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What is happiness – and how can you achieve it at Christmas!?

Christmas and New Year is probably the biggest event (or pair of events) in most annual calendars here in the UK – and no, we’re not forgetting all the other religious or secular events. But for sheer weight of numbers and historical tradition, it’s hard to imagine anything else having such an impact on the country as a whole.

It’s a time of year when we are – apparently – supposed to be happy. A time of great joy, bringing families together, sharing time and love and good tidings and all that jazz. And yet, it’s also one of the most stressful.

The cost of Christmas can be enormous, often sending many people’s bank accounts well into the red, and the pressure around ‘making it perfect’ is enough to send many running for the nearest mental health facility.


What is happiness? Do we understand the concept of it?


The pressure is huge – not just to create the perfect scenario, but to enjoy it too. Shy folks probably find large family celebrations terrifying; there are many elderly and homeless people for whom Christmas is a lonely and unhappy time… sorry if this all sounds a bit bah humbug, I am getting to my point, promise…

Which is this. What is happiness? Do we understand the concept of it as an abstract construct? How do we know when we are happy? How do we judge what that is? Where is happiness seated? Is my happy the same as your happy?

Psychology Today UK defines a happy person as “…someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride; and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Happiness has also been said to relate to life satisfaction, appreciation of life, moments of pleasure, but overall it has to do with the positive experience of emotions.”


“I wish it could be Christmas every day,” would probably be the least likely thing to make you happy


Interestingly this is not the only definition of happiness that identifies that a sense of conflicting emotions are required to support ‘being happy’. In other words, without some of the bad stuff, you can’t really enjoy the good, and be happy. “I wish it could be Christmas every day,” would probably be the least likely thing to make you happy, from any aspect. But the point is, you need contrast to really appreciate life and be happy.

Going a stage further, there is a condition often referred to as Paradise Syndrome, which although not officially recognised by psychologists as a ‘thing’ is certainly accepted by many as ‘something’. The symptoms quite simply occur as the result of having a good time, all the time, and having all the things you want; and include dissatisfaction and restlessness.

Kate Moss famously said to her mum, upon being told that she can’t just have fun all the time, “Why not? Why the f*** can’t I just have fun all the time?” and she’s done a fairly good job of appearing to have more fun than most of us. But is that the same as happy? Hard to know if Mossy is happy. She doesn’t look it, much of the time.

Wiki says of Paradise Syndrome that “It is common with people who assign great value to their career and, although they have achieved much, do not feel satisfied.” So chasing that material dream ain’t the answer either. It seems that we really can’t be happy without being unhappy at least some of the time.

A recent study of 2,000 people in the UK, commissioned by healthy bread brand Burgen, found one in five Brits spend less than 30 minutes a day doing things which make them happy. More than a third regularly fear they are missing out on things, with three in five on the lookout for more things in life to enjoy.


It seems we know what makes us happy, yet we often make little effort to engage with whatever that is


But despite knowing that certain activities can make them happy – for example, catching up with their mates is cited as one of life’s greatest pleasures – the average adult will meet with friends just once a week. It seems we know what makes us happy, yet we often make little effort to engage with whatever that is.

Unsurprisingly, much of the study’s results found that food had a big impact on happiness, from turning to food to cheer ourselves up, to feeling happier and better for eating more healthily.

Taking time for ourselves is something that makes us happy too, and another thing we aren’t very good at. TV star and well-being advocate Melanie Sykes, and Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert were two of the big names involved with the study, with Mel saying, “Over the past 10 years I’ve focused on going for the ‘good stuff,’ adopting a healthy attitude towards food and keeping fit with regular exercise. I have learnt to stop saying ‘yes’ to everything and give myself enough time to unwind and focus on me.”

The list below shows the top ten results from the Burgen study, and none of it is particularly surprising except perhaps having time to yourself being so high on the list (it surprised me, anyway). It’s also interesting to note that material things don’t even feature on this list.

Whatever makes you happy, make time for it. Especially over Christmas, and maybe learn to spread a little joy too. Keep an eye out for your nearest and dearest and maybe if they look like they could do with a bit of #2, give them a bit of space!


1. Quality time with family
2. Time to yourself
3. Time with friends
4. More time outdoors
5. Sleep
6. Indulging in your hobby
7. Tasty food that’s good for you
8. Discovering something new
9. Eating healthily
10. Exercising

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James Johnson

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