If you were to write up a wish list for your life, the word ‘happiness’ is almost guaranteed to appear somewhere up the top. Yet achieving happiness is far from straightforward — there’s no hard and fast rule for what it looks like or where it comes from.
Psychologists know a thing or two about increasing your changes of sustained fulfillment, so we asked them to share what they wish we all knew and understood about happiness and life in general.
1. You don’t have to feel happy all the time.
“An inevitable part of being human is that there will be days when we feel sad, and there will be times in our life where we will experience unfortunate events. Accepting that this is a part of life can help us appreciate the good times,” says Sydney psychologist Maria Faustino.
“Evidence has shown that positive emotions can enhance our resilience … During difficult times, it is important to look after ourselves, and draw positive emotions through various sources such as reaching out to supportive friends and family members [and] taking the time out to do something that you love.”
2. The quality of your relationships counts for more than quantity.
Faustino says maintaining healthy relationships can help us feel more connected, and creates a source of support during hard times. However, despite what Instagram would have you believe, you don’t need a ‘squad’ the size of Taylor Swift‘s in order to gain these benefits.
"It’s not necessarily the quantity of social connections that influence our levels of happiness, but rather the quality of our relationships," Faustino says.
3. Happiness won't necessarily come from external factors
We often assume attaining a goal will automatically make us happy, but psychologist and author Victoria Kasunic says in order for that feeling to be sustainable you need to dig a little deeper.
"Happiness is much broader than that. It's something that needs to be cultivated from the inside, not just from the outside ... you have to look at things like your own internal thoughts, self-talk dialogue, that sense of inner peace, and building long term sustained things like supportive relationships, and a sense of meaning and purpose," she explains. (Post continues after gallery.)
4. The small pleasures are as important as the big ones
Buying a new dress or going out to dinner can bring us pleasure, but joy doesn't always come in these forms. Victoria Kasunic recommends searching for the "delight in the every day".
"[Things like] connecting with your body in sensual ways - the smell of flowers or fresh cut grass, being out in nature, swimming in the ocean, being with an animal, those sorts of pleasures ... Focusing on those sacred moments brings us back into the moment now, and if we can be content and present in the now, you can be with just about anything," she says.
Francesca Harvey, a psychologist at Solution Psychology Centre, adds that recognising and savouring these small positive experiences can serve as a springboard. "If a client says 'Everything's wrong, everything's a disaster', it's not true. You can still find something that's okay, and there's your leverage to build on."
5. Don't write off mindfulness
Like quinoa, mindfulness — the practise of focusing on the present moment — is one of those things that's easily dismissed as yet another 'wellness fad'. But Maria Faustino says it can help draw your attention away from anxiety-provoking thoughts and help you perform your best at whatever you happen to be doing.
"Often with our busy lifestyles, we tend to rush from one thing to the next. We spend a lot of time thinking about the future and worrying about how many commitments we have to get through during the week, that sometimes we forget to enjoy the present," she adds. (Post continues after video.)
6. More money isn't proven to make you happier
Money can buy you a lot of things, but sustained contentment isn't one of them. According to Maria Faustino, studies have found that if someone reaches an income that allows them to pay bills and maintain a lifestyle they're accustomed to, additional money won't increase their happiness (unless they donate money or it raises their social status, which could correlate with happiness).
"Focusing on appreciating what we have, working towards our realistic 'wants', and reducing the time we spend brooding about what we can’t have, can help increase our happiness," Faustino says.
It's also worth remembering that people who spend their money on activities and experiences, rather than material possessions, have reported higher levels of happiness in studies. "It is likely that this is because experiences leave a more lasting emotional impression in our minds, and also serve as a way to meet other needs such as relatedness and novelty," Faustino says.
7. There's no point focusing on what you can't do
So often we ruminate on what's going wrong in our lives, and problems that are completely out of our reach. However, learning to accept what you can't change and focus on what you can change can lead to "more control over our happiness and life in general," Faustino says.
"Acceptance doesn't necessarily mean you approve of the unwanted event or experience, rather it allows you to make a conscious choice of not struggling to control something that is out of your hands. What appears to be a more useful strategy is focusing on working with what you have control over," she explains.
Francesca Harvey embraces a 'Do more of what's working' approach, encouraging her clients to focus on the present and the future and what's already working for them. "When there's a week between sessions with a client, I start by saying, 'Tell me what's better' ... For me, it's working with people to see what is going well and how they can build on that so they're not stuck," she says.
"Clients can create positive change, and they can create the future they want by creating positive change."
8. Making time for yourself helps you make time for others
"I think it's important to give yourself the best part of your morning, like the first five minutes of your day, in some way — whether that's sitting and breathing, having a bath or doing a bit of yoga. It has to be something that is nurturing and supporting of you," Kasunic says.
"Then you can give the rest of the day to other people. When people don't tend to do this then they get burnt out and stressed and resentful of what they're doing for other people."
9. Be aware of disempowering yourself
Sometimes in our eagerness to be helpful and supportive of others, we unknowingly disempower ourselves. Victoria Kasunic says an example of this is agreeing to do something for someone when you really can't or don't want to, which you then come to regret. The most important thing is to recognise when this happens and catch yourself.
"The more mindful you and more aware you are of yourself, and what you need and want and what supports you being less stressed and being happier, the easier it is to pull yourself out of things that are disempowering. You might automatically go into doing it, but you capture yourself faster," Kasunic says.
"For women in particular, we're not taught to be empowered; we are socialised to be nurturing and caring of others, generally speaking, and we're taught it's selfish to focus on yourself. I think we're just a bit unbalanced with it."
10. You need to understand your own stressors
"The big barrier to people being happy or fulfilled or empowered is they're stressed and they've got no energy. It's really hard to say no when you need to or take time for yourself when you feel tired or stressed all the time," Kasunic says.
"Recognise your stress style and when you get stressed, and do something about it, rather than pushing through all the time. If you have no energy and you're constantly in fight or flight, it's very hard to be happy ... it's very challenging to think about what fulfills you and appreciating the little moments because you're in survival mode."
What's the best advice about life or happiness you've ever been given?