Note to self: the key to happiness is keeping a diary and writing down the things that make you smile.
For while fictional diarists Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole used journals to record their woes and embarrassments, paying attention to the things that lift our moods mean we can learn how to cheer ourselves up, says a leading physicist.
Author Dr Stefan Klein has found that being happy is a skill that can be learned like a foreign language, and one way to train ourselves to be happy is to write down the little things that cheer us up each day – a technique he practises himself.
Dr Klein, who analysed psychological research for his book The Science of Happiness, added he often writes about his three young children, despite occasionally finding them ‘incredibly annoying’.
Speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival, the German-born researcher said that decades of study into happiness has shown that people who are clinically depressed often believe there are no sources of joy in their lives.
But a study by Italian psychiatrist Giovanni Fava found that when patients were asked to keep diaries of events that made them happy, it ‘helped them a lot to get better’.
Dr Klein said: ‘It is incredibly simple – you just sit down in the evening and write down the moments where you feel happy and the circumstances.
‘The object of the exercise is to simply make you more aware of these moments to know yourself better.
‘Even in states of severe depression there are moments of happiness, but the person suffering it doesn’t believe they have these moments in their lives.’
And if you decide to take Dr Klein’s advice, you can make yourself even happier by recommending the technique to others.
Happiness occurs when the brain releases endorphins – chemicals that trigger positive feelings – and scientists have found this occurs not only when we achieve one of our own goals, but when we help someone else achieve theirs.
Dr Klein added it is important not to dwell on the times we felt sad, saying: ‘Going deep down into your negative feelings, [the idea] it has a cathartic effect, and you have to cry your tears out and shout your fears out, is really c**p’.’
The idea we should delve into our sadness became popular under Sigmund Freud, who saw the mind as a pressure cooker that needed to let out steam. But Dr Klein argued this was a ‘misguided analogy’.