The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 144: The Happiness Paradox

Being British it’s always a pleasure to see a bit of sunshine, especially this time of year when it’s unexpected, and a few weeks ago we had a weekend where the sun shone and the temperature was the same as it is in the summer.
And, whilst relaxing and watching my son bounce on a trampoline in the garden my wife said to me “If it was always like this, people would be a lot happier.”
My instincts were to agree and I started to nod my head in agreement before stepping back and thinking about it first.
If there is a correlation between the sun and happiness then then the happiest countries in the world would also be the ones that have the most sunshine. But that’s not the case.
According to research undertaken by Gallup the top 5 happy countries are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland & Finland.
Geographically they are all quite close and have similar weather, but they do not have the most sunshine by a long way.
The countries with the most sunshine are Egypt and Sudan and they are right down towards the very bottom of the happiness chart.
“Aha” I may hear you cry “But doesn’t the suicide rate go up in the winter?”
Actually, no it doesn’t. Research into the seasonal effects on suicide rates shows that the prevalence of suicide is greatest during the late spring and early summer months not the dark winter months.
Also there is something called The Transpositioning Effect, where there is a delay in suicides due to events in the calendar. Christmas can often make people feel lonelier but if someone was thinking of killing themselves then Christmas seems to actually postpone it.
In the US it also correlates with 4th July, Thanksgiving and even the last game in a big sporting event.
We find that there’s a dip in the suicide rate during those periods as if people say to themselves “OK, I am going to do it, but not until I’ve seen my very last Christmas.”

So, if the sun doesn’t seem make us any happier at all, why on that lovely Sunday afternoon sitting with my wife drinking coffee and staring out of the window watching my son bounce on his trampoline did we both think that if life was always like this then everyone would be happy?

Well, because the Winter is so damp and grey here in the UK, it was the first weekend where we’d been able to actually do it. So it wasn’t the nice day by itself that made us happier. It was the absence of that nice day first.
It was the cold and THEN the warmth.
It was the rain and THEN the sunshine.

On its own the sunshine does nothing to improve our mood as we could easily become accustomed to it. Going back to The World Happiness Report, the bottom Countries are Afghanistan, Togo, Syria and Burundi.
They all get a lot of sunshine but they also have lot of restrictions on freedom of expression and abuses of human rights. And no amount of watching your children play in the sunshine is going to make you happy if you’re half expecting a landmine to go off.

I think the reason why that weekend of good weather in early April made everyone so happy was the juxtaposition with how it HAD been.
How can we enjoy the sunshine if we didn’t first have to deal with rain?
How can we feel happy if we didn’t at some point feel miserable?
We need to recognise that we can’t be happy all the time, otherwise we just normalise that too.
We need to know that it’s OK to be unhappy at some point, so that we can then enjoy life more when it lifts.

Be true to who you are!
If you’re feeling miserable, be miserable!
Don’t put huge pressure on yourself to not be as it will only make you feel as if the rest of the world has got life sussed and you’re the one that’s broken!
Struggling with something is totally normal. Happiness isn’t a thing. It’s a process, a journey. And throughout that journey you are going to feel bad at times. Until you make the effort to look for or create the opposite, and force yourself to see that you are loved and appreciated that there are people in your life that want you around them.
But, we do have to put the effort in to look for it.

It can be a rainy day and you can draw the curtains and complain that you can’t go out, but if you keep the curtains closed then you wont notice when the rain stops and the sun peeks through.

Maybe what I’m saying is that happiness doesn't actually show us how to be happy. Sadness does.
And the pursuit of happiness has to involve us not being happy in the first place.