Every time I saw my father in the couple of years before he died, he would say: “Tell me Linda, are you happy?”
I think he knew he was coming to the end of his life and wanted to reassure himself of my well-being.
Maybe it would have been kinder to reply: “Yes, Dad, I’m happy.” But my relationship had come to an end after more than 20 years and the future looked bleak.
I found myself saying: “Right now, no, but I will be again, I’m pretty sure of that. And you’re not to worry. No one can expect to be happy all the time.”
And yet it seems the pursuit of happiness has become a national preoccupation. Eminent economists, politicians and psychologists debate endlessly about the best way to create a happy society, while David Cameron’s “happiness index” aims to pin down just how content we are.
Plenty of woolly self-help books exist which promise to unlock the secret of happiness. Just last week, the Institute of Economic Affairs concluded rather prosaically that money had a large part to play.
But I’ve found, when my life isn’t going to plan, there are plenty of simple things that help - for starters, my friends, my son and my dog.
Then there’s walking in the countryside, getting lost in a good book, learning something new, still being a size 10 as I approach 60, a new recipe that turns out well. The list is endless.
But a new book tries to probe deeper. In it, you won’t find spiritual philosophy, but evidence-based material that aims to unlock the secrets of happy people.
In the World Book Of Happiness, Leo Bormans has drawn together the research and discoveries of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of happiness. Researchers have questioned thousands of people and what he has discovered is as surprising as it is inspiring.
Accept what you have
Research shows that happy people have modest levels of expectation and aspirations - they want what they can get - while unhappy people never seem to get what they want.
They also know how to avoid disappointments and how to generate pleasant surprises. This is because they strive for realistic goals and are happy with their lot.
As Dr Jose de Jesus Garcia Vega, of the University of Monterrey, Mexico, confirms, we must accept things as they come.
“We spend a lot of time complaining about the things that happen to us, but this is a waste of time and effort,” he says. “To be happy, we need to enjoy what we have.”
Enjoy what you do
Happy people do what they enjoy and enjoy what they do - and don’t do it for the money or glory.
There’s no point being stuck in a job you hate, surrounded by unfriendly colleagues just because the money is good - people forget that they are allowed to be happy at work, too. Many spend the best years of their lives trying to make money, sacrificing their health and family in the process, says Dr Garcia Vega.
Later, they spend the same money they made working trying to recover their lost health and estranged family.
Live for today
Don’t dwell on the past, on things that went wrong or previous failures. Similarly, don’t dream about an idealised future that doesn’t exist or worry about what hasn’t happened yet.
Happy people live for the now; they have positive mind sets. If you can’t be happy today, what makes you think tomorrow will be different?
Don’t be afraid to step back and re-evaluate your goals. Imagine your life as a story that you can edit and revise as you go along.
This kind of flexible approach requires positive thinking and an open mind - you need to actively choose to be happy.
“You always have the freedom to choose the manner in which you wish to approach any given situation,” says Dr Garcia Vega.
This theory is backed up by Ingrida Geciene of Vilnius University, Lithuania, who researched the happiness of people in 31 European countries.
She found that ‘voluntarists’ (people who feel they have free choice and complete control over their life) were happier than fatalists (people who think little can be changed by personal intervention).
Luckily for us, Northern European countries contain more voluntarists while Latin European countries such as Spain and Italy have a higher percentage of fatalists.
We get our happiness from other people, and from supporting other people.
Remember that just as other people can make us happy, we are all ‘other people’ to someone else.
And cherish people who are important to you. Research also shows that married people are happier than single people.
If you want to be happier, develop an outgoing, social personality - accept that drinks invitation, join the walking club, book group or choir. The best way to savour pleasure is in the company of others.
Build a rich social life, says Eunkook M. Suh, a psychology professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, not as an obligation, but because it is rewarding, meaningful and fun.
Active, busy, social people are the healthiest and happiest, in society. Get involved: make your motto “use it or lose it.”
Ambition is healthy and makes people happy, explains Claudia Senik, a professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, but envy makes them unhappy.
Yet comparisons with others can spoil the benefits of ambition and are only useful if you learn something from them.
Focus on your goals and dreams so you can enjoy your ambition and achievements.
Just as you shouldn’t compare yourself with others, it’s important not to worry about what others think about you - then you can truly be yourself.
Happy people are spontaneous, natural and real; they say what they think and feel, and aren’t concerned what others think of them. Being oneself makes one feel free and authentic.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Happy people don’t worry and they recognise that 90 per cent of worries never come true.
You might envy those laid-back bohemian types who just do things on the spur of the moment, but don’t be fooled. Happy people plan and organise, they have goals and a purpose.
You can only get what you want or desire if you know what it is you want or desire in the first place. So while those chilled-out friends might seem happy, they’re actually just drifting along.
Bottling up emotions and bad feelings creates psychological distress and physical discomfort. Happy people get things off their chest, their motto is: get rid of it, or it will get rid of you. Similarly, work at developing optimistic thinking; happy people always look on the bright side.
Successful athletes know to focus on winning, not losing, explains Miriam Akhtar, one of the first positive psychologists in the UK.
We need to switch from a negative, glass-half-empty outlook to a glass-half-full and put optimism into practice to be happiest. Optimism is the mind’s natural self-defence mechanism against depression.
Happiness can be learned, but finding meaning and a purpose in life is what leads to it, not the other way around. The happiest people appreciate and realise that being happy adds years to their life, and life to their years.