As tempting as it was to hope the pandemic would suddenly disappear – taking all the grief and angst of the past two years with it – that’s not how life works, is it?
Now war is raging in Ukraine, we face new economic fears, and the emotional baggage of Covid isn’t something we can all just snap out of.
Feeling the weight of these dark clouds? Then it could be time to reconnect with ‘the little things’. Moments of micro-happiness, small pockets of joy – or just nice stuff that feels good, if fluffy ‘positivity’ jargon isn’t your bag.
With such big things going on, it might sound trite to talk about small joys – but they can make a difference, says Dr. Andrea Giraldez-Hayes, clinical director of the Wellbeing and Psychological Services Centre at the University of East London’s School of Psychology.
Creating happy moments
Right now, “it’s very easy to start seeing the dark side of everything and feel worried and anxious”, Giraldez-Hayes acknowledges, which can make it “difficult to connect with our wellbeing”.
However, many positive psychology experts have examined the building blocks of happiness, or the things that feed our feel-good reserves – and there’s a lot of emphasis on micro-moments.
“The idea is, you can create those moments, and even a tiny thing can have an impact on your mindset and how you feel,” says Giraldez-Hayes. “It’s something you need to practise consciously. You need to look for these opportunities – it’s not something that is just going to happen.”
What these micro-moments are might be very individual – like enjoying your morning coffee outdoors, a walk in the park before work, sitting by the canal to read your book – but Giraldez-Hayes says there are some core things that tend to be universal. These include kindness, helping others, and a sense of connection with others.
“That doesn’t just mean going out for dinner with a friend,” says Giraldez-Hayes. “It could be even if you go for your coffee in the morning and exchange some kind words with the person that prepares the coffee, or you have a conversation with someone randomly. That contact with other humans helps a lot.”
The daily aspect matters though. “It’s like going to the gym – you can’t do it as a one off and then think [the effects] will last forever,” Giraldez-Hayes reasons. Bringing a sense of intentionality to it is also important.
Keeping it real
Everything has a tipping point though. Even being positive isn’t always, well, all that positive. For example, so-called ‘toxic positivity’ – forcing ourselves to put a positive spin on everything, before we’ve had a chance to register let alone process what’s really going on – is not helpful for anyone.
Professor Bruce Hood, who leads University of Bristol’s ‘Science of Happiness’ course, cautions against ‘happiness hacks’ becoming too prescriptive.
Yes, there is evidence that this approach to micro-happiness can be beneficial – Hood certainly isn’t here to tell anyone not to bother – but he does think it’s helpful to remember there’s more to the picture.
“I’m usually asked, ‘What are your top five tips?’, and I always say I’m not going to give them,” says Hood (he used to, but no more).
“Because it suggests that there’s some sort of inadequacy. And it’s like – all we need to do is this, and then we’ll be fine – but it would be disingenuous to say that. It’s not to say [those things] are pointless. They do have meaning, but they have to be seen in the context of just trying to lead a more purposeful, engaged life.”
“We have to have some balance,” Hoods adds. “Changes we can make are beneficial, but we mustn’t think that we’re suddenly going to be deliriously happy ever after, and I think that’s an important message to remind people.”
He suggests focusing on the “process” (doing the things) rather than over-emphasising an expected outcome (if I do this, I should be happy).
Getting off auto-pilot
This brings up another question: what does being happy mean? “There isn’t a single definition of happiness. It means different things to different people and covers a variety of emotional states, as well as cognitive states, like being content with your life,” says Hood.
“When you drill down into it, it means a sense of engagement, achievement, progression, all these sorts of words – and they don’t necessarily mean that you’re in an elevated positive state of mind.
It’s more nuanced than that. And you have to have negative in life in order to really appreciate the positive,” says Hood. “That’s the basic function of how the brain works.”
However you choose to break it down though, that sense of being engaged and intentional seems key. And it’s important to think about what this means to you – beware the trap of comparing your happy to someone else’s, “because that’s invariably where we’re going to feel inadequate,” says Hood.
“One thing I would say, is we do tend to live our lives on autopilot. We have certain goals and expectations, we go about our daily lives, we don’t necessarily stop and question why we’re doing what we’re doing. And a lot of the time, we’re not really focusing on what we’re doing,” Hood notes.