahneman and Alan B. Krueger found a direct correlation between sleep quality and overall happiness. Try imposing a specific bedtime for a week or two, and be strict about not staying up beyond that. Does it make a difference to your mood? If so, implement the new bedtime permanently. Early nights will soon become a habit and your happiness will be on the up.

3. Be virtuous

The Stoics – a group of philosophers from 2000 years ago – said if we don’t sin, we have nothing to feel guilty about. Therefore, virtue is the key to happiness! Liz Gloyn, a Stoic academic from the University of Royal Holloway, gives Leo a crash course in being virtuous. Essentially, she says, one needs to work out what the rational drive is behind a form of misconduct, and then address it. “The only way we’re going to get to happiness”, Liz says, “is if we’re honest with ourselves about where our morals failings are.” What is making us want to be unfaithful? Or drink too much? Or lash out? If we know the cause we can change our behaviour. Which is important, says Liz, because – if we believe the Stoics – “there’s no way we can be happy without virtue.”

Genghis enjoys parties and often finds it difficult to get to bed on time, so he feels ruff in the mornings.
It’s natural to want what other people have because we have “mirror neurons” that instruct us to do just that – social media sites like Instagram get those neurons firing. Then if we don’t match up to our friends we can feel like a failure.

4. Find something to be passionate about

In a gym in East London, Leo asks Thai boxing World Champion Ruqsana Begum what makes her happy. She states, “Knowing where to go; having a purpose in life… It’s about where you want to be and who you want to become. As long as you know that, you can pursue the journey. And it’s that journey that you’re going to be excited and driven and passionate about because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.” It’s having a goal that makes her happy. Take Raqsana’s advice and find “a passion in life” – whether that’s boxing, knitting, or woodwork – and pursue a goal with determination.

16 Buddhas, Plum Village Buddhist Monastery in the Dordogne, southern France. Copyright: Plum Village CBZ.

5. Forget the self

Leo travels to Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in Bordeaux, France, to investigate a completely different route to happiness. Is true happiness achieved through losing the self? One of the sisters at Plum Village tells Leo, “The art of a happy life is to be aware of the interbeing nature of everything.” A rose is the product of soil and sunlight and compost; we are a product of the food and drink we consume and the people we meet at every turn in life. Try imagining yourself as a small piece of a global jigsaw. Does it make you happier?

Try imagining yourself as a small piece of a global jigsaw.

6. Accept suffering

As Leo helps to turn manure into a field of pumpkins at Plum Village, he learns about the importance of accepting suffering in order to be happy. It has worked for Brother Simon who says, “I was very, very angry” but then “the anger disappeared.” We often try to silence or suppress anger or pain, but for Buddhists it is not about bottling up unhappiness but allowing it in and putting it in its place. Without mud, there is no lotus flower! Rather than denying suffering – when you’re passed up for a promotion or feeling ill – try accepting it. Easier said than done, but it might just help you to feel happier. As Leo puts it, “The bad stuff in all of our lives… they’re the cracks where the light gets in.”

7. Enjoy the here and now

Another lesson that Leo learns from the Buddhists is to love the stuff that is all around us. We should try to enjoy each step, each breath, and each mouthful of food – and feel grounded. On your commute to work, take a look around you and acknowledge the wonder in the world. Mindfulness and meditation can also help us to stay present, and enjoy the here and now. Find a local class and sign yourself up!

8. Be altruistic

Doing things for others, and finding a way to give something back, can make us feel happier. Leo travels to an anti-fracking camp in Yorkshire and meets a protestor, Eddie, who says, “happiness is a fleeting emotion, but what this camp has given me is a deep sense of fulfilment.” Radical protesting isn’t for everyone but fighting for a cause we believe in or volunteering for a local charity can give us a wonderful sense of self-worth and help us to feel fulfilled and happy.

Try to enjoy each step, each breath, each mouthful of food – and feel grounded.