For Blue Monday - the 7 secrets of happiness

Apparently, it’s Blue Monday, the day in the year when most of us feel at our most miserable.

As it happens, I am feeling relatively jolly, but that’s because I am blessed. I know the 7 secrets of happiness. Yes, there are just seven of them and I discovered them a few years ago when I went to visit the late, great psychiatrist, Dr Anthony Clare at St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin. Dr Clare had made a special study of happiness and, together, we decided to produce, as concisely and clearly as we could, the essential distillation of what the great man had discovered through a lifetime of clinical experience and thoughtful reading, and so provide the ultimate guide, the definitive rule-book, the one and only easy-to-remember collection of principles and precepts that would mean that you would need no other. It’s been published and you can get hold of the finished book here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/7-Secrets-Happiness-Gyles-Brandreth/dp/1780722044

The joy of the seven secrets is that they are — they really are — all you need. The secrets are simple, as you will see — but living by the rules is not easy, as you will discover. If it were, people would have no problems being happy. And you can’t pick and choose. If you are going to live by the rules, you have to live by all of them.

ONE: CULTIVATE A PASSION

To be happy you must have something that you enjoy doing.

The challenge for a school is to find every child some kind of passion — something that will see them through the troughs. 

The challenge for life is to find something that you enjoy doing, something that will sustain you, distract you, and delight you, when all else fails.

Not long ago, I happened to be with the singer, Rod Stewart, when he was given a model train as a present. Model railways are Rod’s passion. To see his happy face light up with delight as he opened his present was positively heart-warming. Last week, I was with my Just A Minute colleague, Paul Merton. He has a model train set, too. It brings him huge happiness.

Building a model railway, breeding horses, singing in a choir, going to grand opera, playing Bridge or golf or bowls or Scrabble, ballroom dancing, stamp collecting, cooking, gardening, studying Wittgenstein, spotting UFOs, collecting unusual words, writing a blog . . . It doesn’t matter what it is:  cultivate a passion. 

TWO: BE A LEAF ON A TREE

To thrive, you have to be both an individual — with a sense that you are unique and that you matter — and at the same time you need to be connected to a bigger organism: a family, a community, a company, a club. You need to be part of something bigger than yourself. 

Yes, a leaf off a tree is still unique and it has the advantage that it floats about a bit — it feels free — but it’s disconnected and it dies.

The research shows that people who are best protected against certain physical diseases — cancer and heart disease, for example — in addition to doing all the other things they should do, are likely to be part of a community of some kind, are likely to be socially involved. 

If you ask them to enumerate the people that they feel close to and would connect and communicate with, those who name the most seem to be happiest and those who name the least are the unhappiest. 

I once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Will there be people in Heaven?’ 

He opened his eyes wide, looked directly at me and smiled happily. ‘Oh, yes. Heaven is community. A solitary human being is a contradiction. In Africa, we say that a person is a person through other persons. That’s why God gave Adam that delectable creature, Eve.’

Think of the Garden of Eden and be a leaf on a tree.

THREE: BREAK THE MIRROR

It won’t bring you seven years of bad luck. It will bring you years of longer life.  Fact. (See under ‘Audit Your Happiness’ for the evidence.)

Break the mirror — stop looking at yourself. Stop thinking about yourself — have done with narcissism and self-regard — avoid introspection.

Self-awareness is good: self-regard is fatal. Break the mirror. Introspection is a killer. 

FOUR: DON’T RESIST CHANGE

Change is important. People who are fearful of change are rarely happy. We don’t mean massive change, necessarily, but enough change to keep your life stimulated. 

People are wary of change, particularly when things are going reasonably well because they don’t want to rock the boat, but a little rocking can be good for you. 

This, for me, is the most challenging of the seven secrets. 

Instinctively, I do resist change. On the whole I like things as they are. Or, better still, I like them as they were. 

I know that the new technology is amazing, but, to be frank, I don’t want to learn another flipping password. And as for those machines in the supermarket . . . ‘Unidentified object in bagging area’ . . . Aaargh!

That said, I have done the research and seen the evidence and I accept that my instinct is wrong and that this rule is right.

As Dr Clare said: ‘Happy people are rarely sitting around. They are usually involved in some ongoing interchange with life.’ An ongoing interchange with life involves coping with change and embracing the new.Uniformity is a tremendous threat to happiness, as are too much predictability and control and order. Don’t resist change. Go with it.

FIVE: AUDIT YOUR HAPPINESS

How much of each day are you spending doing something that doesn’t make you happy?

Check it out and if more than half of what you’re doing makes you unhappy, then change it. 

Listen to Dr Anthony Clare. He is addressing you directly from his consulting room. His message is to the point: ‘Don’t come in here and complain. People do, you know. They come and sit in that chair and tell me nothing is right. They say they don’t like their family, they don’t like their work, they don’t like anything. I say: “Well, what are you going to do about it?”’

A recent study found an interesting link between time spent commuting and satisfaction with life. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who spent an hour or more on their journey to work were found to be significantly less happy than those who did not commute.

In 2011, the co-author of the study, Bruno Frey, in another paper, Happy People Live Longer, reported that happy people live 14 per cent longer than unhappy people, increasing their longevity by seven-and-a-half to ten years. This finding accords precisely with the 2013 findings of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and with research begun in Oxford, Ohio, in the Seventies among the local inhabitants then aged 50 and over.Forty years on, in Oxford, Ohio, who has survived in good health? Those who had a positive outlook on their life and impending old age have lived, on average, 7.6 years longer than those with negative views.

Now, changing your job (or the place where you live) to reduce the time you spend commuting may be a difficult if not near-impossible undertaking, but, surely, if it helps add more than seven years to your life-span, it is at least worth considering?

Assess exactly how you spend your time and how it makes you feel. Audit your happiness and then, if you fancy living longer, do what you can actively to increase the happiness quotient in your life. 

SIX: LIVE IN THE MOMENT

Not long ago, I went back to my old school to give out the prizes. After the prize-giving, tea was served in the school dining room and there, carved into the wood panelling above the fireplace, was the famous line from one of the Odes of Horace: ‘Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero’. It translates, more or less, as: ‘Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.’

Stop thinking about what’s coming next, stop checking the mobile, stop brooding about Brexit, and relish what’s happening now. Seize the day. For all you know, it’s the only one you’ve got. 

SEVEN: BE HAPPY

And, finally, if you want to be happy . . .  Be Happy. Act it, play the part, put on a happy face. 

Start thinking differently. ‘Choose to be optimistic,’ says the Dalai Lama. ‘It feels better.’

If you are feeling negative, simply say to yourself: ‘I am going to be positive’, and that, in itself, can trigger a change in how you feel.

That’s it.

And it works.

It really does, I’m happy to say.

Gyles Brandreth