Most weekends me and my boyfriend wind up playing this game: Let’s Look At Stupidly Expensive Homes In London. There are a few moments of distantly bathing in the glow of warm apricot lighting, big windows, even bigger bookshelves, and romantic Juliet balconies. In what appears as an exercise to cleanse myself of envy, I pose, “but are they happy though?” I think they’re pretty happy, he laughs. Still, refusing to let this one go, “are they?” Who knows.
It’s an odd beast, happiness. Sometimes we’re barely aware of its presence until we’re deprived of it. Shame and sadness and insecurity can distort the view of even the most ostensibly good looking lives. At times, we can have everything and feel like nothing. Enter: Arthur C Brooks, columnist at The Atlantic and a Harvard professor who teaches courses on happiness. His book Build the Life You Want (co-written with Oprah Winfrey), is “all me-search,” he laughs over Zoom, from his home office in Boston. “I’m not a naturally super happy person. I’m trying to figure out the best way to live my own life and I’m a scientist, so I can actually use these tools.”
Happiness, in other words, isn’t something that just happens, or even purely circumstantial. It involves homework and awareness. Practice. So, let’s begin.
Pick your fighter
An early section of the book is about understanding your happiness profile. Am I a Mad Scientist, a Cheerleader, a Sober Judge or a Poet? Using the PANAS schedule (measuring your positive and negative affect—mood—in comparison to others), you assign a score to each emotion, ie, inspired, afraid, determined and so on. I qualify, perhaps un-shockingly, as a poet. Wildly romantic, creative and a Class A catastrophiser (yep!). “All poets are ruminators,” Brooks explains. “[They also] tend to be inwardly critical.” Since my teens, a tendency to spiral into a tornado of self-scrutiny and expecting the absolute worst to happen have been toxic friends of mine. “You’re in your head, it’s maddening,” he agrees. “Say to yourself, ‘I’m going to stop judging everything, including myself. I’m going to observe things for the next hour.’ I’m not going to say this coffee is so bitter, I’m going to say this coffee has a bitter flavour. Stand in awe, walk in nature without technological devices, go to the beach, observe an incredible act of charitable kindness…”
Feel the fear, find it funny anyway
There’s a phrase you’ll likely have come across on your Instagram travels: “No feeling is final” (credit to sage and poet Rainer Maria Rilke). It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. It shares shades with Brooks’s concept of “emotional caffeine”—to substitute one emotion for another to manage negative affect. “A buddy of mine, Rainn Wilson [who starred in the US version of The Office], says, ‘We’re comedians because we’re depressed!’” Brooks says. “You’ll feel better when someone’s laughing.” Luckily, I have a family which takes comic relief very seriously. Whether doing dumb impressions (my brother) or finding the humour in the cruel injustice of adulting (me); acting as joke-provider or purposely looking for something to laugh at. When me and my mum are feeling blah, we’ll unearth a clip from rom-com He’s Just Not That Into You, featuring two women on a bench talking about all the ways they’ve been dumped by guys (so skilfully they make it seem like it was your idea). Joy.
Unhappiness is not a dirty word
One of my favourite Friends episodes is the one in which Phoebe brings a date to a wedding party. He’s overly enthusiastic, delighted by literally every person and object that meets his eye. Soon, it becomes annoying, even to Phoebe. It’s funny because, well, this person’s 100 per cent cheeriness is entirely un-relatable. Having low, moody or melancholy days is not a personal failing. “Without unhappiness, you wouldn’t survive, learn, or come up with a good idea,” Brooks points out. “Even if you could get rid of your unhappiness, it would be a huge mistake. The secret to the best life is to accept your unhappiness (so you can learn and grow) and manage the feelings that result.”
Attaching self-worth to a goal? Just say no
Quick question: have you ever achieved anything in life? Yes, of course you have. I’m going to assume some of them were goals. Goals are good. “The reason for goals is to set you in a particular direction,” Brooks says. “Not to make you doggedly attached to getting that thing.” He uses the metaphor of sailors following a rhumb line. “[It’s] the line of navigation to your ultimate point of arrival.” Though, as is true on land, you can be blown off course, find something more interesting on your journey. “It’s progress, progress, progress! That’s where the action is in life.”
Less “me” time
An obvious point but one it’s worth reminding ourselves of. To borrow from the New Radicals, you only get what you give. In Build the Life You Want, Brooks uses the example of a group of participants split into three camps, each given a different set of instructions. There’s the Moral Deeds Group (doing something that will benefit, directly or indirectly, another person); the Moral Thoughts Group (thinking about another person or group in a positive way); and the Treat Yourself Group (doing a positive thing for yourself). After the 10-day experiment each group, naturally, felt more satisfied. And yet, it was those who were actively caring for others who felt less anger, less social isolation, a greater sense of purpose. Calling your grandmother or talking your partner’s work dilemma through with them is never not a good idea. Say to yourself, with the zeal of a genuinely supportive customer service operator, how can I help?
Choose hope over blind optimism
“Optimism is no more than a prediction,” Arthur explains. “Like, everything is going to be okay..? How do you know? You can be a very hopeful pessimist.” Alternatively, he explains, hope is active. More realistic. It involves personal agency—it requires action and a motivation to change your or someone else’s circumstances for the better. “Avoid illusions of being the invincible saviour,” he writes. “Instead, imagine doing small, tangible acts,” to improve a situation.
Love is the key
“Happiness is love,” Brooks tells me delightedly, when touching the final segment of his book. There are so many descriptions of finding love, sustaining it. The pursuit of love and the pursuit of happiness… the point is they are both wonderfully incomplete and creative, doing acts. Not permanent states of being. Simply put, joy is invariably found in its practice, rather than searching for perfection. Love is continuously vowing to show up. Love is the beauty in finding a way back to yourself, to someone, to some place or somewhere.
This article first appeared in British Vogue.