It seems the pressure to be happy is now greater than ever: We have wellness retreats promising to bring us back 'to our centre', apps to cope with the stresses of life and are exposed to image after image of smiling faces on Instagram. We want our lives to be picture-perfect - and don't want any 'bad' emotions to ruin it.
Unfortunately, life will always throw us curveballs that threaten our happiness, and we don't always know how to deal with unpleasant emotions when they arise (step away from the chocolate and wine!). Our lives are turbulent journeys and it's normal to have periods of feeling up and down, but if you persistently feel down you may require professional help (check out a list of helpful resources below).
However, if your unhappiness stems from a lack of appreciation for the things you do have (good health? A wonderful family? A roof over your head?), there are some things you can do to feel more grateful for the smaller things in life, and as an added effect, you'll feel happier and more peaceful.
Why we can't seem to be happy with our lives
Put simply, we're a society that's obsessed with having more. We want a bigger house, a new car, more money - we're hardly ever content with what we have.
In addition to feeling dissatisfied with the good things in our lives, many of us mistakenly believe that physical items will fill the void or solve our problems ("I'm feeling upset, I'll buy myself a handbag or perfume to make myself feel better"), but, as it always does, after buying a new blouse the excitement wears off and we feel the same - but with a hole in our back pockets.
Fiona Redding, founder of The Happiness Hunter and author of The Happiness Hunter's Guide to Meditation explains that searching for happiness externally does not make us happy, only internal happiness can give us a lasting feeling of peace.
"When we are focused on external measures to be happy - landing that job, buying that house, finding a partner - then we can only be happy when we have achieved them, and that state of happiness is only fleeting before we move on to the next thing we don't have.
"This is living in a state of constant need and lack, which can be reinforced by media, marketing and advertising and what we are seeing on social media. We live in a society that is constantly seeking bigger, better, thinner, faster and more, more, more and we determine our value in relation to what we have or don't have, which then affects how we feel.
"Accepting what we have, who we are, and where we are in life (accepting it - it doesn't mean we can't change it!) doesn't fit this model. Only internally focused happiness is real and lasting. This state of happiness is not an elusive thing that we need to try and attain and is not dependent on anything outside of us to exist. Happiness exists within each of us, always. We just need to remember to turn the light on."
The pursuit of happiness
We know as a society that we chase happiness - and why wouldn't we? A good mood feels better than a bad one! However all this pressure to feel happy might not be good for us.
"We generally make two mistakes: first, we make happiness the goal, when it is a by-product of healthy beliefs and values, and second, then we set the bar for happiness incredibly high, ensuring that we always seem to fall short. What we need to remember is that, if we really try (although we shouldn't) we can always find some corner of our selves or our life that we are not 100 per cent satisfied with! That's the trap!"
Golding suggests our obsession with being happy may come down to culture.
If you can imagine cavemen days, you can guess humans weren't so caught up on chasing happiness - they were thinking about survival. And as we progress and evolve we are finding new ways to make our lives more convenient and efficient. But with this new age and the rise of technology comes another burden, because now we aren't focused on hunting and gathering, we've got the time to nit-pick on other areas of our lives.
Without getting too high school on you, there's a theory in psychology called 'Maslow's hierarchy of needs' that suggests why we chase happiness and fulfilment. As the name suggests, the theory proposes that we have a hierarchy of needs - some basic and some more tricky to achieve. These needs are physiological basics, safety, love, esteem and self-actualisation. Maslow theorised that once our basic physiological and safety needs are met, we move on to conquer the next stage. The theory can best be represented in the form of a pyramid.
We have a reached a point in society where we no longer need to worry about food and safety and are instead working on satisfying internal goals.
"Just look around at all the articles and self-help books on happiness!" says Golding. "Look at social media – the majority of people there have amazingly happy and abundant lives right!? And marketing messages show beautiful people using products and you guessed it - being incredibly happy at the same time! We don't want to miss out on this 'happiness' that everyone else is experiencing."
There's a reason they say comparison is the thief of joy!
"Of course, this works so well because of our attraction to the happiness message. We, ourselves, have experiences of happiness, peace, unbridled joy and freedom, as children. I think as we age we take on responsibility and expectations, we get socialised, we gain more awareness about ourselves and the world. This produces tension and stress in people and many end up longing for that 'care free' and happy feeling again."
Can we choose to be happy?
Yes, is the short answer - and it's a choice.
Redding says: "How we think determines how we feel, so if we want to be happy, we need to make a conscious decision to be happy. Happiness is an active choice in each and every moment - it's like choosing to see the glass half full."
Guess that the quote 'we are just about as happy as we make up our minds to be' has some merit!
"Being happy begins as a state of mind. How we think affects what we say, how we feel, and determines how we behave and the way we see and experience the world. So if we don't like what we are experiencing, we can make up our minds to change it!"
How to feel happier and more grateful
While putting too much pressure on ourselves to be happy is counter productive, there are some things we can do to improve our mood.
Emi Golding says: "There are definite ways to be happier, but they are not the ones most people think of!
"Superficially, what makes us happier is different for everyone, but once you delve a little deeper you find that there are common threads as to what makes people happy.
"Let me explain. Some people might find peace and happiness living in the country, whereas others might find peace and happiness living in a bustling big city. But underneath it all what makes us happy is living a life of our own choosing, a feeling that we are in control and have options in line with our own core values and needs."
Emi also notes that studies have found having meaning in life, or a purpose, increases happiness. As does having goals - not achieving them, but simply having goals in mind.
Although she says perfectionists should be careful.
"A word of caution, people with very high expectations and perfectionists tend to report higher levels of dissatisfaction. So having goals is good but you have to make sure you are balanced around this."
There are many other things you can do to be happy if you're not much of a writer.
Research has frequently suggested that exercise is beneficial for mental health and meditation works wonders on mood, too.
Emi agrees: "Get a coach, get active, be present and the best one – be grateful.
"Being grateful sounds simple but it's one of most powerful ways to feel happier. Start paying attention to the positive and the good things we have in our life. The simple things. The things you take for granted. The things that we could appreciate but sometimes we get too busy to treasure.
"It may sound corny and trite, but the research in neuroscience of positive psychology backs it up. By actively focusing on the good, or the 'silver linings', we can change our neural pathways and effectively 'train' ourselves to be happier."
You may have heard this before, but another thing you can do to feel happier is to be kind.
Fiona Redding says: "The quickest path to our own happiness is to give freely of ourselves, to do something for someone else, just because you want to do it and because doing it will brighten someone else's day.
"Simple kindness - smiling at a stranger, letting a car pull in ahead of you, visiting an elderly widowed neighbour for a cup of tea, donating money to charity, giving up an afternoon of your time for a cause you believe in - we all know how deeply fulfilling that can be, and how good we feel about ourselves not only as we are doing it, but afterwards. Imagine the world we could live in if everyone approached life in this way, if every day each of us woke up and asked, 'what can I do today to help another?'"
Something to note: doing good things with the intention of helping yourself is cheating. Try to genuinely do something nice for someone with the expectation of getting nothing in return.
Lastly, to feel more peaceful and content, remove any toxic behaviours from your life.
"If you really want to feel happier," Redding says. "Stop gossiping, stop complaining, stop blaming and start looking for the good in others and appreciating the experience of your life, in all it's technicolour glory, knowing that if you want a different experience, then it is 100 per cent within your power to change it."