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Smile Counsel

Finding Your Happy Place

It may be a dark and stormy world, but last month, 800 thought leaders gathered in London to preach the gospel of sunniness for body, mind, and spirit.

“I was wondering why you’re smiling so much!” my friend laughed. Another friend’s eyes flashed concern: “Is that even a thing?” Telling people I attended the  World Happiness Summit (WOHASU) always invites conversation and raises eyebrows. It seems happiness has become controversial.

It’s tough to permit ourselves to smile when half the family isn’t speaking, World War III is trending, and everything else seems terrible. Happiness can feel indulgent. . . But is it? The science shared at WOHASU suggests the opposite.

Held annually in March around International Day of Happiness, the summit has its roots in tragedy. It was first organized in 2017 in Miami by the glamorous Karen Guggenheim after she lost her husband to pneumonia. He had what seemed like a cold and died ten days later. Working through personal pain and trauma became a catalyst for global change.

This year, about 800 happiness enthusiasts from over 40 countries gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the River Thames near the London Eye in the shadow of Big Ben and parliament. It was a who’s who of authorities on the science of well-being: U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who spoke alongside the Oxford economists who issue the World Happiness Report; corporate leaders from companies like Deloitte and DHL, and academics like me who study mental health and human flourishing.

The synergy of minds from different disciples converging on a topic that impacts us all—happiness—gives me hope for humanity.

Unlike most stodgy academic conferences, WOHASU has a palpable vibe of excitement and a sense we may make things better for our fellow humans. There’s also a fair bit of dancing along with the data, courtesy of DJ MoodSwing, Rob Stevenson, spinning on stage alongside speakers.

Having attended the past four WOHASUs and spoken on stage at the past three, I can attest to the thrill of the experience. The synergy of minds from different disciples converging on a topic that impacts us all—happiness—gives me hope for humanity. Here are seven key takeaways from this year’s event:

Mixed race group of girls blowing colorful confetti from their hands happily on a beach at sunset
Numerous studies have shown that cultivating positive social connections is the best predictor of a happy and healthy life. Photo by wundervisuals/Getty Images
Actress Reese Witherspoon acts in a scene from Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures'' comedy
Happiness impacts how you treat others. As Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods puts it in Legally Blonde, “Happy people just don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.” Photo by Eric Ford/Online USA
1. It’s OK to feel happy now

No matter what’s going on in our world or our lives, we can still give ourselves permission to feel positive emotions. Happiness is not an either-or experience. It’s “yes, and” instead. 

I can experience the grief of losing a loved one, a challenging diagnosis, or a divorce and still feel joy seeing a beautiful sunset or a child’s smile. If we wait to feel better in the future once a crisis has passed or our relationships improve, that day may never come. Feeling happy doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge suffering, or lend a helping hand or a listening ear. We can be compassionate to the brutal realities of life and still cultivate our wellbeing.

2. It’s not OK to ignore negative emotions

Like the weather, emotions are always there. Just as you wouldn’t sunbathe when there’s a tornado warning, pay attention to the experience of everyday emotions like sadness, anger, cynicism, jealousy, or fear to help you prepare for whatever challenges a day holds. 

No need to “fix” or change the negative feeling—only recognize and respect it. This practice enables you to plan appropriately and know when to get help. Plus, you avoid the trap of “toxic positivity” and being that annoying friend who tries to put a positive spin on the dog dying. 

When you feel happy, you’re more likely to take care of yourself—exercise, eat healthier, and go to the doctor—and engage positively in your relationships.
3. Happiness is linked to better physical health

Ample scientific research shows a powerful connection between our mind and body. When you feel happy, you’re more likely to take care of yourself—exercise, eat healthier, and go to the doctor—and engage positively in your relationships. 

In contrast, negative mental states like chronic stress, loneliness, and isolation significantly increase the risk of anxiety and depression as well as heart disease, infections, dementia, and early death. What’s hopeful is that wellbeing appears health protective and a modifiable non-pharmacological way to help prevent or delay illnesses, such as dementia.

4. The key to happiness is not what you think

Somewhere in modern society, we confused wealth and external validation with success. But as we know—just look at the royals—money and fame are no guarantee of joy. It turns out that using income as a proxy for happiness doesn’t work well on an individual, organizational, or governmental level. 

While money is the easiest variable to measure, it’s a misguided marker of life satisfaction. This is why economists like the UK’s Lord Richard Layard created the World Happiness Report and are calling on governments to move away from GDP as a measure of success towards other measures of wellbeing.

It also explains why the US can be the world’s largest economy and ranked only #23 in happiness. Even more concerning is if we only looked at happiness for Americans under 30, the US would rank #62 globally, just ahead of Peru. We need to think more broadly about what makes for a good life.

5. Find your reason to get out of bed

Cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose is a critical subset of happiness. Feeling connected to a bigger purpose also offers some impressive health benefits—-better immune functioning, brain health, sleep quality, cardiovascular functioning, and a longer life. Plus, it can pull you through tough times. Your purpose is unique to you–maybe it’s your family, your work, or posting Tik Tok videos of  squirrels.  Whatever lights you up, cultivate it!

Woman on stage speaking to the audience at the World Happiness Summit in London March, 2024.
Kelli Harding, MD, MPH speaking at the World Happiness Summit in London this March. Her book, The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness demonstrates the profound impact that love, connection, and kindness have on our health. Photo by LarryJ
6. Happiness is ultimately about our connection to others

Numerous studies have shown that cultivating positive social connections is the best predictor of a happy and healthy life. This has been an area of focus for the current Surgeon General, my work looking at the role of kindness and health, and Stanford’s Dr. Fred Luskin, who studies forgiveness. Harvard Professor Arthur C. Brooks recommends cultivating “useless friends” or friends who can’t do anything for you but just be by your side and remind you that you are not alone.  

7. When you feel good, you help create a more peaceful world

Happiness impacts how you treat others. Burned-out, unhappy people are testy and more likely to engage in conflict—everything from snarky social media posts to distrust of neighbors. 

As Tolstoy said, “Happy people make no history.” However, perhaps Elle Woods said it better in Legally Blonde: “Happy people just don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.”  The line is great because it is true: an underlying theme from WOHASU was that happy people don’t want to go to war. Paying better attention to the wellbeing of ourselves and others might be the change we need to create a more peaceful world.

WOHASU, like happiness, is open to anyone who chooses to bring more joy and wellbeing to the world. Maybe I’ll see you there next year?

Hero photo by fizkes/istock via Getty images

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