I asked a ‘Dr of Happiness’ to teach me how to be happy
He says the average lifespan is 4,000 weeks. Just let that sink in
Andy Cope, co-author of The Art of Being Brilliant and the creator of the Spy Dog series, is a pretty positive guy. He believes that we need to cut negativity – so-called ‘boohooers’ – from our lives to be our best selves. He believes that crucially, we all have the ability to be happy positive people, we just need to teach ourselves to tap into it. He believes in the power of positive psychology – a sort of British, toned down version of the Californian happy-or-die affirmation lifestyle. It’s all pretty inspiring stuff.
Unlike Andy, and supposedly like most people in the UK, I’m not that much of a positive person. My mantra is usually to prepare myself for the worst and be pleasantly surprised if anything better happens. But it must be nice to see the glass half-full all the time, and supposedly it makes us better, more employable, friendlier people. So I asked Andy to teach me how to be happy – seeing as he’s so great at it.
Hi Andy, what inspired you to get into the happiness and positivity game?
About 10 years ago I discovered positive psychology. I studied Psychology at uni, but it was always about ill people, about phobias and disorders and depression – and 20 years after I left uni I had this epiphany that I’d never had a single lecture on happiness or positivity. It’s almost like those emotions weren’t worth studying, because people who are happy aren’t very ill. I did Britain’s first psychological study (PhD really) on people who were already happy. There are a lot of people who leave uni with good grades but they’re not happy, or confident, they don’t have any kind of presence around them.
The wider population just needs to cheer up a little bit. The Daily Mail is your classic ‘everything in the world is bad’. There is an American, bullshit, Californian thing of being positive all the time, but it’s not like that here. It’s more realistic. The modern world is so fast and so competitive that people just take their eye off happiness, they think it’s something they can do in the future. I’m not into affirmations – obviously looking in the mirror and telling you that you love yourself is deluded, but realistic optimism is wanting to have a brighter future, but also a brighter now. Happiness shouldn’t start when you retire, or when you’re 50, or at the weekend. Happiness isn’t real, it’s in your head. So if we learned to think a different way it would create different feelings, and we would have to live like zombies.
But don’t we need something to look forward to? Doesn’t it make things easier?
I’ve got no problem with people having something to look forward to. But what you’re really saying is ‘oh I can’t wait to get to Glastonbury in six weeks’ is that you’re writing off six weeks as ‘something to get through’. I’ve got no problem in looking forward to something, I want you to look forward to today as well – I mean, the average lifespan is 4,000 weeks.
Do you think most people in their twenties are happy?
There are some genuinely upbeat happy people but they’re in the minority, that’s why I’m interested in them. The two per centers, as I call them. I’m not suggesting everyone is miserable, just that we’re stuck in being mediocre, pessimistic. We like to ruminate on bad stuff. We jump on the depression bandwagon very quickly – people get diagnosed and on pills. I’m not discounting that, but there are things you can do in your head that will alter how you think and how you feel to give you a sunnier disposition.
OK, what would you suggest to do every morning to make yourself happier?
A few years ago I decided to wake up every morning and be grateful that I didn’t have toothache. It’s a slightly weird one but I did it for a year and I had the energy of two people. That sense of gratitude is really energy boosting, that at least you have your health.
There’s another one called the 10 five principle. It says that anyone who comes within 10 feet you have to smile at. That anyone who comes within five feet you have to make eye contact and say hello to. The average hug lasts 2.1 seconds, but for the love to transfer, the hug has to last seven seconds or longer. Obviously don’t hug strangers in the park but if you find someone you love and hold on a bit longer than normal, you’ll find it’s something that really slows you down.
You mentioned health – what about doing things which are bad for your health? Can drinking, smoking, taking drugs make you happier?
There’s a very quick route to happiness, and that’s going out, getting hammered and feeling good. 10 pints of lager and a couple of lines of coke might make you feel good, but only for that half an hour, not the following morning. Not long term. In the pursuit of happiness we can take lots of things to get us high, and they’ll work short term, they’ll make you feel great, but they won’t give you long term happiness. You’re not gonna be happy a year down the line. The more long term route to happiness means you have to forgo some of the instant happiness.
What about the people around you, how much influence do they have on a person’s happiness?
My ‘happy people’, who I’ve been studying, they tend to create more relationships and stronger relationships. So they tend to have wider circles of friends. The problem is when you’re surrounded by negative people it’s hard for you to maintain your brilliance – the boohooers, the negative people, they tend to suck the life out of everything, so no matter how much effort you put into trying to be positive, if your boyfriend or girlfriend is doom and gloom it’s quite hard for you to maintain it. So it’s almost like safety in numbers, the more positive people you can surround yourself with the better your chances are of staying happy.
How many friends should you have if you want to be happy?
You’re better having a small group of really good friends. Happy people are quite magnetic, they’re good to be with, people want to be with them. They tend to get promoted quicker and to create more opportunities for themselves because they’re the ones who’ll say ‘yeah go on I’ll try that, I’ll give it a go’. They’ll take risks, they’ll get noticed quicker and it’s better for your career to be happy.
Is it harder to be happy when you’re single?
Statistics show that you’re much likelier to be happy if you’re in a relationship, yes. So it’s harder to be happy if you’re single. I mean, not impossible, but harder.
What else in your lifestyle can affect your happiness? What about the books you read, the films you watch, the music you listen to?
Really happy people tend to consume less news than everyone else, just because it’s so skewed towards the negative. There are certain habits which you can take on board. The books you read, films you watch, music you listen to are all triggers. Happy people will do the things which make them happier – they’ll listen to songs which make them happy, that sort of thing. Whereas normal people will keep doing bad habits which only make them sad.
Doesn’t the fact that people who watch the news less are happier buy into that stereotype that happy people are less informed, less clever? That intelligent people are presumably more grumpy?
It’s got nothing to do with intelligence. You can have the same IQ, it’s down to your thought processes more than anything else. Happy people don’t ruminate on bad stuff – they still have bad stuff happen to them, but they don’t spend their lives thinking about it. So it’s all the stuff we know, it’s obvious, it’s common sense but not common practice.
You’ve got to train yourself to be happier, it’s easier to be negative and to fit in to a socially normal role, we’re a grumpy nation generally, complaining about the weather, the traffic, politics. We just become part of a negative society and it’s harder to be your best self. It takes energy and practice to be happy.
What’s the happiest time in a person’s life?
Science shows that happiness is a U shape, so up until you’re 40 you’re really happy, then you have a dip between 40 and 55, and then you get happy again. Supposedly the dip comes because of pressures at work and old parents and teenage kids and stuff like that. But everyone has their own happiness curve.