The Art of Living Joyfully

The Art of Living Joyfully
Photography by EDDIE NEW. Styling Claudia Jukic, make-up Molly Warkentin, hair Joel Forman. Nobody Denim T-shirt, $129. Reliquia earrings, $139.

Working hard to secure our happiness seems like the right thing to do – after all, who wouldn’t want to be happier? But, in a world obsessed with milestones and markers, are we chasing happiness in all the wrong ways?

Words by Lauren Sams

Is your passport valid? It is widly accepted that Scandinavian countries are the happiest places on Earth.

Indeed, Finland, Denmark and Norway frequently top lists of the world’s happiest places (in 2018, Finland took the top prize). We admire them for their commitments to mental health and gender equality, their sleek, minimalist aesthetic and, obviously, for their ability to produce preternaturally beautiful royal families, the kind that fairytales  are written about. It makes sense that these people, with all their copious social riches, are happy.

Less attention is paid to the countries at the bottom of the happiness list. While Australia came in tenth place this year (good on us), Bhutan was named the 97th happiest country in the world (there are 156 in the study). And that’s strange, because Bhutan, a tiny nation of around 750,000, actually has happiness as an indicator of progress enshrined in its constitution. Gross national happiness (GNH) is deemed to be just as important as gross domestic product, and even more important than technological progress or gains in infrastructure. There is even a GNH Centre, committed to increasing the happiness of the Bhutanese.

And while subjective happiness did rise slightly in Bhutan in the years between 2010 and 2015, overall psychological wellbeing remained fairly low. So what’s going on? Shouldn’t it be that focusing on our happiness, and actively working to increase it, should lead to a greater sense of wellbeing? Shouldn’t we be happier because we’re working to be happier? Well, yes – and no.

Happily ever after.

The Art of Living Joyfully
Tiny joys. Ice cream for dinner. DAVID JONES ice cream, $13.95.

The idea that we have an internal well that can be filled with happiness (or emptied, as the case may be) is a concept that’s flawed but hugely popular. Blame those Scandinavian fairytales, blame #inspo quotes, blame rom-coms: “happy-ever-after” has pervaded every corner of our culture. We’ve even built milestones into our lives to measure this happiness meter: graduations, marriage, babies, buying homes, birthdays that end in zero, and so on. We’re taught that reaching these goals will make us happy, or at the very least, happier.

If the pursuit of happiness has become a competitive sport, I played the game like a pro – Jill Stark

Our culture is obsessed with happiness. A quick scan of the local bookshop turns up cookbooks purporting to make you happier, self-help books that promise happiness in 28 days, parenting books for happy parents and happy children, academic tomes about living more happily – even a book about how to make your backyard hens happy, (should you have them and should they be requiring more happiness).

For all this, though, we seem to be still stressed and stretched beyond belief. In 2015, when the last Australian Psychological Society Stress and Wellbeing Report was published, 35 per cent of respondents said they were “significantly stressed” – the highest proportion of any year of the study to date. Furthermore, 26 per cent of those surveyed reported moderate to severe depressive symptoms.

The drive to succeed.

“If the pursuit of happiness has become a competitive sport,” writes Jill Stark in Happy Never After: Why the Happiness Fairytale is Driving us Mad (And How I Flipped the Script), “I played the game like a pro.” Stark, a journalist who lives in Melbourne, wrote Happy Never After after meeting many of her personal and professional goals – buying a home, writing a bestselling book – then having a nervous breakdown. Like the Australians surveyed in the Wellbeing Report, she was incredibly stressed – perhaps more so than she’d ever been. And yet, she was stressed precisely because she was doing the things she was taught would make her happy. These, she says, “turned out to be red herrings. My happy-ever-after had been built on quicksand.”

For Stark, those external markers of a good life did not lead to a greater sense of happiness. She had a breakdown during what should have been one of the happiest times of her life, and she says she’s not alone in both believing that these things will make us happy, and feeling the consequences when they don’t. Part of the problem, she says, is that our culture is fixated on anticipation, rather than gratification. We plan the wedding but not the marriage, we focus on the birth but not the baby, and so on. When it comes  to career success, we’re often so conditioned to focus on the end goal that we stumble when we get there. Stark cites the example of swimmer Michael Phelps, who has said that the period after he won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics was the darkest of his life.

This supposed link between success and happiness is at the heart of research psychologist Emma Seppälä’s book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. Not only do we believe that happiness is an end point, she argues, something we’re on our way to achieving if we follow the right path, we’re also taught to believe that the harder we work, the more happiness will come our way. “We’ve accepted overextension as a way of life,” she says. “We want to be good employees, so we work hard; we want to be good parents, so we spend more time with our kids; we want to be good spouses, so we cook meals, go to the gym, plan a date night; we want to be good friends, so we attend social activities – and we do all of this even though we’re exhausted.”

The point of stretching ourselves so thin, Seppälä says, is to be happy. Our culture idealises professions that involve high pressure (witness: our love of police procedurals and TV shows set in emergency rooms). We take pride in being maxed out – as the 35 per cent who said they were significantly stressed may have – because we think we’re doing it right. “Isn’t the point of all that hard work and suffering to be happy?” she asks. “Isn’t the idea that success will bring happiness?” 

Stark certainly believed in this idea. She had her dream job as a journalist at one of Australia’s most respected newspapers, a bestselling book and was dating a sports star. But deep down, she knew something was wrong. Interviewed on live TV about her first book, she experienced a panic attack. Talking to a philosopher for a story she was writing, she was crippled by a sense of overwhelming anxiety. And eventually, she broke down on the floor of the newsroom, leaving work for five months while she picked herself up and examined what it really meant to be happy.

Happy in between.

Gretchen Rubin may well be the world’s leading expert on happiness; certainly she’s one of the most widely read. Her bestselling books on the topic – including The Happiness Project, Better Than Before and The Four Tendencies – focus on the ways we can control our own happiness. Underpinning Rubin’s work is the concept that our happiness does not come from external sources of validation, from meeting cultural milestones such as marriage, or from making vast changes in our lives like the much-idealised tree change, or getting a promotion. Rather, Rubin’s science-based writing leads to one fundamental idea: that happiness is a flux state, and that it is totally normal to be happy sometimes and unhappy at other times. Happiness is not a fixed point, it is many moments of joy that add up to an overall sense of positivity. And exactly what brings you joy – and how you incorporate this joy into your life – is entirely up to you.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned about happiness,” Rubin says, “is that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. We all have to think about our own nature, our own interests, values and temperaments.” While some things tend to be universal in their ability to increase happiness – like having good relationships – what “good” means is entirely subjective, says Rubin. “It’s like, friends are great, but do you want to get together with a few friends having coffee? Do you want to go to a big party? Do you enjoy doing things with people that you’ve never met?” Figuring out what brings us, as individuals, moments of joy, increases happiness overall.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned about happiness is that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. We all have to think about our own nature, our own interests, values and temperaments– Gretchen Rubin

Rubin began her own happiness project (the one that informed her first book on the subject, of the same name) in a similar way to Stark: she had all the external markers of a good life, but wondered if something was missing. Over her year-long quest to find greater happiness, she discovered that happiness lies mostly in the “in-between” moments. Singing in the morning with her daughters was good for her soul, as was curling up with one of her beloved YA novels. Setting herself a task to do in a minute gave her a sense of accomplishment, and therefore, happiness. But soon after Rubin published the book – to great success – she found that readers were copying her methods, only without the same results.

“A lot of the time, people know what habits would make them happier,” says Rubin. “That is not the mystery. They know they’d be happier if they exercised more, or got more sleep, or read more, or spent more time with their friends, or spent more time away from their phone. They know that. The question is, how do you do that?” While Rubin’s readers could see that singing and reading were bringing Rubin joy, the missing link was the idea that they had to find out not just what brought them joy – exercising more, picking up their phone less – but how to implement these habits in their lives. What worked for Rubin didn’t necessarily work for them.

Rubin firmly believes that happiness is entirely individual. “Order and organisation make me happy,” she says. “But for my sister, it’s not a priority. Her happiness is not decreased if her bed is not made or if her kitchen is messy. And that’s OK for both of us – it’s OK that I need that order, and it’s OK that she doesn’t.” While creating moments of happiness is within our control, the same moments don’t work for everyone. Finding what brings us joy – the “happy-in-between”, as Stark calls it – could be the key to increasing happiness overall. One of the best – and most surprising – findings about these moments of joy is that they’re almost stupidly ordinary. At the end of her book, Stark lists the things that bring her joy, and they’re united in their mundanity: patting a cat, taking off her bra when she gets home, locking herself out of Twitter for a time. Rubin’s list includes calling her sister, doing jumping jacks, making a cup of coffee and watching an episode of The Office. In other words, all things you can probably do right now.

In her book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, designer Ingrid Fetell Lee talks about the ways small things can lead to big changes in happiness. She cites examples like brightly coloured walls in nursing homes to stimulate the senses, and the power of imagery – like the blog Things Organised Neatly (if you love order and calm, go there right now) – to induce a sense of relaxation.

The idea that happiness is within our grasp through these moments of joy is a huge relief to most people, says Rubin. “It’s interesting because, to me, it doesn’t seem like that big of an insight, that you make your own happiness,” says Rubin.

“But for many people who haven’t thought about it a lot, they assume that happiness is something that happens to you. If the stars line up right and things go well, in a way that you’re really not involved in, it’s just something that either happens to you or it doesn’t.” For those people, says Rubin, the idea that happiness is “low-hanging fruit” is “tremendously exciting.” “They never thought of that before,” she says. “They thought happiness was something that happened to them, not because of them.”

The happiness track.

The Art of Living Joyfully
Tiny joys. Anything with a cat on it. Kikki K mug, $12.95. Estée lauder Youth-Dew EDP, $80. Everything in its place. Maxwell & Williams utensil caddy, $24.95.

So, back to Bhutan. In a country of under a million people, it might seem like introducing happiness as a government-mandated goal is reasonable, even achievable. It’s certainly admirable: what person doesn’t want to be happier, what leader wouldn’t want to inspire greater happiness in her people?

But while Bhutan’s focus on happiness as a way to measure the nation’s progress might be commendable, it’s probably also misguided. While there are ways governments and organisations can influence happiness – by increasing mental health funding, investing in public art or implementing flexible working policies – the truth is that happiness is not something you achieve and sustain without interruption. It’s not an end state, where you begin with one set of emotions and end with another. It requires work, but not in the way we think it does. It’s not about churning away in the office or being constantly ‘on.’ Rather, it’s about knowing ourselves well enough to identify the small things that bring us joy and purpose, and habituating those things into our everyday lives. “The great challenge of our lives is to say, ‘Who am I and what makes me happy?’” says Rubin. “‘And how can I bring my life more into harmony with those things?’ It sounds simple, but actually, it’s probably one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do.” J

Designing a happy life.

Entrepreneur Kristina Karlsson, founder and owner of kikki.K, has long known that happiness must be curated and nurtured. Her most recent book, Your Dream Life Starts Here, is a blueprint for creating a life that maximises moments of joy.

“I think there is real power in challenging yourself and thinking about what you really want from life,” she says. Her own story is a great example: before launching kikki.K, Karlsson knew only that she wanted a job where she could drive to work, and where she could earn at least $500 a week (to cover the cost of phone calls back home to Sweden).

“Dreaming big is great, but actually I think it is so helpful to think small, and trace all the little steps that will make you happy along the way,” she said.

“Instead of thinking about a job title that would make you feel proud or like you’ve achieved something, think about what you would want in that job, for example.” Karlsson is a big believer in writing your dreams, and says this helps them become a reality. “There’s something powerful about deeply examining what you want from life, and articulating that on paper. It really does work.”

It’ the little things

Three writers on the small wonders that bring them surprising joy.

Pointe shoes

– Cassie Hamer, author of After the Party

“I’ve had a lifelong love affair with a pair of shoes I’ve never owned and have come to accept I never will: pointe shoes. As a kid, I was ballet-obsessed but had the flexibility of a pole, so my ‘career’ ended at the

age of 10, still in soft slippers. I never got to dance en pointe, yet to this day, I can’t pass a dance store without pressing my face against the glass. Sometimes, I go in and touch them.”

Spreadsheets

– Katherine Collette, author of The Helpline

“I love spreadsheets, I use them all the time. I like putting numbers into columns to show how much writing or exercise or whatever I did that day. Then

I graph the data over time to get a neat, accurate depiction of daily life. It’s like a diary, but better because it’s less subjective. Maths might not make you laugh or cry like literature can – but it can still blow your mind.”

 Dry containers

– Jessica Dettmann, author of How to be Second Best

“Bare feet on soft grass, the perfect cup of coffee, smelling a child’s freshly washed hair... I know the small things that are supposed to bring me joy. But honestly, none of them compare to the way my heart leaps when I open the dishwasher to find that all the plastic containers inside are completely dry. No puddles in the sills, no condensation in the corners. Just clean, dry plastic tubs and lids, ready to be put away.”

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