Pope Francis recently published his ten top tips for happiness. Few people would disagree with most of them, although it’s much easier to write about working for peace and giving yourself to others than actually doing it!
Everyone seems to have their own take on ‘secrets to happiness’, and each week another ‘top ten tips’ gets circulated. Some are more helpful than others, but there is a lot of common ground: work on your own attitudes (‘stop being negative’); nurture healthy relationships (‘give yourself to others’); develop community (‘live and let live’); and look to the wider scene (‘take care of nature’). There are variations on these themes, but it’s difficult to imagine a better framework.
Certainly all the happiness and wellbeing research points in this direction. For example, expressing gratitude, forgiving other people, practising acts of kindness, savouring simple things in nature and caring for the environment have all been shown to promote life satisfaction. It’s noticeable that few of these actions focus on material things – developing relationships and a greater sense of meaning and purpose are much more significant. In fact, the more materialistic you are, it seems, the less satisfied you are with your life.
Just a couple of points, though. The focus nearly always seems to be ‘my happiness’, ‘my satisfaction’. Yet the irony is that the most happy and satisfied people are almost always those whose orientation is more outward than inward, more towards others than self. We live in a very individualistic culture (some would say, narcissistic), where the measure of happiness is the extent to which something pleases me. Yet the research is clear: self-absorption is the path to less happiness, whereas others-focus moves us in the opposite direction! In this regard, the Pope’s points are a helpful corrective.
The other point is that such ‘top ten’ lists tend to be rather anecdotal. The temptation is to regard them as a ‘to do’ list – when I’ve completed them all I’ll have that elusive ‘happy life’ that everyone keeps talking about! But life doesn’t really work like that. It’s not that neat and tidy!
So here’s my suggestion. Before you make out yet another ‘to-do list for my happiness’, start off with this. Decide (or maybe discover) what the meaning and purpose of your life is. Find out some basis for living that can integrate all the varying (and sometimes contradictory) dimensions of life. That will probably involve more heart-searching and reflection, but it might just help all the other parts to fit together into a whole!