I have spent years trying to uncover what makes people truly happy, and have come up with seven recurring traits of happy people:
- They don’t worry much and therefore aren’t stressed
- They have a close circle of friends or family and therefore a sense of belonging
- They challenge themselves frequently
- They have a purpose in life
- They have a high level of tolerance and can rationalise things
- They take everything and everyone less seriously
- They demonstrate gratitude and realise that comparison is the theft of happiness
Let me explain all 7 in a little more detail:
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is to try everything possible to never waste time worrying about events that have happened, or those that we can’t change. Instead, only invest time deliberating about things that we can influence.
Relax a little and try not to take everything to heart. If you can’t change something or it has already happened, just whistle or hum to yourself Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. Adopt the more laid-back approach of the African tribes in Kenya and Tanzania, who in real life really do use the phrase from The Lion King, ‘Hakuna matata’ – the Swahili saying for ‘no worries’.
If you hate your boss because he or she is unreasonable, have a chat with them to try to help them see the error of their ways - and if nothing changes, try to get them fired! I know this might sound like strange advice from someone who employs hundreds of managers, but bad managers are bad for both business and health. While work to a certain degree should be challenging, it should also be enjoyable and rewarding. Work must make you happy. If you hate your job, then leave and find something else that you enjoy. Life is too short to be stuck in a job you don’t like. And never stay in a job just because the pay is good. Cash only buys pleasure, not happiness.
Family, Friends, Colleagues and Dogs
In the first edition of Primal Cure I told a story about the Greek island of Ikaria. Here is a snippet that highlights the importance of social interaction. On a small mountainous island, just a stone’s throw from the Turkish coast, lives a small community of people who, when it comes to living healthily into old age, are breaking all sorts of records. Most evenings you find elders wandering into their neighbours’ homes and sharing freshly prepared meals and several glasses of locally produced wine. Here they don’t send parents into care homes; they remain together in strong family units. Their sense of community seems all but lost on the rest of the Westernised world. Interestingly, The World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
There is a brilliant book written by Dan Buettner called The Blue Zones. Dan travels the world to regions with the highest concentration of centenarians (those that have lived to over 100 years), to discover the truth about living longer. One of the key similarities across all regions was a strong family bond, where people of old age still put their loved ones first.
In The Art of Happiness written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he talks about how having an intimate relationship with someone, whether it be a spouse, a friend or relative, someone to share your deepest feelings, fears and so on, plays a key role in making us truly happy.
Dr Shan Hussain
High-quality social interaction on a regular basis with your immediate peers is helpful for reducing and managing stress. In other words, make an effort to get together with your friends and family when you can. If your social circle is small, have you thought about getting a dog?
A recent study in Sweden showed that dog owners were 23 per cent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease, and they also experienced a 20 per cent lower risk of mortality from all causes. The authors were unable to explain this link, but it was felt the additional physical activity and emotional connection between dogs and owners played the most critical roles.
A challenge is something that stretches us physically or mentally. It might not give
us pleasure at the time – it might be delayed until the activity has passed, such as the feeling of relaxation and achievement after a hard gym session or learning to play an instrument or speak a foreign language. Not only do these activities prevent stress, they also keep the brain functioning well.
In addition to setting ourselves challenges, to be truly happy it’s important to believe that our actions are making a contribution to something that we consider to be worthwhile.
It’s been proven in several pieces of research that people who win huge amounts on the lottery usually become unhappy people. Why is this? Whilst everyone will have different opinions on what makes us happy, I am convinced truly happy people are those who have few worries, who enjoy sharing experiences with friends and family, but have a sense of purpose in their life.
Lottery winners tend to have lots of worries - perhaps about losing what they have quickly gained or guilt for having not earned it. They often become isolated from friends and have fewer challenges and less purpose in their lives! My advice is not to do the lottery. If you were to win, it could ruin your life and whilst you are sitting there waiting to win, you are not engaged in actions that will fulfil your purpose and enhance your self-worth.
In both our personal and work lives, the strongest relationships are the ones that give and take. There must be an element of tolerance in life, because without it we are likely to become very stressed indeed. Leading on from tolerance is the ability to rationalise. I recently walked passed two elderly ladies sitting on a bench, admiring the views across the river in Dartmouth, and heard one say to the other, “How do you always look so happy, I never see you depressed”, the lady smiled back at her friend and said, “I am always able to rationalise things”. From this I took it that she had a ‘let it be’ attitude, or as the French say ‘laissez faire’.
Virginia Satir who was an American author and therapist, known especially for her approach to family therapy, famously said, “Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference”.
Don’t Be So Serious
One common trait I see in happy people, is they know when and when not to take things seriously. That includes themselves. There is a great saying, ‘don’t take yourself too seriously because nobody else does’. When things go wrong, as long as you can learn from it, don’t hold on to the failure but let it go!
Be Grateful and Don’t Compare
There might be a very famous advert that says ‘go compare’, but that’s the very thing we should never do when it comes to our own lives, other than of course, to compare ourselves with those that are less fortunate. Gratitude is a lovely place to live!
One of the biggest problems with social media is that most people only post snapshots of their moments of happiness, and this is rarely a reflection of their true self. As A-ha once sang, ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’. Today’s comparison culture on social media really is robbing happiness from the younger generations. Comparison, especially the comparison of others’ apparent pleasure or monetary possessions, is the fundamental theft of happiness.
Pleasure vs Happiness
It is vitally important for our wellbeing to understand the difference between pleasure and happiness. Too much pleasure can often lead to reduced happiness. Chasing too much pleasure can lead to addictions, obesity, depression, ADHD, anxiety and even suicide. In fact, the search for pleasure can be associated with all chronic illnesses experienced in modern society.
Pleasure is often driven by rewards and usually is short-lived. Pleasure can often be achieved at the detriment of happiness. A few too many alcoholic drinks or a big tub of ice cream might deliver immediate gratification, but in the long run, make us less happy. And you won’t be surprised to learn that reducing our CARB input and eating whole natural foods, helps to restore our natural balance of pleasure and happiness.
Technical Stuff - Chemical neurotransmitters are effectively chemical signal that effectively transmits a message from one brain neuron to the next. Neurotransmitters drive our feelings of pleasure or happiness; reward or contentment; enjoyment or gratitude. The neurotransmitter in the brain that drives reward is dopamine, while happiness is fuelled by serotonin.
This is such an important area and one that may be very new to you, as it was to me, that I want to hand the rest of this topic over to Robert Lustig who, as a paediatric endocrinologist (someone who diagnoses and treats hormonal disorders in children), has spent many years researching this.
Dr Robert Lustig
Today 4.4% of the entire world has been diagnosed with clinical depression, that is a 20% increase in a decade. I believe part of the cause is that us, as a society, have lost track of these two positive emotions; pleasure and happiness. We think they are the same. We have been told that they are the same. And I think we have been told they are the same by people who want us to buy stuff, I quote, ‘to get happy’. Because they have something to sell. Hedonics sell. In fact, four out of the top ten exports out of the United States are hedonic substances. Oil, corn, soy and sugar. So, they tell us their products will make us happy. But pleasure and happiness are not the same. I would argue that they are diametrically opposite. They seem like they are related, they are both positive emotions, we like them both, so why should we care? Well, I am going to give you seven differences between pleasure and happiness that I outline in my book.
- Pleasure is short-lived, like a meal. Happiness is long-lived, often for a lifetime.
- Pleasure is visceral; you feel it in your body. Happiness is ethereal; you feel it above the neck.
- Pleasure is taking; happiness is giving.
- Pleasure is experienced alone; happiness is normally experienced in social groups.
- Pleasure is achievable with substances; happiness is not achievable with substances.
- The extremes of pleasure, whether it be substances or behaviours; nicotine, cocaine, tobacco, alcohol, street drugs, chocolate, sugar, or behaviours; shopping, gambling, social media, pornography; in the extreme, all of these lead to addiction. All of these can have a ‘holic’ at the end of the word, for example, shopaholic and alcoholic. But there is no such thing as being addicted to too much happiness.
- And finally, the reason why I wrote the book. Pleasure is dopamine and happiness is serotonin. Two different neurotransmitters in the brain, two different sets of receptors, two different mechanisms of action, two different regulatory pathways and two different areas of the brain they work in. And the reason why we are in such a mess is because we lost track of this.
In this unregulated capitalist world that we have today, corporations try and generate as much profit as possible. And in the process what we have done is made everyone fat, sick, stupid, addicted and broke. Because we have peddled hedonics, because that is what sells and we made everyone miserable and sick. And we have basically destroyed economies all over the world by chronic disease.
Money can buy you pleasure, but it can’t buy you happiness. People don’t recognise the difference. And by seeking these short-term dopamine hits, they are actually doing themselves damage. It is all science. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that neurons make to tell other neurons what to do. The next neuron has receptors, and dopamine binds to that neuron and causes it to fire. And in this process of firing, we get emotions, we get behaviours, and we get pleasure. It is the motivation neurotransmitter; it is the positive reinforcement neurotransmitter; it is basically the neurotransmitter that tells our brain this feels good; I want more. I want to do this again. Dopamine is the source of habit. It’s not that dopamine isn’t important, it is. Without it, we wouldn’t have sex; therefore, there would be no human race. If we didn’t have dopamine, we would be a sloth and never get out of bed.
But here is the problem with dopamine. It is excitatory. So, it always excites the next neuron. Now neurons like be excited, they like to be stimulated, that is why they have receptors in the first place. But they like to be tickled, not bludgeoned. Chronic over-stimulation of any neuron leads to neuronal cell death. But neurons don’t want to die. So they have a plan B. They have a self-defence mechanism. What they do is down-regulate the number of receptors, which makes it less likely that any dopamine receptor will find a cell to bind to. So, more dopamine and fewer receptors mean less signal. Less signal means less benefit. So, you end up needing more and more to get less and less. And that is the phenomenon that we call tolerance. So next time you need a bigger hit and the receptors go down, you keep doing this repeatedly, with bigger and bigger hits, until you get nothing and eventually when the neurons do start to die, now you got addiction. And when they do die, they don’t come back; they are gone for good.
When you kill those neurons in that reward centre, you are never going to get
the same gain, you are never going to get the amplitude, of the response that you originally got. Which means you are never going to really get the same pleasure that you did before. This, of course, is the reason for recidivism from addiction and why people go back. You are trying to get back what you knew you once had. But you can’t. And you are miserable.
Serotonin, on the other hand, the contentment neurotransmitter, the feel-good, the I don’t need anymore, the relaxation, the zen neurotransmitter, it’s not excitatory, it’s inhibitory. It inhibits the next neuron; it keeps it from firing. So if you are inhibiting the next neuron, do you have to down-regulate the receptors? No, you don’t need to, because there is nothing to protect it from. So, you can’t overdose from too much happiness. But there is one thing that does down-regulate serotonin, and that is dopamine! SO THE MORE PLEASURE YOU SEEK, THE MORE UNHAPPY YOU GET. (I put that in capitals because it is so frigging important.)
Let me summarise the above. The more rewards we seek, whether they be alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, gambling, possessions; the next like on Facebook or views on YouTube; snacks, sugar, bigger meals, chocolate - short term instant rewards, it actually down-regulates happiness in the long term.
Dr Robert Lustig
If you don’t know the difference between pleasure and happiness, and if your pleasure is cheap, you are going to overload on that because you can, and make yourself extraordinary miserable. So, addiction and depression are actually two sides of the same coin, and they are driven by the same five changes in our environment, which have occurred over the past fifty years. They are; technology, processed food, sugar, sleep deprivation and drugs. All five of those are dopamine stimulators. All five of those drive reward. And all five of those lead to metabolic syndrome. Which then leads to low serotonin.
Then add some stress on top of these. And stress, by effecting an area right at the front of the brain, called the pre-frontal cortex; stress puts that pre-frontal cortex to sleep. It tells the executive function centre, your Jiminy Cricket part of the brain; the part of the brain that stops you from doing stupid things; the bit that tells you not to do something because you will pay for it tomorrow; stress basically puts the pre-frontal cortex to sleep. As your pre-frontal cortex goes offline, it revs up dopamine even more. And cortisol, the stress hormone, reduces the receptors for serotonin, thereby making you even more unhappy.
In order to turn this around, this global chronic disease, addiction, economic and climate-change debacle; because climate change is related to this as well. We need to tamp down our dopamine, not get rid of it, but tamp it down, we need to up our serotonin, and we need to reduce our cortisol. Those are the three goals:
- Reduce our dopamine
- Up our serotonin
- Reduce our cortisol
If we do that, we will get healthy, we will enjoy our lives, and we will solve all of the biggest problems in our society. All at once. It is just one problem. So what can we do? Well, one thing we can’t do is to rely on governments to help us, because governments are addicted to the money that these hedonic substances bring in for them. And they are all paid off by those industries anyway. So, don’t expect anyone to help you out of this. You have to do it for yourself.
So, there are four things you can do, and they are free. But you really have to want to do them. This is what is needed to achieve the three goals of reducing dopamine, upping serotonin and reducing cortisol. I call them the 4 Cs. And they are:
1. Connect. Face-to-face human interaction. Social interaction. Not online or on the phone. This is because, in the back of the head, there are some neurons called mirror neurons and these only work face to face. It’s the only way to transmit empathy. And this drives up serotonin. (Robert talks a lot more on this on my podcast and in his book.)
2. Contribute. Contribute to others creates serotonin. Giving not taking. Help others.
3. Cope. Three things will help you cope with things; sleep, mindfulness and exercise. With mindfulness, for example, we need to stop trying to multitask, because every time we do, we get a cortisol bump and it takes 23 minutes to refocus. All of these reduce cortisol. If you couple mindfulness and exercise, you can basically reverse depression.
4. Cook. There are three things in food that matter. Tryptophan, which is an amino acid, it’s the rarest amino acid, and it is in short supply. Yet it is the precursor for serotonin. So, if you are not getting enough tryptophan, you are not making enough serotonin. So, where do you get tryptophan; by far the number one is in eggs. Next poultry and salmon, but in vegetables not very much. So, you need those things. But the world is going vegan, which is not necessarily good. You also need omega 3’s. They are heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory, anti-Alzheimer’s. They are membrane stabilisers; especially in the neurons in your brain. And finally, we are consuming too much sugar; fructose, because it drives dopamine and lowers serotonin.Where there is hope, there is happiness, and where there is happiness, there is longevity. I think modern medicine has been stripped back of its ability to help people to be more hopeful and yet positive phycology, often makes more difference than all of the clever medicines and things they can do today. The placebo effect of positive phycology can be very powerful.
Dr Shan Hussain
Common sense tells us that too much TV is bad for our health. But is this really true, and how much is too much? Aside from working and sleeping, watching TV is the most commonly reported daily activity in many developed countries. A large 40-year meta-analysis in 2011 confirmed that prolonged TV viewing is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. The association was linear and strongest among people watching TV for over three hours per day.
But reading books, well that’s a whole different matter. According to a 12-year study performed at Yale University and published in Social Science and Medicine, book readers experienced a 20 per cent reduction in mortality compared to non-book readers. Reading for only 30 minutes each day helped people live an average of 23 months longer compared with non-book readers, regardless of gender, wealth, education or health.
Avoid Those Selling Happiness
Have you ever noticed how the big food and fizzy pop corporations are always trying to sell us happiness? They all realise that happiness is the ultimate human goal. Happy meals, happy hours and Coca-Cola’s ‘Open Happiness’ advert that ran for more than seven years, all promise to deliver the holy grail of life. McDonald’s actually deliver a double dose of happiness. Firstly they sell you ‘Happy Meals’ and then tell you ‘I’m Lovin’ It’. But the reality is what they are really selling is short term pleasure, short term reward and the reality is that if we consume too much of their ‘happiness’ produce.
The long-term effect isn’t happiness but a life of misery. For full disclosure, creating happiness has always been part of my own companies’ positioning; it even forms part of our jewellery company’s logo, all be it in Latin. But luckily our marketing team fully understand the difference between pleasure and happiness and are hell-bent on delivering genuine happiness.
Eating Rubbish Leaves Us Stressed and Depressed
During the world wars, you would assume Britain was a pretty depressing place to live, and therefore, depression must have been rife. But according to data, depression rates in our country have only started to sky-rocket since junk processed foods became our staple diet. There seems to be so much correlation between sugar/processed CARBS and depression that the two must be linked.
Good food equals a great mood! You will read throughout Fat & Furious various ways to avoid stress and other brain-related disorders by eating the right food. The main culprits, of course, are CARBS and other sugars, which become deadly poisons that stress out the body when over-consumed. For now, let’s keep it as simple as possible, out of all the courses at the dinner table that we eat, which are the most laden with sugar and most damaging to our health? Desserts, of course! And if we write desserts backwards, what does it spell? STRESSED. Enough said!
Professor Tim Noakes
As both a scientist and an athlete, what was life like for you before you went low carb? Towards the end, I was often angry at times, without any understanding of it at all. And that’s the ‘hangry’ (anger that is bought on by being hungry) expression. I was perpetually hungry, yet I was always eating. I would come home at night, and my wife would ask me why I was eating so much. And of course, it was things like bread, and I was always drinking sports drinks and back then I could never run without my sports drink. And of course, when you finish, you had to have more sports drinks. My tea was loaded with sugar. So, I had all of the features of sugar addiction. I was starting to put on weight, so I started snoring. Then I had all the other symptoms, not of insulin resistance but of intolerance to carbohydrates, particularly to cereals and grains. I had four or five different conditions. Which I now know were an allergy to cereals and grains. And as soon as I removed them, they cleared within weeks.
I won’t go through all of them, but I think it’s important to know that if you have rhinitis, your nose is always running, I promise you that is an allergy to cereals and grains. I also had mild asthma, and it disappeared without the cereals and grains. Your concentration goes down, and your energy goes down, you get angrier and more hostile, those are some of the key characteristics.