We all want it and money can’t buy it. On the International Day of Happiness, we ask how to achieve it
How can we achieve true happiness?
If you’ve glanced at your phone over the past few days, you may have noticed that your service provider’s name has been changed to Happy UAE. You may also have noticed in recent months that whenever you’ve paid a utility bill online, you’ve been asked to rate your happiness during the experience. Not that spending money on things such as water or electricity normally elicits feelings of elation, but there’s definitely a move towards making every experience, no matter how mundane, a happy one.
And it’s a word we’ll be unable to escape today, for March 20 is the International Day of Happiness – something that the UAE is grasping with both hands. Happiness has been the goal of humanity since time immemorial, yet it’s something that’s incredibly difficult to define and continues to elude countless people who feel unfulfilled in life. “If only”, many of us reason to ourselves, followed by some generic statement about how we believe our lot in life might improve.
It’s long since been accepted that money can’t buy happiness (although it’s fair to say that, for most of us, a little bit extra wouldn’t go amiss), so how do we achieve it? And is happiness dependent on common factors for everyone in the world? For the United Nations, happiness is evidently a top agenda item and it produced a resolution six years ago proclaiming March 20 to be the International Day of Happiness, recognising that happiness and well-being are cornerstones for humanity, that seeking happiness is a universal goal and aspiration. The UN’s then secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said at the time: “Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness.”
Yes, that’s a case of stating the obvious and yes, there has to be more to it. Dubai-based Celia Rowlands, a former mental health nurse turned counsellor, says that we put too much pressure on ourselves to achieve happiness, which often ends up having the opposite effect than the one desired. “Every one of us is unique,” she advises, “and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to being content with our lives. So it’s extremely important for each of us to define happiness, to take control of that. Because far too many of us allow society to dictate what success and happiness are about.”
This, she says, is a no-win situation, because none of us will ever measure up to the standards set by others – we’ll always fall short of the ideal if we compare our circumstances with those of others. “With the constant invasion of social media,” she continues, “it’s easier said than done, to avoid constantly hankering after the lives of others. But we only get to see what people want us to see. It’s a polished version of reality, a form of one-upmanship that’s highly destructive to vulnerable onlookers, who can end up suffering from anxiety because of feelings of worthlessness.”
The words of the soul singer William DeVaughn, on his 1972 single Be Thankful for What You Got, make a great deal of sense. It’s a state of mind that attracts a never-ending stream of clichéd observations, but there’s much to be said for taking some time to reflect on what we already have, rather than what we want to have. “Too many of us think happiness is tied up with possessions,” Rowlands points out, “when the really important things are right in front of us – our families and friends, perhaps what we do for a living or where we live.
There aren’t many things more inspiring than a child’s laughter or being with someone you love deeply, someone you can share every aspect of life with. These are so much more important than what we don’t have. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
These are sentiments that almost all of us can agree with, if we remove the blinkers and look for the positives and, indeed, our physical health has been shown to improve with a more positive mental attitude. “Our immune systems grow stronger if we’re more at peace with what we have in our lives,” says Madeeha Afridi, a counselling psychologist at LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing in Dubai. “Our emotional state has a huge impact on our bodies, and we benefit in all sorts of ways when we’re feeling happier. Lower blood pressure, fewer aches and pains, improved sleep and generally feeling healthy are all helped by being more content.”
Afridi is a proponent of mindfulness meditation in all its guises, and uses it to help her clients to focus on what matters, to help tune out the deafening noise of modern life and ignore the trivia. “During meditation, it’s all about the here and now. We put aside distractions. Does it really matter if your phone isn’t the latest model, or that your car is older than your neighbour’s?” she asks rhetorically. “True happiness has nothing to do with these things and everything to do with the relationships we have with others.”
Clearly, these are things beyond the control of a government body, but anything that reduces stress in our lives has to be a positive. So the UAE’s appointment two years ago of Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi as the Minister of State for Happiness was an open statement of intent, doubled up when the role was altered to incorporate well-being last year.
Al Roumi’s main responsibility was to “harmonise all government plans, programmes and policies to achieve a happier society”. And a happier society should, in theory, cause a trickle down of contentment, which will help individuals and families enjoy a better quality of life. So each government department, from the police to the road and transport authorities, and everything in between now has its own “centre for happiness”, where there’s a drive to improve visitor experiences.
Right now, according to the UN, the UAE ranks 20th in the world for countrywide happiness – a position that one cannot help but feel will improve over the coming years, and none of us can knock a place for trying to bring more joy to its residents and visitors. Yet, as the experts have shown, all of us have the ability to control, to a greater or lesser extent, our levels of personal happiness and contentment.
And with that in mind, perhaps it’s timely to consider what many practitioners have found to be incredibly effective in increasing personal happiness: doing more to help others. “There’s more happiness in giving than receiving” is a well-worn statement that our parents have used over the decades to help us see the bigger picture, perhaps to encourage us to be less selfish. And by being so, it’s been proved time and again to bring joy to our lives – something many of us might view as oxymoronic.
Mohammed, a UAE national, has found this out by volunteering his time and energy to help those less fortunate through Dubai Cares, the philanthropic organisation set up by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President, and Ruler of Dubai, to provide for underprivileged schoolchildren around the world. “I’ve helped build schools,” he says, “in the middle of nowhere, and seen the benefits brought by enabling these children, and their teachers and carers to have clean, running water. Their lives are transformed by us giving them some of the things we take for granted, and the happiness they display, and the gratitude they show, makes me cry with joy. It’s the best feeling in the world to be able to help others.”