Happiness…that fleeting, evasive, near-invisible entity that we keep chasing, often to find that we are so busy chasing that we have forgotten to be happy in our own right.

Be happy.

They say happiness is at its highest when we stop worrying about being happy and just live as if we did not care, and then, supposedly, happiness comes of itself. This isn’t happiness, though: it’s flow. Flow is a state of deep engagement with valued activities such that we are so absorbed in doing them that we do not consciously realise that we are. Happiness, on the other hand, is deliberate, a conscious choice. We all have a choice to be happy, and unless we consciously make that choice, and determine to be happy, then we are left in that not really ill, but nevertheless mundane and unrewarding state of normality that so many others are in around us.

I choose to be happy, therefore I am.

People generally think, however much they might deny it when you ask them, that better surroundings and better circumstances will make them happier. To an extent, it’s true. But when you consider that we can feel so much happier when we make a deliberate choice to be, in everyday life, surroundings and circumstances matter less and less.

There are any number of “happiness exercises” to follow in a daily regimen that have been demonstrated to make people feel lastingly happier. For example, counting blessings, actively expressing gratitude, engaging in random acts of kindness, and enjoying the present moment are known to uplift spirits and foster a genuine sense of happiness, rather than just momentary, hedonic enjoyment.

Take counting blessings.

We really don’t realise how much time we spend each day worrying or complaining – whether out loud or to ourselves – about things that are lacking, not good enough, broken, damaged, dead, annoying, hassling, unattractive, or bad. I myself often wake up annoyed that I have woken too early or too late, that making breakfast is a hassle, that there is too much traffic, that my work is mundane on a day-to-day basis, and that evenings are boring and there isn’t anything worthwhile on the radio. How much happier we’d be if we cast these negative thoughts aside and replaced them with deliberately chosen positive ones instead! This comes about from self-awareness. Many of us hardly ever meta-cognise – think about our thoughts – and as a result often aren’t aware of how damaging those thoughts can be. If we stopped every so often in the course of a day, and thought, “How have my thought patterns been today? Have I been thinking positively about things, or have I been annoyed, angry, bored, pessimistic, or negative?” we’d be able to recognise the nature of our thoughts and make a deliberate choice to think differently – positively – if we recognise that we’ve been negative about things. Think about all the good things in life! And no, this doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to things we should be concerned about or try to improve – it means acknowledging the things we have, that many others don’t, that make our lives worthwhile. Acknowledging the good stuff makes us feel happier, and when we are happier, we do have a greater motivation to work on the things that aren’t so good.

Expressing gratitude goes along the same vein.

Often we pass kindness by or acknowledge it with a “thanks”. And yet we are quick to shout and make a scene when things don’t go our way because of something somebody else did. For example, if we’re served a meal in a restaurant, we enjoy it, pay for it, and leave. If we find it’s not to our liking, though, we complain, express irritation and anger, and often feel negative about it for the rest of the day. Why this disproportionate favour for being negative? When’s the last time you complimented a chef or cafe when you really enjoyed a meal? What makes us think that paying money for it is all we owe to someone who has given us something we really enjoyed or admired? People – whether close to us or not – do nice things for us every day, often without us even noticing. And if we fired up that meta-cognition and took notice of those things, and made a point of really thanking those people properly, instead of dismissing them with a mere “thanks”, we’d surprise ourselves with how good it makes us feel. Not only that, but it’s surprising how noticeable those people’s happiness is when they are recognised for their efforts when they so often go without proper recognition. That feeling of mutual happiness rebounds, reacts, and creates more happiness.

Random acts of kindness.

Most of us allow ourselves to get carried away. With the trivialities of our work, study, everyday relationships, and daily chores. When we meta-cognise, it’s sad to see ourselves trudging along every day working on our own chores without sparing any time to do something helpful for someone else without being asked. This is where those irritating, self-absorbed excuses come along: “I’m tired”, “I don’t have time”, “I’m too busy”, “Why should I do that for them if they don’t do it for me?”, “Why doesn’t someone else do it?”, and “I’m not Jesus Christ/God/Miracle Man/Superman/Wonder Woman”. Yes, these are excuses. They are excuses just the same as we excuse ourselves from doing small-scale chores every day under the pretext of “not having a chance to get around to it”, like replying to emails that take less than 5 minutes to deal with, calling a friend we’ve been meaning to meet up with, or cleaning the house. I still believe – very definitely – that however “busy” we think we are, none of us work 24 hours a day, and throughout the day, we all have short periods when we are doing nothing – daydreaming, sitting around chatting, or procrastinating. It’s those short periods each day that we can capitalise on to do something helpful or nice for someone else, without being required to. The happiness that results from doing something nice for someone completely randomly is pretty indescribable – it’s exalting and humbling at the same time, because it reminds us of the power of humanity to transcend the trivialities of everyday life, and creates happiness in others. So yes, we do have time, we are not too busy, and we can create happiness by being nice to others.

Enjoying the present moment.

Zimbardo’s present work on time perspective is undeservedly overshadowed by his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that graces just about every psychology textbook on the market. As a doctoral researcher, I’m often flabbergasted by the amount of time I spend (and this is meta-cognising again) thinking about the past or the future, instead of looking at the present and what I can enjoy about it. Yes, there is a need to look back at things that have happened in the past and recognise our mistakes, shortcomings, and failures and cherish our memories of good times. There is also a need to take precautions against worrying events of tomorrow and have hope for the future and imagine ourselves as better people in times to come. But equally, we should take time each day to be in the moment – be mindful – and to think about our immediate surroundings, our inner feelings, and our present thought processes. There’s a lot to be discovered. I’ve often done this with a pen and diary – just sitting alone in a quiet, breezy room, feeling the air, and doing free, continuous writing for an hour or so, jotting down anything that comes into my head, describing the room and how I’m feeling, the sound of the traffic outside, the dogs barking, the things I’ve been thinking as I’ve been writing. Then I go back and read it – that written account of an hour of mindfulness – and it’s liberating. It serves to calm us down from the constantly-on-the-go attitude we live with, and yet it’s different from zoning out in front of the TV, or “crashing”, because those activities put us in a passive state where we aren’t really thinking about anything, and we definitely aren’t meta-cognising!

These are all things that can make us happy. They’re all free, none of them have to take up too much of our precious time, and they are all results of our own deliberate choices.

When I was in elementary school we had a teacher known as Mr K. Though I couldn’t make any sense of it then, he would always tell the class: “You make a cake, you go down to the shop to buy the eggs. Be proactive.” Cake? Eggs? And what does ‘porcative’ mean? Such was the naivety of the 11-year-old me. And yet it all makes sense now: We grow up, and we let ourselves loose in that ever-flowing river of work, chores, and business as usual. We forego the things that take extra time or that require us to do something different or go the extra mile, yet those are often the things that make that much difference to our own happiness, and that of people around us. Isn’t it a shame that we pass them by? Isn’t it a shame we keep flowing down that river, so rarely making the deliberate choice to stop and do something to create a bit more happiness?