Could coronavirus lockdown give us a chance to figure out how to be happier?

We're having to limit our visits to them, but parks bring happiness. Pic: Sonya Duncan

We're having to limit our visits to them, but parks bring happiness. Pic: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

In these bleak times, it may seem a little odd to write about happiness. However, there are things we can do to make ourselves happier.

Retail therapy does not always bring happiness. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Retail therapy does not always bring happiness. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

There is no shortage of recommendations, ranging from the strange suggestion on YouTube to ‘Take tiny acts of rebellion, for example, choose what you wear’ to the rather more useful advice on the Healthline website pointing out that ‘Smiling causes the brain to release dopamine, which makes us happier… Try to start each morning by smiling at yourself in the mirror’.

There is even a bi-monthly Journal of Happiness with articles such as ‘Caring for others cares for the self’ and ‘Emerging adults versus middle-aged adults: do they differ in psychological needs, self-esteem and life satisfaction’. I don’t think that I will be subscribing to that magazine any time soon.

Retail therapy has long been seen as a way of lifting the spirits and a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology confirms that it works, one of the reasons being that, for people who feel that they have no control over their environments, shopping gives them some control.

One American study surveyed a group of regular shoppers and found that 62pc had purchased what they described as a treat in the previous week in an effort to lift mood

Paul Burall. Picture: Bob Hobbs

Paul Burall. Picture: Bob Hobbs - Credit: Archant

Does retail therapy have the desired effect? Another study - this time published in the Journal of Consumer Research – suggests that, if the trigger for making a purchase is to compensate for something that has gone wrong in your life, retail therapy can actually make matters worse by constantly reminding you of what it was that had gone wrong.

People who turn to tech for their dopamine-boosting purchases often have different reasons for regretting their decision. For example, having got the prized object home, they find the same thing online at a lower price or, a few days after the purchase, see that the manufacturer has introduced an upgraded model with additional features (purchasers of Apple products are especially vulnerable to this disappointment, although the upgrades are often very minor indeed).

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And the assumption that wealth brings happiness also turns out not to be true, especially for the very rich. A recent article in Psychology Today pointed out that ‘Money can’t protect from illness but it can increase access to some vices that might raise chances of some significant health issues… And the friends that money buys are not the type of friends that are there because they like you - they’re often there because of what you earn, not what you bring to the relationship’.

The same article concludes that ‘If you’re surrounded by people who think a lot of you and whose company you enjoy – friends or family – you’re going to be able to enjoy a strong level of life satisfaction, even if your purse is empty’.

A large-scale survey carried out at the Monash University in Australia confirms this, finding that close and enduring relationships are central to life satisfaction. Interestingly, it found that having a worthwhile career was rated as more important than having a successful one. The lowest ranked requirement for life satisfaction was having celebrity status, although this was only slightly behind being religious; and financial security was rated as more crucial than having amassed wealth, which itself was rated the least important requirement of all.

So using the usual statistic by which governments judge success – GDP, which measures the size of an economy – misses the point. American President John F Kennedy probably got it right when he said that ‘GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile’.

As well as enjoying close personal relationships, there is considerable evidence that going out into green spaces improves people’s mood as well as their health and well-being. People living in Norwich are fortunate in having access to a plethora of parks - twenty-three in all. But this is far from being the only reason why Norwich seems to be a very happy place. An article in The Guardian a few years ago found that three quarters of people working in the city said that they love their job and that ‘Norwich is one of few UK cities that still retains a strong local identity and with that a strong sense of community’.

The search for happiness has been the aim of many international organisations and governments. The UN has set up a Global Council for Happiness and publishes an annual World Happiness Report which ranks countries by taking account of such aspects as income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust, and generosity.

The rankings are regularly topped by Finland, closely followed by Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and Norway; the UK is at number thirteen. And the Canadian Minister of Middle Class Prosperity (yes, really) is currently seeking to introduce a measure for Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to GDP.

As for Norwich, a report published at the end of last year by the Office of National Statistics placed Norwich in the bottom five in country for quality of life and happiness.

Perhaps people have been furloughed – a word that only entered common parlance some three weeks ago – or frustrated by the lack of open shops could usefully spend some of their spare hours considering how we can make Norwich a happier place?

• Paul Burall is a member of the Norwich Society.