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Happiness and the human mind

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At a White House conference on ageing in 1961, Senator Robert Kennedy poignantly stated, ‘We have added years to life; it is time to think about how we add life to years’.

Fifty six years later and we couldn’t agree more.

The only problem is that adding life to our years stems from an ability to make the most of the present, something that the human race increasingly has trouble doing.

We have all developed a mindset whereby happiness is associated with an end goal of perfection, failing to realise that obsessing over an unachievable goal of perfect health, a perfect work life and a perfect social life is not only unhealthy, but also means we miss out on many of life’s simple pleasures.

So how can we learn to immerse ourselves in the present as opposed to hopelessly looking towards the future?

Phycologist Dr Meg Arroll is here to help.

What makes us feel happy?

It really is the simple things in life that make us feel happy – spending time with loved ones, enjoying a long walk outdoors, laughing and even caring for a pet.

But there are some vitamins and minerals (or rather lack of) that might be affecting our happiness levels. A deficiency in vitamin D is linked with feeling blue. Around half of the UK’s adult population do not have sufficient amounts of vitamin D, with 16% of people being severely deficient in winter and springtime[1]. In older adults, severe deficiency is even more common with 58% of older people have very low levels of vitamin D.[2]

Do you think people put too much emphasis on being ‘happy’?

The British philosopher John Stuart Mills once said that people who are supposedly ‘happy’ are people that focus on the happiness of others, or on the improvement of mankind, or even on some kind of artistic pursuit.

In other words they don’t solely focus on themselves. 

Focusing too much on this ‘thing’ known as happiness can actually lead to feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration or even depression.

Being ‘happy’ has become yet another thing that we must ‘do’. But happiness isn’t something we can ‘do’, it is the by-product of other positive acts. 

Does the media have anything to do with this?

Media can encourage us to compare ourselves with others. When we compare ourselves to friends and family, we know that they have imperfections and make mistakes. But in the media, it may seem like others are perfect and this can make us feel inadequate, flawed and frankly just a bit rubbish. This is one reason why it is a good idea to take a break from looking outwards and use mindfulness to focus back in on ourselves.

Is there something to say for the phrase ‘living in the moment’?

Using mindfulness to be ‘present in the moment’ has been found to have numerus health benefits. Mindfulness not only helps with low mood, anxiety and can allow people to deal more effectively with stressful situations, it can also benefit physical health problems and give us the mental space to develop a sense of acceptance.

Accepting the things in our lives that we cannot change, while committing to the small, daily changes that we can make, can fundamentally change our outlook and our emotional and physical health.

Therefore, the answer is yes – there is something to say for the phrase ‘living in the moment’. 

What we do not wish to suggest is that everyone should be happy twenty four seven. We all have days when we feel a little bit low, just as we all have days when we feel inexplicably happy.

But practicing mindfulness and exercising your ability to make the most of the present will leave you feeling appreciative of what you have.

[1] Hyppönen, E. and Power, C., 2007. Hypovitaminosis D in British adults at age 45 y: nationwide cohort study of dietary and lifestyle predictors. The American journal of clinical nutrition85(3), pp.860-868.

[2] Wilkins, C.H., Sheline, Y.I., Roe, C.M., Birge, S.J. and Morris, J.C., 2006. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with low mood and worse cognitive performance in older adults. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry14(12), pp.1032-1040.

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