As we celebrate the International Week of Happiness at Work, from Sept 21st to 25th, I’d like to ask you two questions:
“What makes you happy?”
“Has the pandemic changed your overall level of happiness?”
In recent conversations where I’ve asked these questions, I’ve received a wide variety of responses ranging from “this has been an absolutely hideous time, I’ve never been so unhappy” to “can’t say I feel that much different though maybe I’ve had a few more peaks and troughs” to “ I’m not so sure I should share this, but I’m actually really happy and am optimistic and quietly confident about the future.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, we are all different and we each have our own unique perspective of the world. Digging a little deeper I was curious to understand why those who were quite happy felt guilty in sharing that.
Is feeling happy no longer allowed?
Has happiness been added to the list of restrictions we have to adhere to for “the greater good?”
In times of adversity, it’s easy to get weighed down by negative thoughts and feelings. But does that mean we can’t still experience happiness? Happiness is just one of our emotions and we can lift our spirits to enjoy greater hope and optimism by choosing to be happier using one strategy that is simple to use, costs nothing and is always freely available.
Prof Sonya Lyubomirsky’s work into the ‘how’ of happiness has revealed that while genes, circumstance and personality play a role, we can nudge our existing ‘set point’ of happiness up or down by our intentional behaviours.
Happiness at work is far more than a happy-clappy let’s dance around the office in a conga line on Monday morning. The business case for creating greater happiness at work is backed up by the science that reveals how the happiest healthiest workplaces enjoy a 12% higher level of productivity and performance compared to their least happy unhealthy counterparts who have a 12% lower level of productivity and performance, a not so modest 24% variability.
I know which workplace I’d rather be affiliated to.
Happiness in life and work can be created at any time, during any event, and better still, because emotions are contagious, the greater amount of positivity surrounding you the stronger the “good vibe.” That’s the one you notice as soon as you walk into the office foyer. Is the vibe warm, friendly, inviting and do people have smiles on their faces or does the icy chill hit you in the face like walking into an overcooled supermarket at closing time when the staff just want to go home. Now.
Depending on your circumstances and what you have control over there are a number of strategies you can adopt to feel happier more consistently.
The one I want to mention here is something that is readily available to each and every one of us, and it’s free. It’s called nature.
Nature and happiness
Nature is the place where we can reconnect with ourselves and our environment. It’s the place where we can be quiet, be active or still and fully engage with our surroundings using all our senses.
In nature, we notice how the wind makes the trees sway and the scent of wildflowers. We can appreciate the natural beauty of our surroundings whether as majestic mountains, a hill-top or the local landscaped park.
It’s said that as a society we live in a state of ‘nature deficit’ where 90% of us spend all day indoors, stepping out briefly from our dwellings to catch the bus, train or drive our car to work and back again. The experience of lockdown has been challenging for many, made a little easier if you’ve had access to a sunny back veranda and a garden, a balcony with some potted plants or a local park, river or lake to walk in.
Doctors are already prescribing nature to help those struggling with anxiety, depression, stress and exhaustion. Ecotherapy is exactly this, where patients are given a prescription along with information including local maps and ratings of different open spaces.
As Dan Buettner, author and researcher of The Blue Zones, where people live the longest healthiest lives, says “Blue zones centenarians didn’t reach 100 by running marathons, pumping iron or joining a gym. Instead, they stayed fit by doing their own housework and yard work, by maintaining a garden year-round, and by walking places instead of taking a car. My team calculates that the longest-lived people are moving every 20 minutes or so, instead of the American way of sitting at a desk or TV all day and hoping to make it up with 30 minutes at the gym,”
As with many aspects of lifestyle, it’s the simple things that can have the most powerful impact.
“The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.”Paracelsus 16thC Swiss Physician
How nature makes us happier
1. Renewing your nature prescription boosts mental wellbeing
Imagine if instead of being prescribed a repeat for your prescription for your antihypertensive, anxiolytic, antidepressant or sleeping pills you were prescribed a thirty-minute daily walk outside.
Far-fetched? No. Research from the University of Exeter has shown how spending 120 minutes in nature each week is the minimum threshold to maintain our mental wellbeing. Getting out for 15 to 20 minutes each day for a walk around the block, a jog around the park or even just sitting taking in a glorious view makes us feel good. And with around 90% of the population spending the whole day indoors, this is a wonderful opportunity to turn off all the technology, slip on your trainers and get outside.
2. Being in nature lowers stress
Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing is the Japanese methodology of reducing stress by taking a slow walk through the forest, taking your time to fully absorb all the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the trees and plants around you.
Compared to taking a similar walk in an urban environment, those in nature enjoyed a greater reduction in blood pressure, higher heart rate variability, a brighter mood and less anxiety.
In his book Forest Bathing: How Trees can Help You Find Health and Happiness Dr Li describes how the practice not only reduces stress but the phytoncides, essential tree oils as found in cedar and pine trees, induce a greater sense of wellbeing.
3. Spending time in nature stimulates divergent thinking
If you are feeling stuck and unmotivated, and procrastination has moved in as your new unwelcome neural lodger, getting outside for a walk in nature has been shown to boost your level of creativity, your ability to think outside the box, raises mental energy and increases short term memory. In one study, spending four days in nature with no access to technology or multi-media resulted in a 50% increase in ability in a creative problem-solving task.
If you’re a creative that would certainly raise your level of happiness.
4. Looking at nature speeds healing and focuses attention
My mother has spent the best part of the last month cooped up in a hospital bed. She is itching to get home. The one thing that has made the biggest difference to those long, lonely and boring days has been when her bed has had a view out onto a green space. It has been described in the literature how recovery time post-operatively is influenced by what you can see out of the hospital window. Having a view onto some form of vegetation is associated with a shorter hospital stay, less pain-reducing medication being needed, and slightly fewer post-operative complications.
The same applies to the working environment. Attention restoration theory has demonstrated how the presence of the often maligned and neglected office pot plant or other office greenery helps to restore mental energy and focus.
Perhaps you’ve experienced how watching a beautiful sunset, gazing out across a view of hills, or bushland or sitting by water can improve your state of mind, especially after a difficult day or if you’re been feeling a bit down. Spending time in this way can assist to clarify thinking, help you to relax and serve as a time for quiet reflection.
5. Nature increases your emotional connection to the world leading to greater happiness
Studies have shown how relating to nature is beneficial to greater happiness in a way that is separate from other aspects of our lives that give us joy. This can be used to predict happiness and nudge our attitude towards seeking sustainable lifestyles and ways to preserve the environment.
If you’re looking for a way to increase your level of happiness and wellbeing, especially during challenging times, why not slip on your shoes and get outside to enjoy the natural beauty of the world around us?
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.