Ultimately, happiness is what most of us are searching for in life. We make decisions based on what we think will make us happiest in the long term. But all too often, things don’t work out the way we planned. We get that job we wanted, only to find we’re stressed all the time. Or we move to that place where we always dreamed of living and realise we’re lonely because we don’t know anyone.
There’s no single secret to happiness. But there are several factors which have a profound impact on our mental state, and staying mindful of these can be the difference between contentment and unhappiness. I’ve learned some of this by reading widely, but most of it through personal experience. Let’s take a look at some of these factors that can help us to find happiness.
This sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s something most of us struggle with. Money is a major factor here. We live in a culture that encourages us to pursue wealth at the expense of all else, even our mental health. Many people work 40, 50, 60 or even more hours per week. If this is you, ask yourself whether you do it because you need to or because you feel like you have to. Personally, I’m a huge advocate of minimising your expenses and cutting down your hours so you can spend more time doing things which bring you joy. Even if you have a great job which you do really enjoy, working excessively long hours can make you stressed and miserable.
You may be in an exceptionally difficult situation, such as caring for a family member who is sick or raising children alone. You may have no choice but to work very long hours to support your family. I’m not saying that everyone can cut down the amount they work. But many of us do have a tendency to complain about a situation without stopping to question whether we can do anything to change it.
I’ve recently decided to become a freelancer. My goal is to earn enough to cover my basic expenses, with a little extra for things that make me happy (like going for hot chocolate with friends, or going to a vegan fair), along with a little to save each month. I want to work enough to make that a reality, and not an hour more. Being able to choose how much work you take on means you have tremendous power over your work-life balance.
For more about managing stress, see my post on stress and spirituality.
Making time for what you love
Here’s a question for you: how did you entertain yourself as a kid, before you had a job? And do you still make time for those things now?
At about 5 p.m. on weekdays, I stop working and put away my laptop. I spend the evening cooking a nice meal, reading, doing yoga, phoning friends or family and doing other things I enjoy. I just bought a cheap watercolour set and a pad of paper, because I love painting and it really helps me relax. On weekends, I try not to touch my laptop or check my email at all.
I think working beyond a certain point in the day – whether it’s related to your job or to chores – is counterproductive. Working longer doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make more progress, and it’s impossible to wind down in preparation for sleep if you’re still thinking about work.
If you’re at a loss for what to do when you stop working, it’s time to find some hobbies! It’s probably best to avoid those that involve lots of screen time, especially if you work at a computer. I find that watching TV, for example, makes me feel worse. I get muscle tension from sitting on the sofa with bad posture, and the blue light makes it difficult for me to sleep later on. For me, watching TV feels like a way of killing time rather than something that genuinely brings me joy. I’m not saying that this applies to everyone, however.
Having a purpose in life
Relaxing and avoiding stress is great, but you can begin to feel stagnant if that’s all you ever do. You need to have something that gives you a sense of purpose, whether that’s raising kids, volunteering, working towards the life you want, or something else. Your purpose may coincide with your job, or it may not.
This ties into self-improvement. Being happy with yourself means pushing yourself to become better and grow as a person. Routine is the enemy – it can make you feel miserable and stuck in a rut. Getting out of your comfort zone is really important. Seek out new experiences, things which are scary but really exciting at the same time. You might give a talk about something you’re passionate about, go travelling on your own, start sharing your art online, or something completely different.
Any break in your routine can help you to stay happy. A spontaneous road trip with friends is a great example. Breaking out of your routine can make you feel truly alive, rather than feeling as if you’re just existing.
Loneliness is a huge problem nowadays. Most of us move out of our parents’ houses once we’re old enough, if we can afford to. We may end up living alone or sharing houses with people with whom we have little in common. Even being part of a nuclear family can be isolating if you have few friends outside of it.
Strong friendships are really important. So is feeling like part of a community. For me, that’s the vegan community. For you, it might be something else.
Giving back to your community is really important too. I’ve found that vegan activism is really good for my mental health. Even doing nice things for my friends gives me a boost – I feel happy because I can see that they are.
Our relationships with those around us can have a huge impact on our wellbeing. If our lives are stressful, we may take that out on our loved ones. When we live with a partner, that relationship can become particularly strained. We may take out our resentment on them, and vice versa. Good communication is vital to keeping loving relationships from becoming toxic.
Look after your body
Health is wealth. It’s difficult to be happy when your health holds you back from doing what you love. So look after your body – eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, avoid smoking and drinking, and so on.
I think getting out in nature is vital, so I try to go for a long walk every day. It’s easy to get disconnected from nature when we live in towns and cities. Walking through woods and fields can be really therapeutic, and sunlight and exercise also help us to feel happy.
This whole article could be summarised in the words ‘live simply’. Don’t live to work. Spend your money on experiences, not material objects – unless those objects are truly necessary or bring you real joy. Prioritise your health, both physical and mental. Build a support system to shield you from loneliness. Get out of your comfort zone, and have a purpose in life. If you can do all this, you’ll already be well on your way to living a happy life. And many of these things will also help you to lead a longer and healthier life too.
No-one can be happy all the time. Sometimes bad things happen which make us feel terrible. Many of us have felt as if we’ll never be happy again at some point in our lives. But we can increase the amount of time we spend feeling happy and become better able to withstand the hard times. It involves completely changing our mindsets and our approach to life, but it can be done.
Have I missed anything? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.