When your world seems to be falling apart, you can always count on someone telling you to look on the bright side. It's as if positivity is something you can summon at will. But what if happiness really was within your control, and all you needed to do to experience profound joy was to change a few small things in your everyday life?
Far from being a kooky new-age idea, the 'happiness as a choice' philosophy is really about taking responsibility for yourself, says Dr Timothy Sharp. He's the founder and 'chief happiness officer' at The Happiness Institute, Australia's first organisation devoted to enhancing happiness in individuals, families and organisations.
It's about taking your emotional health into your own hands by making the decision to be happy, by looking for real solutions instead of focusing on your problems, and by interpreting what happens to you and around you differently to preserve your mental wellbeing. That is, looking at the glass half full instead of half empty.
'Happiness is a term that covers a range of positive emotions,' Sharp says. 'But it should be noted that no one can be 100 per cent happy 100 per cent of the time. True happiness involves recognising that, as humans, it's normal to experience the full range of emotions including 'negative' ones.
'The key is responding to and managing these negative emotions so that they don't unduly or excessively impact on functioning and that they don't persist for too long. It is also important to try to learn from unpleasant and difficult circumstances.'
Happiness is not about having money or material possessions, because whatever positive feelings we derive from these tend to be short-lived, Sharp says.
'What really contributes to real and meaningful happiness are variables such as good quality relationships, optimistic thinking, compassion for others, the ability to identify and utilise strengths, and the practice of strategies such as appreciation and gratitude.'
We asked five happy individuals how they manage to keep smiling. Find out what happiness means to them and put their tips to good use when that positive emotion seems elusive.
Someone wise told me that what we ought to aspire for - more than happiness - is joy, or a deep sense of knowing everything is going to be just fine. When something negative happens to me, crying helps to release the sadness and stress. I also read books that relate to my situation, of people who've survived it or are going through it, as a source of inspiration. Life is not always perfect, but the great thing is that we get to choose our reaction to it.'
Melissa De Silva
To me, happiness is living a life of creativity, freedom, fulfilment and love. Being creative is at the core of who I am, and I do this every day through writing fiction and art. Even cooking satisfies me on days when I don't have the energy or time to do anything more ambitious. And yes, the world can seem depressing at times, but why would I want to let external forces control how I feel and think? I choose not to seek out negative information and only read about things that uplift me. I also choose not to expend energy on people with a negative outlook. Life is too short to be miserable.
Happiness to me means being grateful for everything in the now. It's about not regretting the past and not wishing for something to occur in the future. I have learnt that attachments to things or people are never going to make you happy. Only you can make you happy. Waiting for something to happen - like losing weight, a marriage proposal, getting a dream job or winning the lottery - is putting off our happiness. We think that if we get those things, they will make us happy, but in reality we have to be happy in the present moment for those things to come. It's always in that order.
I do believe that happiness is a choice, but it's important to not see it as trying to maintain a particular 'positive state'. I think happiness is more about our motivation and learning to accept ourselves and what is happening in our lives rather than trying to manufacture certain emotional states. One way to be happy is to ask yourself what you can do to make someone's day. Then take the time to notice what images, thoughts or people come into your mind. Once you know what person or thing you want to do, do it in a spirit of playfulness and fun. You might even try doing it anonymously. Dedicating your life to making other people happy is one of the great secrets to real joy.
Yeo Khim Noy
Decide to be happy and do what it takes to feel that way. Happiness is what you must find within yourself. Once you've found it, you can share those vibes with others. I'm happiest when helping people and giving them time and attention. It makes me feel really good knowing I am making a positive difference. When something negative happens to me, I just take it as a life lesson. I ask myself what I can learn from it instead of being bitter, vengeful and angry. Then I count my blessings.