In an always-on world, it’s often easier to identify feelings of distress and unhappiness rather than their positive counterparts. Many people find it easier to declare, “I’m pissed off!” than to say, “I’m happy”. Professor Andrew Sharman reflects on the science of happiness.

Happiness is a hard topic to pin down. After all, what makes you happy may not make others happy. 

According to Aristotle: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Punch the term into Google and we get over one billion entries. There’s a lot out there on happiness! So where to begin? 

Let’s start with a definition. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it’s “the state of feeling or showing pleasure” or “the state of being satisfied that something is good or right”. 

Over the last few years I’ve been studying the science of happiness and captured my learnings in a book called Happy & Here, co-authored with the brilliant positive psychologist
Dr Lucy Rattrie. Sure, happiness is a feeling, often washing over us when we know that life is good, and it’s usually accompanied by a smile or two, and a general sense of well-being (or at least things “being well” around us). Happiness can also be a state of mind: a thought that we are contented, or “happy with our lot” in life, or optimistic about achieving a future we dream of. 

Tim Ferriss, the New York Times best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body and The 4-Hour Chef (we imagine he was looking for a fast way to get happy), encourages us to consider the opposite. But it’s not what you might first think: the opposite of happiness is not sadness, but rather, as Ferriss explains, it’s boredom. He reckons that “Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it’s precisely what you should chase. It is the cure-all.” 

He believes that in our pursuit of happiness we focus on the wrong things and shouldn’t be asking, “What do I want?” or “What are my goals?” but rather “What excites me?” 

Scientifically speaking, some psychologists and neurologists reckon that happiness is simply a chemical reaction within the body that manifests in the feelings and thoughts described above. The people in white coats take their cue from ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who advised: “We must exercise ourselves in the things that bring us happiness, since, if present, we have everything we need. And if absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” 

Regardless of which of these ideas resonates most with you, it’s fair to say that happiness – for most people – comes and goes. As US writer Nathaniel Hawthorne suggested, “Happiness is as a butterfly, which, if pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” 

But why is it so easy to strive for, yet so difficult to define? Well, as Aristotle counselled, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” It’s deliciously subjective – what makes me happy may be different to what makes you happy. And this diversity increases when we consider the world at large. For example, in the US what people call happiness is often linked to high-energy positive emotions like excitement, passion and optimism. Across Asia and some European countries, a calmer or even more neutral state may be the preferred definition. 

Recent research by McKinsey & Company reveals that personal spending on live events and experiences is growing at a rate four times faster than spending on consumer goods. Without question, we all now live in the age of experiences. And research by US professor Ed Diener shows that it’s not the intensity of experiences that provide us with the most happiness, but the frequency with which we experience them. Don’t panic – this doesn’t mean constant fancy holidays and seeing a new band every week: the simple things count – a nice bar of chocolate, a glass of wine with friends, a walk with your family. 

Feeling blue

Heard of the Blue Zones? After five years of research with National Geographic, Dan Buettner identified Blue Zones as rare longevity hotspots around the world where people have tremendously low chronic illness, superior happiness and live into their 100s – without the need for medication. You’ll find these health hotspots in Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and Loma Linda (US). 

The secret? There is no secret! No technology, treadmills or super-genes. It’s pure, simple, powerful lifestyle medicine – healthy eating from nature, daily exercise as evolution intended, a focus on family time, purpose and meaning. Given that genetics account for only 20% to 30% of health and longevity, lifestyle boosts from nature really are the golden tickets. 

Sadly, most of us have lost touch with this beautiful approach to life, choosing to turn to medicines as an easy quick fix, and to use therapies delivered via apps instead of speaking to family. Eating fast food instead of cooking healthily; tackling stress with too much alcohol. We’re approaching things in the wrong way. 

The power of nine 

But hold up, you don’t need to move to another country to benefit. Buettner calls the solution Power 9. Despite living in geographically different parts of the world, Blue Zones have nine commonalities that represent fundamental principles for living – and you can apply them right where you are now, driving your life expectancy up by 10 to 12 years of good, fun, quality time on earth. 

So, what’s at the top of the Power 9 list for a healthy body? Here are the top three:

Move naturally. People in Blue Zones walk in the forest, climb mountains, swim in the sea. Their muscles are used constantly, metabolisms are kept high and blood flows easily, meaning conditioned bodies breaking down toxins and waste ready to fight disease – effortlessly. It doesn’t need to be high intensity, sweating and out of breath. Easy does it! Just a little throughout the day, every day. Build exercise into your daily routine: climb the stairs. Walk to the supermarket. Work in the garden. Lift things. Run in the forest. Use it or lose it … 

A study in Psychological Science revealed that walking among trees improves short-term memory by 20%. Oh yes, the great outdoors boosts mental energy, improves concentration, sharpens thinking and creativity, and lowers the cortisol hormone, your heart rate and bodily inflammation too. All that translates into lower stress and reduced chance of auto-immune disease, hypertension, cancer and depression. Who’s to argue with science? We call it “nature’s therapy” and recommend a daily dose. If you can’t get out, try surrounding yourself with pictures of nature, meditate and visualise chilling under a tree or on a white sandy beach. 

Plant slant. Eat the right things. Make your kilojoules count. Lead with plants by stocking up constantly on vegetables in their raw, natural state, or lightly steamed – make veg the biggest part of every meal, eat various beans and snack on all-vegetable smoothies. Fruit is a powerhouse too, but watch the fructose (natural sugars, not so good for the teeth). 

Each day, eat a rainbow of colours, aiming for seven to 10 veg, two to three berries/bananas and maximum one of the sweeter fruits (oranges, kiwi, pineapple, etc). 

Get fat! We mean good fat – omega-3 from olive oil, coconut oil, wild-caught fish, nuts and seeds, avocado. The body needs fat to function and studies show you’re more likely to lose weight if fat is your friend. A couple of times a month, indulge in (grass-fed, local and free-range) organic meats, organ meats like liver and bone broth for hard-to-find nutrients like collagen (yes, that stuff in your face cream), glucosamine (no need to take that supplement for your creaking joints) and trace minerals to beat anything from anaemia to arthritis, eczema and allergies. 

If your grandmother ate it, you can eat it. With some exceptions: try to steer clear of anything with added sugar, additives, bad fat (trans or saturated), processed meats such as ham, bacon and sausages, “white” carbs (white bread, “regular” pasta), and processed food. Avoid anything labelled “low fat”, “light” or “reduced fat”, and drink plenty of water. 

The 80% rule. Blue Zone people also eat only when they experience true hunger (we’re talking a gentle rumble), they don’t overeat, and they’re mindful when eating. In Japan, overeating is frowned upon, instead striving for eating “just enough”, a three-quarters-full feeling (or to 80%; it’s the 20% gap that keeps you lean and beach-ready). The ancient Greeks got it right when they reckoned that breakfast should be the biggest meal of your day and supper, the lightest. Whichever meal you’re on, be mindful of what you put into your body: set your phone down, focus on the colours on your plate and savour the taste sensations. 

Shake your body down to the ground 

In a previous book (Working Well) I talked of the idea of “micro workouts” – one-minute bouts of exercise. It’s something that readers of that book picked up on. Here’s a similar concept for building resilience, which I call the “two-minute shakedown”. Pick one of the following activities and set a timer for two minutes. 

• The shakedown – stand up and shake out each limb, start with your feet and work up to the head. Once there, shake your whole body down to the ground.  

• Just breathe – breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold the breath for four, breathe out for five. Repeat. 

• Cry wolf! – I love doing this with clients. In a busy office. Wherever you are, howl at the moon, sun, clouds, or whatever takes your fancy. Two minutes now, good dog!

• Let’s dance – You won’t need your red shoes to dance away the blues (God bless David Bowie). Just slam on your favourite tune and make some shapes. 

• Go play! – Kids laugh around 300 times a day. Adults average just 17. Why? Kids have “fun time” built in to their schedule. In a busy, interconnected and “always-on” world it can be hard for us to find time to play, so we’ll need to build it into our day. Choose an activity where the sole objective is to laugh out loud. It could be playing frisbee, watching a comedy show or (one of my favourites) simply making a “Silly Selfie” on your phone and sending it to someone. 


Emotional contagion

Did you know that we can literally catch emotions from other people? There’s plenty of science behind this, as you’d imagine, but you already have some idea how this works from your own experience. That weird guy in the office – you know how when he shows up to the coffee machine the mood seems to drop a notch? Luckily, it’s the same in reverse. I have a friend called Fabio. Whenever he rocks up, it’s a bit like the sun comes out and everything’s shiny and new. Maybe it’s because Fabio is Brazilian, maybe not. But after an hour with my buddy I feel on top of the world. 

And that takes us to another idea – being sociable. Positive psychologists Marty Seligman and Ed Diener reckon that “of 24 character strengths, those that best predict life satisfaction are the interpersonal ones. One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.” It’s time to go see your friends. 

Be thankful for what you’ve got

All too often it’s easy to look at others with envy: that new car, the big promotion, the latest phone, the super-smart kids, the fancy holiday. But envy is a destructive force. Luckily for you, you now have a secret weapon that defeats envy every time. Gratitude. It’s an essential tool in your self-care toolbox, and one you might not use as often as you should. 

I easily get caught up in the busyness of life so I need to build a routine to make it stick. At the end of each day, I take a few minutes to think about the day and identify three things I’m grateful for. Here’s a few other ideas on gratitude:

• Write a thank you note and explain to the person why you are grateful. Be specific and say what it meant to you. 

• Start the day by writing in a gratitude journal three things you are grateful for.

• Be sincere when you say thank you and look the person in the eye, say it meaningfully and smile.

• Compliment others – their hair, choice of clothing, taste in music – choose something you appreciate and let them know in a sincere way. 

Let’s bring it in now

Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, the last emperor of the Pax Romana – an age of peace and stability – pondered the art of being human for years and reckoned that, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” 

And I fully agree. Aurelius wrote a series of letters, to himself, in what was perhaps among the first “self-help manuals” and it’s from these that our last pearl of wisdom comes: 

“Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant. All the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.” 

So, given this guidance, remember you’re a human “being”, not just a human “doing”.

Are you happy and here?  

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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