In advance of the publication of Dr Mark Atkinson's True Happiness we wanted to find out how happy people really are. Everyone, it appears, is interested in happiness at the moment. Even the government is, for the first time, to assess levels of happiness in a survey from the Office for National Statistics, which takes place in April this year.
If you have already taken the time to complete our survey on happiness, thank you (if you have not already done so please click here to complete the survey on surveymonkey.com). You can also enter our competition to win a copy of the book.
Difficult economic times often make us stop and re-examine what we want from our lives and what it is that makes us happy. Perhaps the reason for this is that we realise – or are forced to realise – the transitory nature of the happiness that comes from money, status, achievements, possessions or power. It’s hardly surprising then that people are looking for lasting, true happiness; that deep sense of inner well-being that doesn’t dissipate in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.
If our survey has prompted you to think about happiness more deeply, you may find the following extracts from True Happiness interesting. They provide a brief insight into the important components that Dr Atkinson believes can help us achieve true happiness. You may have found some of the survey questions surprising, so the following text is designed to reveal why certain factors are vital to our happiness.
At the end of the article you will find links to a number of organisations who can offer advice and support to anyone who is concerned that they may have a mental-health problem.
Extracts from True Happiness by Dr Mark Atkinson
Why do you do what you do? What motivates you to be successful, have relationships, go to work, to take up hobbies, spend time with friends or go on holiday? What is it that you are really looking for? The answer given by at least 90 per cent of the people I ask is happiness. So why are so many of us seeking happiness? Well the obvious answer is because it feels great. Happiness also turns out to be one of the keys to good health. Essentially, happiness provides us with the ‘fuel’ to help us evolve, thrive and flourish.
Sadly, despite considerable advances in overall standards of living and income, there has been no appreciable improvement in people’s life satisfaction and happiness in the UK, US and many other countries in the last fifty years. In a nutshell, many people are not happy. What’s more I also believe that many people who say they are happy, aren’t truly happy. They are just good at sedating, avoiding and distracting themselves from their unhappiness. Essentially, we want happiness but we aren’t experiencing it in a lasting way, because the choices we are making and strategies we are using in our daily lives are the wrong ones.
Is the life that you are currently living truly fulfilling and meaningful? Do you wake up in the morning with a real sense of how good it is to be alive? Are you dedicating your time and energy to the things that truly matter to you?
A fulfilling and meaningful life is as it sounds – full and meaningful. However, the fullness I am referring to has nothing to do with how busy your schedule is; it’s to do with a deep-seated feeling of inner fulfilment, vitality and well-being – the true happiness that comes from living life in a way that enables your potential, talents, strengths and gifts to shine through. It’s about getting clear in your own mind what truly matters to you and then making sure that you live in alignment with those values.
People who consistently take action that satisfies their needs and values are healthier and happier and show greater levels of well-being after completing their goals, when compared with those who focus on goals that are not chosen on that basis. It’s about bringing all of yourself to life and engaging with it as fully as possible. Not doing this creates a type of pain that I call the pain of unfulfilled potential.
It’s so easy to get caught up in your own problems and your own thinking and lose sight of what is right about life and about yourself. But the purpose of life is to share our gifts, talents and strengths in a way that not only enhances our own well-being but that of others too. We’re here to thrive and flourish as human beings – not in terms of material wealth, achievements and gain, but emotionally and spiritually. The key to true happiness lies in embracing a way of being and living that enables you to fulfil your potential.
That may sound like a lofty ambition but by working on uncovering your true life purpose, your gifts and your values you can begin to gain a sense of purpose and move towards a more fulfilling, happy life.
Of course it’s all very well talking about a fulfilling, contented existence but that can only be achieved with solid foundations. And one of the most important of those is healthy self-care.
Healthy self-care is the ongoing process of responding to your physical and emotional needs in a way that is balanced and moderate. The intention of healthy self-care is not only to prevent illness but to take care of your body and mind in a way that enables you to experience your fullest physical, emotional, psychological and social potential.
Healthy self-care doesn’t come naturally to most of us, and there are many reasons for this. We might, for example, not be aware of what our needs are (this is particularly the case if we are used to focusing on meeting the needs of others); we might have undiagnosed compulsions and addictions; we might feel guilty about indulging ourselves by taking care of our needs; or, and this is very common, we are so busy, stressed and caught up in our thoughts that we simply don’t have the mental space to be aware of what our body is asking of us. I also think that for many people it comes down to the fact that they don’t really value their health and well-being.
That is unfortunate because meeting our physical needs – including the need for a nutrient-rich diet; supplements (unfortunately diet alone doesn’t provide enough nutrients); rest; relaxation; sleep; physical activity; sunlight; a healthy environment; and minimal exposure to smoking, excessive amounts of sugar, caffeine and alcohol – is vital for happiness. Many health and emotional problems will often improve or even resolve just by meeting these needs.
While most of us are aware that we should look after our physical needs, few of us appreciate just how important it is to attend to our emotional needs – and how broad those needs are. Our emotional needs are for security, giving and receiving positive attention, connection with a wider community, an intimate close relationship with at least one other person, autonomy, status, competence, privacy and meaning and purpose.
Some of those needs you may find surprising, for example the need to feel safe, but they all affect our ability to experience happiness. The need for security not only includes the security of living in a safe environment and neighbourhood, but also the safety of knowing that you are physically and emotionally safe in the presence of the people that surround you (both at home and in your place of work).
So we have many needs. It’s vital therefore to understand what those physical and emotional needs are and not to underestimate how much you can contribute to your happiness by meeting them.
Mental-health problems are on the increase. In 2001, the World Health Organization reported that worldwide that there are 450 million people afflicted with a mental or neurological disorder. What’s more, few people will ever look for help, and of those who do, in my opinion, only a very small number will receive help that is tailored to them. Western medicine’s approach to mental health and illness is short-sighted. While doctors and psychologists tend to be quite good at getting the diagnosis right, they often fail to search for the underlying causes, and diagnostic labels alone rarely tell us what these are.
My approach is different. When patients come to me with depression and/or anxiety, rather than prescribing medications and/or referring them for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is the standard medical approach, I work with them to identify the underlying barriers to them recovering, and this, I have found, is the key to lasting successful treatment (and emotional healing). If you think you may have a mental-health challenge such as depression, anxiety or panic disorder, addiction, trauma or grief (these are the most common mental and emotional challenges I see in my patients) I suggest you discuss this with your GP. In True Happiness you will find questionnaires and advice on each of these topics but it is important that you also discuss any concerns with your doctor or health professional.
Most of us realise that self-esteem and self-acceptance play an important role in happiness but few of us really embrace – or even appreciate – what that means.
Ninety per cent of the people who come to me lack self-acceptance and self-love. This lack is felt as a ‘hole in the soul’, a profound sense of emptiness within themselves. And like someone who is looking for their car keys in their garden, when they are sitting on a table in their hallway, many of us go looking for love in the wrong place. We turn to partners, our parents, our work or to control, alcohol, food, drugs, prescription medications, work, sex and numerous other ‘fillers’ to provide the love we seek, yet, as we all know in our own experience, none of them truly provides the fulfilment that we need. The reason is that it resides within ourselves – it is self-acceptance and self-love that we need.
Self-acceptance is the process of bringing an inner acceptance to the reality, right now of every part of you, warts and all. When you unconditionally accept yourself, you see all the different aspects of yourself – thoughts, feelings, images, behaviours, appearance and life situation – clearly, with a welcoming attitude of non-judgement and non-attachment. Of course, that is easier said than done.
The path to self-acceptance and self-love starts with a commitment to being more gentle and kind towards yourself. This means attending to the needs of your body and mind and relating to yourself in a way that honours your innate value. We are all perfectly imperfect human beings. We are all going to make ‘mistakes’, say the wrong things, berate ourselves, fail to meet our needs, upset people and that’s all OK; the key is to see that we are doing those things, learn from them, take responsibility for any consequences and move forwards – with renewed commitment to experiencing true happiness – to living with awareness, acceptance and integrity. For most people it is fairly easy to show kindness and love to others, but for most the real struggle and challenge is to experience unconditional self-love.
One of our deepest needs is to belong – to feel connected to others and to have positive, healthy relationships. Open, honest relationships in which we are truly accepted for what we are (not necessarily for what we do) are a tonic for the soul and a key contributor to our emotional health and happiness. Indeed one study reported in the British Medical Journal found that the only difference between the top 10 per cent of happiest people and everyone else is their rich and satisfying social lives.
We all need relationships. We are social creatures designed to be in relationship to others. Years ago, our family would have consisted of mum, dad, uncles, aunts, grandparents and trusted friends, all of whom played an active role in bringing us up. But in some parts of the Western world, the social unit has been reduced to a handful of isolated individuals. More and more people are feeling lonely, fearful of the community they live within and caught up in the circumstances of their life.
Fulfilling your basic human desire for connection and experiencing intimacy through partners, friendships, groups and community are essential for deep healing and happiness. However, one of the keys to developing positive, healthy relationships is to realise that they require time, patience, effort and persistence; they rarely happen naturally.
Those same qualities of patience, effort and persistence are vital to finding true happiness. For, in fact, true happiness isn’t something we ‘find’, it is something we work towards. If that dampens your enthusiasm somewhat, remember – if happiness is not something we are given but something we give ourselves, then it is within our control to improve our happiness.
Dr Mark Atkinson (biog)
Dr Mark Atkinson (MBBS) is a medical doctor and internationally-renowned expert on well-being, mind–body medicine and emotional health. His pioneering whole-person approach to health and well-being has been endorsed by leading doctors, featured on ITV and written about in the national press, including The Daily Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times.
Dr Atkinson is the co-founder of The British College of Integrative Medicine, which offers Europe’s most comprehensive training programme in integrative medicine. He is also an award-winning writer and author of The Mind–Body Bible, Holistic Health Secrets for Women and True Happiness – Your Complete Guide to Emotional Health.
In addition to his passion for health and well-being, Dr Atkinson advocates developing our human potential, this being the basis for a more compassionate, sustainable world. In 2008 he founded a personal growth company called the Academy of Human Potential. The Academy supports individuals in realising their fullest potential through the provision of workshops, courses, conferences and consulting services.
Dr Mark Atkinson is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health and a member of The Scientific and Medical Network. He received his medical qualification (MBBS) from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School (now Imperial College School of Medicine) in London.
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