The Happiness Factor
Ever wanted to know the exact age of maximum human unhappiness? Economists can be relied upon to translate complex phenomena with unparalleled precision and last week, a US National Bureau of Economic research study pinpointed the average moment of peak misery at 47.2 years.
Happiness, it has long believed, follows a U-shaped curve. You start off with high hopes and big dreams (smashing the proverbial glass ceiling, marrying Brad Pitt, owning a wardrobe full of Prada) but in your 20s, 30s, and early 40s, things get steadily worse as the demands of work and family take their toll. Your life, you realise, (especially if you have small children) is actually a never ending tickertape of loading a dishwasher, complicated pick up rotas and a lorra lorra laundry. All while despairing about your C-section overhang, looking after elderly (and increasingly batty parents) as well as wanting to KILL your husband.
Then things gradually get better as those pressures lift or as the School of Life is wont to champion, you adopt a ‘good enough is good enough’ mantra and accept that while your life is rather lack lustre, it takes a good deal of skill to keep even a very ordinary life going and that to navigate the daily challenges of family and love, work and children is quietly heroic.
What is interesting is that this happiness curve is to be found everywhere; David Blanchflower , who conducted the study, crunched numbers in 132 countries and found evidence of this U-shape happiness diagram in every one of them although noted that people reach the lowest point a year later in less developed countries. Curiously, even a 2012 study of chimpanzees and orang-utans also found that apes have a mid-life happiness low point at around the age of 30.
The bad news? Apparently we only climb half way up the curve on the other side. Anyway, it does beg the question: how can we try to be happier. And whilst bigger life picture worries –ageing parents, financial problems – often loom large, how can we learn to cope better?
Who hasn’t wondered at the formula, and while there is no one -size-fits-all answer to the question, there are little everyday steps that can help foster a sense of calm and contentment. Naturally, anything worthwhile can take a bit of getting used to. Learning to live in the moment, a hackneyed phrase does have remarkably wide-reaching effects, even something as simple as making the time to enjoy and focus on your meals without looking at a screen or reading the papers will affect enormously how that food is digested.
I love the very sage words of C.S Lewis who counselled: don’t think less of yourself as a person but think of yourself less. Compassion is something which, rather encouragingly keeps cropping up. I contemplated a Veganuary for all of about five minutes a few weeks ago, but I did read something that made me sit up and smile. William Sitwell , the journalist and former editor of Waitrose magazine had written a feature about trying to be vegan for a week. Many of you will remember how he resigned from his 19 year job as editor when his flippant email reply to Selene Nelson, his “vegan tormentor” who suggested running more plant-based recipes became public. Remarkably they have become friends.
There is a lot to be embraced in what Selene Nelson writes; ‘The whole movement of veganism is centred around life, compassion and love – for animals and for the world”. It’s a message which chimes with a sustainability movement which is gathering apace but surely also promotes a way of circular thinking that only adds to life.
The 90/10 rule is another good one to remember here. Namely that s**t happens but it’s how you deal with it that that matters. At least 10 per cent of life is not going to pan out as you wish no matter how organised, efficient or punctual you are. How you respond to that 10% will largely depend on how positive that other 90% of you is. Being happy is accepting that you can’t control that 10% of what goes wrong, so don’t waste time worrying.
Possibly we also get to a stage in our mid 40s (our mid-life crisis) where it’s all so hum-drummy that we just want to give up. I would add challenge yourself here…..- get up a bit earlier if needs be because stepping outside of your comfort zone is one very easy way to make you feel ALIVE and boosts your confidence. Not to mention the natural glow it will give you. That feeling you are still learning, well into midult-hood is very addictive. Try it, because it’s never too late to polish up a skill, start a hobby, learn a new instrument. We have a civic duty to be interested and interesting not least to our partners and our friends.
It’s not always easy but I try very hard to find time to do things that make me curious. That ray of escapism is never more important than when life is a never ending treadmill. Doing or seeing something that makes your soul soar, will refresh and energise you in ways you can’t imagine. You will return to rest of your life with Herculean amounts of vava-voomness.
And finally, don’t underestimate the enormous benefit of eating well and exercising in nature, walking even, listening to music to alleviate stress. Getting enough sleep (although possibly therein lies a whole other article) makes for a happier you; so make the time to hit your pillow earlier. Or power nap when possible. And if all else fails, heed Gill’s advice and get downing those broccoli shots.