What does it mean to be happy?

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What does it mean to be happy? A good question, indeed, and one that the newly-founded Oxford branch of Students for Happiness decided to explore. In an event held at St John’s College auditorium, three big names came together to attempt to give an answer to this question on Monday 18 May.

I say attempt because a) no one truly gave an answer to this question b) I don’t think anyone in the world knows the answer to this except for the few arseholes who post happiness quotes as their Facebook status every two hours and c) even if the three speakers did manage to give a valid answer when I wasn’t paying attention, we’re still Oxford students and odiously unhappy about everything, particularly about walking to anything more than 5 minutes away.

Nevertheless, it was an extremely well-attended and successful event. Please ignore my pessimism, as I now take on board the happiness life tips that the speakers imparted on us. If, like me, you weren’t familiar with the speakers, then let me reassure you that they are actually BNOCs in the realm of positive psychology. We first heard from Nic Marks, an infectiously-smiley and truly likeable ‘happiness researcher’, which is a glorified term for someone who gathers data on wellbeing, but is more than just a walking calculator. He came up with the Happy Planet Index, which looks at which countries are the happiest in the world. Spoiler alert: Britain didn’t top the list. He also founded Happiness Works, which looks at ways to change institutional structure to make people happier and have a better quality of life. To prove his BNOC status, he even has a TED talk discussing the Happy Planet Index, but surprisingly he hasn’t got a Wikipedia page.

Nic Marks talks for while about the evidence that happiness helps you live longer, make more money, and have a longer-lasting marriage. Of course, at this point, we were all convinced, and the audience was practically begging him to tell us how to obtain this happiness. And he did. The secret to wellbeing is to connect to others, be active, give time and be generous to others, learn something new each day, and take notice of things around you. Seems easy, no? But then I realise that there are some days that I spend without having spoken to another person face-to-face. Exercising is anathema to me. Running on a tight schedule and on an even tighter student budget stops me being generous with either time or money. While I learn something new every day, am I learning new things for my own mental growth and development or because I’m desperate to pass the next exam? How can I focus on the things around me when I need to think about when I next have time in between work to tidy my room, call my parents, message a friend, and write that damn Cherwell article? It’s tough, but Nic Marks makes it sound manageable, and I’ll no doubt bear in mind his tips the next time things get tough.

Our next speaker, Mark Williams, conversely, has a Wikipedia page, and an inexhaustible CV to go with it, but no TED talk. Supposedly always coming out of his retirement from being professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford to giving talks at happiness, psychology, and mindfulness events. Professor Williams talked about what mindfulness is and even gave us a cheeky taster of several minutes of mindfulness meditation. One definition of mindfulness is that it is the practice of paying attention to the here and now. It is a form of awareness, of focusing on your breathing, bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and concentrating on what is happening moment by moment, rather than allowing your mind to wander to the regrets of the past. Mark Williams has even designed a whole new type of psychotherapy based on it – mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) – and it is now recommended by the NHS for recurrent major depression.

Our final speaker was Miriam Akhtar, UK’s leading positive psychologist. Her goal differs from a clinical psychologist who might take one from a depressed state to a functional state, whereas her ambition is to make people happy, satisfied with their life, and feel fulfilled and with a sense of purpose. Miriam Akhtar says that to get to wellbeing, it involves playing to your strengths, developing resilience, and building optimism. It’s important to be grateful, think of the good things in your life, and to have positive relationships. She emphasised that we as human beings are social animals and part of developing positive relationships is to remember the reasons that you value the people around you in your life. One of the most striking things she mentions is that she has kept a ‘gratitude journal’ since she was a teenager, writing in it every day about the things that she is grateful about in her life.

At the end of the talks, the chair, Dr Sophie Bostock, asked each of the panel to give advice to students. Their advice include getting the balance between work and play, playing to your strengths and knowing what your strengths are, reading more novels, especially after university life, trying lots of novel activities, sleeping more, going on walks when something is bothering you, and taking more breaks.

One last thing I took away from the talk was that it is important to have emotional depth. The speakers all agree that happiness isn’t about being happy all the time, but it is about accepting and acknowledging your fears, sadness, anger, and not letting those negative emotions and thoughts overwhelm you.

You can watch a video of the talk here:

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