If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands

Or fill in a form. The government wants to measure our levels of happiness, but do we even understand what makes us happy?

The start of the second working week of January is said to be the most miserable few days of the year. It’s cold and dark, Christmas is over and it's a long time till the next long holiday.

How do we cheer ourselves up? Perhaps we just hope to get through the next day or so with the help of a few treats - like a delicious meal or a good chat or a laugh with a friend. Or by achieving something at work or school to make us feel life is worthwhile even when it's less than fun.

But in the longer term, what makes us feel good? The UK government is so interested it has decided to measure our happiness, with a new survey from the Office for National Statistics. It could include questions on how people view their own health, their environment, levels of education and inequalities in income. Ministers will use the answers to think up policies to improve our quality of life.

In many ways, this is a victory for the Action for Happiness campaign, which wants politicians to focus on our general wellbeing rather than just on economic growth. They also want schools to help students cope with life’s setbacks. A new ‘science’ of happiness, which teaches positive thinking and successful strategies for life, is already on the timetable in some schools.

But what is happiness anyway? Is it about pleasure, achievement or simply being content with what you have? Philosophers (and the rest of us) have been pondering this question for centuries. Each has their own ideas to cheer us up.

Design for Living
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed that love and work are the key ingredients; though he said ‘ordinary unhappiness’ was the best we could hope for.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus had a different view. He believed a close circle of friends was the most important element of a good life. To this end, he set up a small community, called The Garden, where his companions could live and work together.

He also had some advice for those of us who always want more than we’ve got, whether its material possessions, sporting success or better looks.

"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for."

You Decide

  1. What makes you happy?
  2. The American constitution says every US citizen should enjoy 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. Is happiness a human right?


  1. Epicurus, the Ancient Greek philosopher, set up his own community to put his ideas of the good life into practice. Design your own ideal living environment, with words and pictures to describe where you would live, and what you would need to make you happy.
  2. Research the ways the Office for National Statistics currently measures our society. Which ‘wellbeing’ measures do you think would give a more rounded picture?

Some People Say...

“Unhappy people are the most successful, contented people are lazy.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is the ‘science of happiness’?
Psychology as a science has traditionally been about treating mental illness. But so-called ‘positive psychology’ now argues we can all become happier by studying how happy people think and run their lives.
Isn’t being happy or unhappy a personal question?
Of course, but it is increasingly part of politics as well – governments around the world, our own included, say they want to base decisions on quality of life as well as the health of the economy.
And do experts agree on how to achieve happiness?
There are many theories on how to be happy – and many people making money selling us their recipe for success. But we could probably all agree with American Alexander Chalmers, who said: ‘The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.’


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