The happiness enigma

This post is part of the series self care

Other posts in this series:

  1. Let’s talk about food
  2. Let’s talk about self care- introduction
  3. Let’s talk about sleep

A patient recently came into my practice and pleaded: “I just want to be happy.” I was touched. Afterall, who doesn’t want to be happy? It was such a seemingly small and reasonable request.

I felt that I was letting her down by saying that I could not guarantee happiness. That happiness is a state of wellbeing that encompasses living a good life and has to be self-generated.

As a psychiatrist, I could help her with her thieves of happiness. Those forces which thwart her attempts to be happy. In this patient, it was the unholy triad of depression, poor boundaries and drinking too much. Mental illnesses, getting stuck in a moment, substance abuse, toxic relationships- these are all happiness thieves.

Fortunately, since the 1990’s, there has been a whole branch of psychology- positive psychology- which has dedicated itself to researching happiness. So I could make some observations backed by sound data to help her find her happiness. It seems as if happiness is within each person’s power to attain, but might take considerable work and discomfort to do so. Aristotle said, “happiness is not merely a feeling, or a golden promise, but a practice.” It seems as if the wise old man was onto something.

Everybody has an opinion on how to be happy. Evidence backs the following:

  • Striving for a healthier life.

The Cochrane review, an influential medical database, reviewed 23 robust studies. There is no doubt: exercise positively affects mood. We are beginning to understand the gut-brain axis and the role of inflammation, highlighting the importance of a healthy diet. Sleep deprived people have a 5% increased risk for depression and a 20% increased risk for anxiety. Dan Gilbert, psychologist and happiness expert, refers to happiness as a psychological immune system. As such, striving to be healthy helps our happiness immunity. Happiness struggles to happen from the couch.

  • Social connectedness

Human beings are social animals. We need each other. A study which spanned 20 years by Fowler et al. highlighted the importance of family and friends. We do not need many friends, but we do need meaningful relationships in our lives.

As part of this connectedness, feel-good hormones get released when we are generous. We need only to think about being generous for this to happen. The altruism can be anything; throwing a friend a party, or volunteering. The only criteria is that it is not self-serving generosity. It seems as if happiness remains elusive if the altruism has an ulterior motive.

  • Fostering an attitude of gratitude

Gratitude is an attitude and way of living that has been shown to have many benefits regarding health, happiness, satisfaction with life, and the way we relate to others. To foster gratitude, we need to mindfully make time to be grateful. Some of the ways this is done are by keeping a gratitude journal, or writing thank you notes. We need to turn towards unhappy times and actively try to find something to be grateful for in those times. It might not be great that your boss is unsupportive, but you could be grateful that you are discovering your own self-reliance. Complaining erodes gratitude, so trying to foster gratitude means realising when we complain and trying not to do it.

  • Finding meaning

The Japanese call it Ikigai, the French raison d etre. The usually rich English language does not have a word for your meaning, that which you do which is bigger than you, your passion. There is evidence to suggest that we should pursue meaningful lives rather than happiness. Sometimes a meaningful life can be difficult, hard and stressful. It seems that struggling in this way makes us very happy.

Certainly, once we found our ikigai, then eagerly waiting for retirement becomes a moot point.

  • Fake it until you make it

You can fool your brain. If you stride out, smile, greet people; your brain will eventually forget that it woke up grumpy.

Happiness is a valuable commodity. The Dalai Lama said: “happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own  actions.”



Continue reading this series:


  1. I think the happiest I have ever been was when I was gardening at our home in Bergvliet in my teens and 20’s. To me it is almost like prayer. You are on your knees with your hands in the soil of mother Earth. And for the little work you do, you are so richly rewarded in a few days or weeks as your effort literally flourish before you. Unfortunately a traumatic event broke that spell and I have never gardened since.

    What makes me happy now is helping people, firstly as a teacher of Physical and Life Sciences and sometimes Psychology Statistics for a paltry sum. And secondly with two wonderful woman with whom we have taken over the coordination of the Cape Town Bipolar Support Group, pro bono. I think I am a born helper. That is what makes me happy.

  2. Love the article – I find in my practice when faced with questions around happiness that it helps people to view happiness as a ‘moving target’ – we are not all happy all the time and the normalizing of this thought often helps people to accept and acknowledge happy times and find a degree of peace and quietude during lesser happy times, safe in the knowledge that this too shall pass, its normal, and happy times will return.

    • Thanks, Janet, as a fellow healer and writer, I appreciate your comments! I have similar conversations with my patients, along the lines that happiness and sadness are just normal, transient emotions.

  3. Unfortunately, that is the opposite of what people are fed to believe via Hollywood, glossy magazines and much of social media where the people portrayed are perfectly toned and in an state of permanent of idiotic ecstasy. BigPharma are part of the problem too with the promotional material they offer doctors showing blue skies, green hills and blissfully smiling compliant patients. Does anyone remember the book, “Listening to Prozac”, in which we were offered the promise of being “better than well”?

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