The Principles of Happiness

Below is the content of a talk I gave at the Serious Waffle Session Talks run by the Imagination Club.  I was one of three presenters, here is what Ruth Friedman had to say about her talk. Sascha Siegmund was the other Speaker and was the very first speaker EVER at a Serious Waffle event.

A BIG thanks goes to Transforma Bxl for Hosting us and to Imagination Video for filming us and of course Jeffrey Baumgartner for co-hosting it so well.

My certificate for doing the talk:


Here is the link to the Video of the talk. I hope you enjoy watching as much as I did making it.

I remember my first kiss, it was a long time ago. I remember it quite clearly, it was as if our lips had been glued together.

Any time I think of that first, sweet kiss, I feel happy. It’s like yesterday. I can still remember the feeling, the sensation, the girl, the family, knocking on her door. It was idyllic. The joy that I felt, and I was kissing a girl…

I remember summer bicycle rides with my best mates, up the south downs. I had a lot of freedom as a kid. I remember telling joke after joke after joke, we had snot bubbles coming out of our noses. Our bellies ached from laughter. Our legs hurt from cycling up and down hills. They must have been summer holidays, It was exhilarating.

I remember working on small boats for a couple of summers in Spain. scrubbing decks in the soaring sun, 40 degrees or more. We did scuba diving, we had our own speedboats and went waterskiing. Fabulous times. I also moved sail boats for their owners all over the place

I remember sailing through the straits of Gibraltar, followed by a family of porpoises. They criss crossed through the phosphorous in the water, leaving tunnels of glittering joy. I remember being chased by a storm, the waters rising as high as 6 story buildings. I remember the skies at night, full of stars, boats in the distance. Feeling all alone in a small hours of the night as we took turns sailing. Flying fish flapping through the waves and sometimes landing on deck scaring the shite out of me.

Pure Awe, my heart racing, hairs on end. Amazing times.

What I have been trying to describe to you is what I call happiness.

I have given several talks on happiness in recent years and every time my definition of happiness varies.

Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness; we know it when we feel it. We often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude.  A feeling we get, when all around us is in harmony. It is a lack of stress or anything bothering you. When you feel safe.

Most of us also recognise happiness from the noise it makes as it leaves. In other words, we only realise that we have been happy when we become unhappy.  When we have larger than normal problems, job loss, losing a loved one etc.

It is handy to know that happiness doesn’t appear out of the blue, you have to  be actively looking for it. You have to work at it.

It is also handy to know that we all have our own predefined level of happiness that we always return to after something good happens to us or something bad.

We are all different too, but there are statistics that show some similarities, they say that, on average, happiness is about 50% genetics, 10% environmental and 40% depends on ourselves. The ‘ourselves bit means that there are things we can do to be happier. All thanks to the Neuroplasticity of our brains. We just have to look for it.

Here is a lovely story that illustrates how we all differ:

Once upon a time, there was an old man sitting at the entrance to a city, by the gate.

A stranger came up to him and asked “I’ve never been to this city, tell me what are the people who live here like?”

The old man answered with a question of his own:

“What were the people like where in the city you come from?”

“Selfish and wicked, in fact that’s why I left” said the stranger

The old man replied “You’ll find the same kind of people here”, and the stranger went on his way.

A little while later another stranger came up to him and asked the old man

“I’ve never been to this city, tell me what are the people who live here like?”

The old man answered with a question of his own:

“What were the people like where in the city you come from?”

“They were kind and welcoming, I had many friends, it was hard to leave”

The old man replied “You’ll find the same kind of people here”, and the stranger went on his way.

A man who overheard the two conversations asked the old man why he had given completely different answers to the same question?

The old man said “Because everyone carries their world in their heart”.


So, It is up to us to learn to be satisfied with our lot. And work at improving it ourselves.

Rumi puts it in a nice way too:

Hardship may dishearten at first,
but every hardship passes away.
All despair is followed by hope;
all darkness is followed by sunshine.

~ Rumi

Why do we search for happiness though?  What is the point?

Actually, There are lots of benefits:

  • Better health – less likely to get sick
  • Happier people live longer
  • Better resistance to stress or trauma
  • Happier in their jobs, can earn more.
  • They are more creative
  • Able to see the bigger picture
  • Lower blood pressure.

Happiness is not suited to every situation though. We can’t go around all day being happy clappy. It is just one of a range of emotions we need to live a good life.

Our emotions help us adapt to new circumstances, challenges, and opportunities:

  • Anger mobilizes us to overcome obstacles.
  • Fear alerts us to threats and engages our fight-or-flight preparation system.
  • Sadness signals loss.

These emotions enable us to meet particular needs in specific contexts.

And they say suffering is inevitable, unhappiness is not.

If a woman gives birth she is experiencing some suffering but can be extremely happy at the same time. A Christian Martyr would suffer in life in the hope of eternal happiness in the afterlife. (extreme example)

So what are these principles I mentioned earlier?

1) The Power of social connection – this is a fundamental need

We need to connect to others. Without some kind of connection to others we can feel lost, lonely, misunderstood, even unheard, unseen, and uncared for. Even in a sea of people, in an office, at a concert or in a city full of people.

“Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’”

Never assume people know how you feel about them, connect and tell them how much they mean to you. Don’t be embarrassed, that feeling will pass as soon as you see their reaction.

Hands up who laughs more when they are with other people than they would alone.

Laughter is medicine. Laughter yoga is fantastic for a great belly workout.

What else can you do? Get back in touch with old friends or relatives, work harder at staying in contact with family.

Join Groups, clubs, start your own club or Meetup, say hello to people, smile more. Chat with strangers. Volunteer, help in a soup kitchen, collect clothes for the needy.

If you Increase your connections = you increase your happiness level.

What else?

2) Compassion and Practicing Kindness – this includes self compassion – give yourself a break too

Happiness is a two way street. It has been scientifically proven that by helping others we are actually helping ourselves. It is a long term plan.

The more you help others with a warm meal, a kind gesture, having compassion for someone’s plight, showing empathy, really listening to people’s stories, all help towards you being happier.

My motto is: Be kind, always,  for everyone is fighting a hard battle of their own.

This is especially for people outside your own circle, you don’t know their story…

One of the things that really struck me during the Sciene of Happiness course that I did was to rethink why we do things. For example when we someone into traffic or hold the door for someone we always expect a thank you or some sort of recognition.

Why? If we are doing ot to be kind, we should do it for that reason, not for the reward!

So, don’t do it for the thanks , do it because you want to make someone’s day.

Self compassion can be a hard one though – but do give yourself a break

Sometimes it is with ourselves that we are the hardest. We constantly compare ourselves with other. Or we berate ourselves for being lazy, or stupid, or not like others or not good enough. Stop that. Be kind to yourself.

Stop comparing yourself to others

Stop berating yourself and hold those negative thoughts

Stop reading magazines that make you feel bad. (with articles on how be a better mother/lover/parent/person).

Be yourself, everyone else is taken

3) Forgiveness and reconciliation – Let it go (not about forgetting or condoning)

Forgiving is not about forgetting or condoning a wrong that has been committed against you.

It is about giving up the stress and anger and frustration inside you that is eating away at you, not the other person. Leave that to Karma. Get on with your life

My mum never forgave her sister for keeping a pair of earrings that were supposed to have been given to my mum. They wasted so many years not talking properly, time they will never ever get back for it is too late for both of them.

4) Mindfulness & Meditation

– the more you see joy the more you will have

We have all heard of mindfulness and meditation and some people are not friendly towards because a lot of companies are using it as a fix-it-all technique and as an excuse for overloading people with more work. It is not the solution, but is a very very useful tool, that truly does enable you to step outside of your normal frame of reference and step back from negative thoughts and emotions that sneak up on us at the worst of times.

As you concentrate on your breathing it becomes easier to recognise thoughts and emotions as they appear and deal with them, and just say oh there you are and by the time you have recognised that thought or whatever, it has gone again.

Being more aware generally of things that are going on around us helps us in so many ways. I spot things that other people miss. I see things on nature walks that people don’t see because their minds are on other things. We need to switch off in this never switched off world.

We can be so unaware of things around us. In the physical sense and in what people are feeling or what others are going through. Learn to be more aware of yourself, your thoughts and other things around you.

Some research done on Mindfulness:

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in 1982, looked at how his program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, would affect patients with chronic pain. So what he did was he had people go into a MBSR treatment condition or a waitlist condition and looked at the differences in how they rated their feelings of pain.

And  what he found was that after ten weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – which involves mindfulness practice – 65% of the patients showed more than a third reduction in their pain ratings and 50% showed a more than 50% reduction in pain.

And when asked why, like, why, how does that happen? What is that makes someone’s pain go away? Is it their pain itself, their sensation of pain somehow diminishes?

Well, what Jon answers is that mindfulness enables people to uncouple the sensory dimension of the pain – so how it actually feels – from the emotional, evaluative, sort of alarm reaction to the pain, and thereby reduce the experience of suffering.

when you pay attention to your breath, a couple of things happen – you’re likely to slow it down and you’re likely to notice, as you also do it in a way that feels relaxing, a particular
slowing during the exhale relative to the inhale.

Again, if you try this out when you think about a time that you felt relief that tends to be what we do… Sort of longer, slower exhale. With that longer, slower exhale relative to inhale, results in an increase in what we call vagal tone. And vagal tone, measured in a couple different ways, has been associated with general positive tone, with the better ability to regulate your emotions, and a better – a more likable – social, interpersonal style.

One research team led by Blaine Ditto at McGill University published a study in 2006 where they measured heart rate and cardiac respiratory sinus arrhythmia –which is the way to assess vagal tone – and blood pressure as people meditated or did a mindfulness practice, or engaged in other relaxing activities, like just sitting there, or being read to, a really sweet or fun story. And what they found was that when people were engaged in the meditation, they were, they exhibited or displayed significantly greater increases in vagal tone.

5) Gratitude

Being thankful for what we have instead of being unhappy for what we don’t have, is possibly one of the hardest things for me. But so so worth it.

I am grateful to be alive, see it’s easy!

If you are having a dip, just say three things you are grateful for. They can be silly things or really important things, just saying them though, can cut the bad mood.

On a longer term basis, you can setup a gratitude jar or a gratitude notebook or write a letter to someone to thank them properly.

The letter writing one can be very powerful. Saying thanks properly can be done in 4 steps and can just be an exercise done alone, or made 100 times more powerful by actually sending the letter or reading it out to the person you want to thank over the phone.

Think of it as writing a letter to someone and specifying the following:

  • What it was they did for you
  • Why you are grateful
  • How it made you feel
  • The impact it had on your life


As I say, you can just write the letter or you can send it to that person.

It’s all about paying it forward.  People like to help and when you reinforce the fact that you acknowledge they have helped and how they have helped it and how it made you feel, it can have an exponential effect on people.


Bob Emmons’ wrote a really nice book called Thanks in 2007.
Gratitude, Emmons writes, is the feeling of reverence for things that are given, and I think there’s a real emphasis here on “given,” which is the things that we’re grateful for are really beyond our own agency, beyond our own volition.

They  are gifts, if you will, that come to us, and that’s really key to thinking about what gratitude is in your daily life. Now, gratitude, when you sort of consult the wisdom of the ages…

Philosophers for quite some time have been writing about the centrality of gratitude
to the good society and personal happiness. So in the era of enlightenment, philosophers
were grappling with the question that we’ve been grappling with in this class, which is
why do people get along, why do they cooperate, why do they sacrifice on behalf of each other, and there was a common sense in the era of enlightenment that gratitude was really kind of a cardinal moral emotion that sort of promoted cooperative behavior between individuals.

This thinking about gratitude is really picked up with important philosophical positions.
So for example, Adam Smith, the great economist, when he was thinking about what makes for civil, kind, cooperative societies, said that gratitude is really the glue that ties people together. If you move forward a couple of centuries we encounter Trivers, the great
evolutionary thinker who was making the case that altruism and sharing and generosity of
the reciprocal kind that takes place between two individuals is really driven by feelings
of gratitude, of having a sense that other people are giving to you.


There are a whole bunch of other principles to take into consideration, but these are the main ones for me.

If you want to be surrounded by happiness, start with yourself. But don’t forget others, It turns out that it is – strangely, but beautifully – simply not enough to make only ourselves happy.

You can make a great start by noticing what you could call ‘Thin slices of joy’  In simple terms: “The more you see joy, the more you will see joy everywhere.”

The “thin slice” exercise contains a trigger, a routine, and a reward—the three parts necessary to build a habit. The trigger is the pleasant moment, the routine is the noticing of it, and the reward is the feeling of joy itself.

So be happy, you have an obligation. It is contagious.

With love



Some more stats to go with this blog post:

in 2011, Hollis-Walker, and Colosimo, looked at levels of mindfulness, self-compassion and happiness in college undergraduates.
They observed in their analysis that self-compassion was an important mediator of the relationship between mindfulness and happiness. What that means is that self-compassion levels augmented the strength of the relationship between mindfulness and happiness. People who were mindful were likely to be happy, but people who were mindful and self-compassionate were more likely to be happier. Other research has shown that self-compassionate individuals have improved relationship functioning, they report
more empathetic concern and altruism and perspective taking and forgiveness.

And self-compassion tends to promote health related behaviors such as sticking to one’s diet or reducing smoking, or seeking medical treatment when it’s necessary and even exercising. So again, that was a sort of list of different qualities of life that researches have related to self-compassion. But now I’m going to tell you about a study that shows that self compassion training–in other words, becoming more self-compassionate through a specific regimen of practice–leads to changes in some of these same kinds of measures of well being and happiness.

So Kristin Neff and Chris Germer in 2013 did a study that was sort of the gold standard of the impact of a particular program, a randomized controlled trial where they had  individuals either do a program which they developed called Mindful Self Compassion or a Waitlist Condition. And they issued them a battery of questionnaires before, after, and six months out, and actually a year out after participating in either the Mindful Self  Compassion or the Waitlist, or being a part of the Waitlist Control Condition.

And what they measured was does self-compassion change? Does mindfulness change? Does social connectedness, happiness, life satisfaction, depression, anxiety, and stress.
And as you can see in table two, on all of those measures the mindful self-compassion
group showed increases in the hypothesized directions, in other words self compassion went up, mindfulness went up, life satisfaction went up.

And also, decreases in the expected directions. Depressive symptoms went down, anxiety, stress, and avoidance, which is a measure of social closeness, went down as a result of having participated in the Mindful Self Compassion Group.

So what all this data suggests is that self-compassion is good for happiness, and it’s a skill that you can build over time, and introduce into your life as a mental habit of happiness.



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