How happy are you? Is your mood more delayed-crush-hour Northern line? Or strolling across Tower Bridge in the sunshine? If it’s the former then you’re not alone. After a washout summer, the eye-watering cost of pretty much everything and ongoing strikes, protests, AI anxiety and the climate catastrophe, it’s no wonder our smiley face emoji has gone a bit Awol.
Even in the best of times, Londoners don’t exactly have a reputation for being cheerful. An ONS survey in 2014 found that people living in the capital were more anxious and unhappy than anywhere in the UK, and last year a Centre for London study reported that Londoners aged 35-44 were most likely to be unhappy. It’d be easy to write us off as a city of 9 million miserable gits.
But the good news is that if you’re in dire need of a dopamine hit, there’s never been a better time to find your happy place. Happiness courses are popping up all over town and authors, experts and entrepreneurs are filling bookshops, app stores and airwaves with tips to get us smiling. One of these boffins of beaming is Mieke Wiking. The bestselling author and speaker is also the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark — a country that sits smugly at the top of the ‘Happiest Place in the World’ lists.
‘Globally, the data does suggest that people who live in big cities feel less happy,’ Wiking says. ‘But we don’t know if that’s because urban life is stressful or if certain types of people — more competitive, ambitious — are drawn to cities and those personalities aren’t as conducive to happiness.’ Luckily Wiking, who wrote the book The Key To Happiness, believes that Londoners have all the right tools to boost their mood.
‘You’re naturally very good at socialising and you have places to do that like pubs. We also know that cities that decouple wealth and wellbeing make people happier, for example being able to go wild swimming or going to parks and green spaces, which London has a lot of.’ Indeed, Richmond, one of London’s leafiest boroughs, has been named the happiest part of London for eight years running.
London is also starting to learn from happier cities by getting better at cycling to work. ‘We know that when people commute by bicycle — and when they have shorter commute times — they report higher satisfaction levels,’ says Wiking. Better grab that Lime bike pronto.
Happiness can be as difficult to define as getting tickets to see Taylor Swift. But Aristotle had a stab at it around 2,000 years ago. He distinguished between hedonic wellbeing — ‘Am I having a good time right now?’ — and eudaimonic wellbeing, a sense of life being meaningful and a sense of purpose. Ideally we’d experience a bit of both every day. But that can be easier said than done.
One person who might have more ideas than most about what makes Londoners happy is Sevara Rasulova. Since starting her vlog One Reason UK in November 2020, she has approached hundreds of strangers on the street to ask them for the one reason they’re feeling happy today. ‘I didn’t have a job for a year and I was getting rejection after rejection,’ she says. ‘I was curious about what makes other people happy. I was thinking, “Why don’t I have my own diary of those reasons so that whenever I feel sad I can go back to it?”’ Her heart-warming video clips have had more than five million likes on TikTok, with reasons cited including new shoes, the sunshine and a tiramisu from Fitzrovia’s Circolo Popolare.
Desserts aside, there are many forces that influence our ability to be happy, including genetics (studies of identical twins show they have similar mood levels), our stage of life (happiness tends to follow a U-shape, peaking when we’re young and old and nose-diving in middle age) and how much we earn — up to a point. A study from Princeton found that happiness increased with salary until participants earned £59,000. Beyond this, the correlation between salary and happiness decreased.
Although there are factors we can’t control, being happy is a skill you can learn. ‘A good recipe for happiness seems to be food, family and friends,’ says Wiking. ‘My favourite room at the Institute is where we ask people to write on a Post-It what makes them happy and it’s all things like “Pizza Night!” or “Mum’s apple pie”. There’s a lot going on in the world right now that we can’t control, but you can decide: what am I going to have for dinner tonight, who will I invite over, what will the atmosphere be like?’
But why should we care about how happy people are? Well, beyond the warm and fuzzies, it might actually save our life. Plenty of research suggests optimistic people have a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and a slower decline in lung capacity and function. Happiness is also associated with a lower risk of early death from cancer and infection. And a 2019 Harvard study links optimism to living on average four years’ longer. It’s not surprising that global governments have started taking happiness seriously. Bhutan measures Gross National Happiness instead of GDP, the UAE introduced a minister of state for happiness; and in 2019, New Zealand established a ‘wellbeing budget’ to ensure policies consider citizens’ quality of life.
Yet despite what those irritating ‘Good Vibes Only’ posters proclaim, no one can be happy all the time. And we wouldn’t want to be. Steph Peltier is a life coach who calls herself ‘The Happiness Activator’. ‘Sadness is part of life and happiness waxes and wanes for everybody,’ she says. ‘We need to experience emodiversity otherwise we wouldn’t be able to recognise or appreciate when we felt happy.’
Peltier says there are things we can all do to make us more likely to feel happy. ‘Studies have shown that community is key to happiness, so cultivate your relationships with friends and family. But it’s also about the random connections you have every day,’ she says. ‘I set my clients homework to have an interaction with a stranger once a day for a week. Even just a four-second conversation with a barista is enough to release feel-good chemicals.’
But what if you’re not feeling happiness or sadness — what if you always just feel a bit ‘blah’? The scientific term for that is anhedonia, or an absence of pleasure. Tanith Carey, 56, a writer from north London, discovered she was suffering from it in 2010 after feeling numb during what should have been joyful moments. ‘Modern life in London is so convenient and always on, which means we’re used to getting our needs met quickly,’ she says. ‘We can have groceries delivered in 10 minutes or porn in 30 seconds, but that disregulates the flow of dopamine in the brain.’
Carey, who interviewed neuroscientists for her book Feeling Blah, says that joy is made up of three parts. ‘There’s anticipation, dopamine builds when we strive or look forward to something; then there’s the appreciation in the moment; and there’s also the remembering of the event, which gives us a rush. That’s why I always try to have something to look forward to in my diary, whether it’s a gallery opening or a holiday, and when I’m doing things I enjoy I try to put my phone away and really appreciate them. I also make time to talk about them afterwards with my family.’
And if all else fails, there’s always spandex and glitter. That’s the motto of Amy Broch, from Mayfair, who set up Joy Bomb during the pandemic. ‘My husband died from motor neurone disease and I just started making these little installations to cheer myself up,’ she says. Since then she has created mini-worlds of sunny, squishy, furry, rainbow-filled delights, including a takeover of the London Bridge station shopping concourse and an installation at the Birch hotel in Croydon. ‘I just want to spread a bit of joy and hopefully make people smile on the way to work,’ she says. ‘Life is fragile and beautiful, sometimes all we need is a little reminder of that to feel a bit happier.’