What makes you happy?
According to the dictionary sitting on my desk, ‘Happiness is a fortunate state expressing, or characterised by, content, well-being or pleasure.’
According to Charles M Schulz, the creator of Snoopy and the Peanutscartoon strip: ‘Happiness is a warm puppy.’
According to Denis Thatcher, husband of Britain’s first woman prime minister, happiness was ‘an English summer’s evening, an open bottle of champagne and the lady in a reasonably contented frame of mind’.
According to Anthony Clare – I recorded him saying this: I am listening to his light, lilting, Irish voice as I write – happiness is ‘mid-morning in Umbria, sitting in the Italian sunshine, and laid out on the table there’s wine and cheese and tomatoes with oil dribbled over them, and with a few friends I’m talking about something like this – happiness – and, so long as the wine’s drinkable and the cheese smells like cheese, frankly I don’t care, I’m happy. The people are key. Having people around you who make you feel good and think you’re good is important.’
In my head, and on tape, I have the voices of old friends. Hearing them makes me happy. And the sheep that graze at the bottom of my garden – they make me happy, too.
Each to his own.
What makes you happy?
There have been many surveys. I have conducted my own, talking to hundreds of people in different countries around the world. I simply asked the people I met, ‘What makes you happy?’ I tabulated their replies and these, from my observation, are the top ten triggers of happiness in our time:
People like to laugh. Laughter brings joy. Laughter makes you happy.
Funny people, who may not be happy themselves, make others happy. I was a friend of the comic actor, Kenneth Williams, who could tell a funny story better than anyone and brought happiness to millions in Round the Horne, Beyond our Ken and the Carry On films. Kenneth knew how to make people laugh, and loved to make people laugh, but he had not discovered the 7 Secrets of Happiness. Towards the end of his life, he had painted himself into an isolated corner, professionally and personally. Through his intemperate and petulant behaviour, he drove many of his friends away. He knew what he was doing, but somehow he could not stop himself. In the end, he died of a drug overdose, aged only sixty-two.
Kenneth was blessed with the gift of provoking laughter and laughter is contagious. Happily, in a crowd, laughter is more infectious than a cough, a sneeze or a yawn. And laughter is good for you. Laughter relieves physical tension – literally. Laughter can relax your muscles for up to forty-five minutes.
Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s naturally generated feel-good chemicals, opiate-like substances produced by the brain and pituitary gland that can both boost your mood and relieve pain – at least for a time. Famously, a conversation with Oscar Wilde could cure a toothache.
Laughter also improves the function of your blood cells and increases your blood flow. It helps protect your heart and, because it decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells, it improves your resistance to disease.
It seems that Readers’ Digest got it right: laughter really is the best medicine.
Kenneth Williams introduced me to some of my favourite lines of poetry. They come from the Anglo-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc’s Dedicatory Ode:
From quiet homes and first beginning
Out to the undiscovered ends
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter and the love of friends.
Kenneth was a better friend to me than I was to him. It was thanks to him, for example, that I first appeared on Countdown and Just a Minute. I feel bad that, towards the end of his life, when he was looking for company, I wasn’t there. (I didn’t like his constant smoking; I didn’t like him when he drank too much; I found him too demanding. Those are my excuses.)
According to evidence from around the world, collated for the World Happiness Database, under the direction of Ruut Veenhoven, emeritus professor of social conditions for human happiness at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, you tend to be happier if you have close friendships, though your happiness does not increase with the number of friends you have.
The research from Rotterdam, and elsewhere, suggests that it is the quality and not the quantity of your friendships that counts.
I can vouch for that. Not long ago I was in Paris and went to visit Shakespeare & Co, the celebrated second-hand bookshop on the Left Bank. Browsing the shelves, I was quite excited to find a book of mine for sale there. It was one of my recently published Victorian murder mysteries. I picked it off the shelf and opened it and on the title page I read: ‘To my dear friend Gordon, with admiration and much love, Gyles.’ I had only given the bastard the book five days before! I bought it there and then, added a word to my inscription, ‘with RENEWED admiration’ and sent it back to him.
Yes, friends can make you happy, but choose them with care.
There is amazing stuff going on now with imaging scanners, looking at centres of the brain that light up when people are feeling good, when they’re listening to Mahler or Mozart or Madness – or to whatever (literally) turns them on. In the laboratory, with functional resonance imaging, we can actually measure that tingle up the spine.
According to research published in 2013 by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, areas of the reward centre of the brain – the part known as the nucleus accumbens – become active when people hear a piece of music that they like – and the more they like it, the more active the nucleus accumbens becomes. It is the same part of the brain that responds when we have sex or eat a favourite food.
The Canadian research also reveals that the nucleus accumbens doesn’t work alone: it interacts with the auditory cortex, the area of the brain that stores information about the sounds and music we have been exposed to through our lives. The more a given piece of music rewards us – the happier it makes us feel – the greater the cross-talk between these regions of the brain. According to Dr Robert Zatorre, co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, ‘This is interesting because music consists of a series of sounds that, when considered alone, have no inherent value, but when arranged together through patterns over time can act as a reward.’
We can like a new piece of music simply because we like it, and it can make us particularly happy because in our brain it triggers a recollection of past sensations of happiness.
Music can make us happy and when we are happy we sometimes express our happiness musically – whistling while we work or singing in the shower. And the happiest singers, apparently, sing in choirs. They are the healthiest, too. According to a 2013 research study from the University of Gothenburg, singing in a choir is as good for your heart-rate as a programme of breathing exercises in yoga.
A number of biological systems are bound up with our feelings. I don’t want to get bogged down in the science of it all (I was bottom of the class in chemistry, physics and biology at school), but I have to mention the role of the ‘endogenous opioids’ here. These are more opiate-like substances that we produce naturally inside us, and sometimes activities that we engage in can stimulate them. Cycling is one example. Stealing an illicit kiss is another. Dancing is a third.
We can get ‘high’ on dancing – and the music we are listening to as we dance (see above) can make us happy, too. Dancing on your own can make you happy. Depending on your dancing partner, dancing with someone can make you happier still.
For a brief while, I took ballroom dancing classes with my wife. I loved it, but our teacher gave up on us because, as the weeks went by, my skills did not improve. My enthusiasm didn’t wane, but my performance did not alter. I simply loved the dancing for what it was: a playful hour with my wife – with supper at the local Indian restaurant afterwards.
I have been approached to appear on Strictly Come Dancing a couple of times, but I have said ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ because I know I have no natural sense of rhythm and, while the exercise would be good for my body, I feel the humiliation of early ejection from the competition would not be good for my spirit.
My friend Ann Widdecombe loved taking part in Strictly Come Dancing because it suited her personality (she is no dancer, but she has star quality – she’s an extraordinary cross between Danny de Vito and Margaret Rutherford) and she really found it fun. Carpe diem is her maxim: she knows how to seize the day and live in the moment and when you are on the dance floor the rest of the (troublesome and troubling) world disappears. For my friend Russell Grant, entertainer and astrologer, taking part in Strictly Come Dancing changed his life. Through unhappiness, he had ballooned to twenty-seven stone in weight. He is now sixteen stone and happier than I have known him in thirty years. He found ‘bliss’ (his word) on the dance floor.
As Ann Widdecombe will tell you, you don’t need sex to be happy. That said, almost everyone I talked to for my survey included sex as one of the top ten things that made them happy. ‘Love’ and ‘falling in love’, and variations on ‘marriage’, ‘my fiancé’ and ‘my partner’ featured in the top thirty, but not in the top ten.
Sex, of course, is good for you – and marginally more so if you are a man rather than a woman. A recent study shows that men who have sex more than twice a week have a lower risk of getting a heart attack than men who have sex less than once a month. Sex improves your cardiovascular health and promotes longevity. An orgasm releases a hormone called dehydroepiandrosterone – which enhances immunity, repairs tissue and keeps the skin healthy. Men who have at least two orgasms a week live longer than men who have sex just once every few weeks. What’s more, regular sex increases the level of the immune-boosting antibody immunoglobulin A, which in turn makes your body better equipped to resist ailments like the common cold. After sex you sleep better and wake up slimmer. Half an hour of lovemaking burns off an average of eighty calories.
Notoriously, to avoid sex people are said to murmur to their partner, ‘Not now, darling, I’ve got a headache’. Intriguingly, it turns out that sex itself can be a cure for a headache. Sex, it seems, is a natural painkiller. When you are about to have an orgasm, the level of the hormone oxytocin in your body increases five-fold. This is an endorphin that actively reduces aches and pains.
So sex is good for you and, though not essential to happiness (sex does not feature in the 7 Secrets), if you are having sex on a regular basis it should contribute to your happiness.
The quality and quantity of the sex you are getting makes a difference, no doubt, but, remarkably, how happy your sex life makes you feel is directly related to your perception of the sex lives of those around you. If you thinkthat you are having a better sex life than the couple next door, you’re happy.
According to the man behind the research in this field – Tim Wadsworth, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder – people reported steadily higher levels of happiness the more frequently they had sex, but those who believed they were having less sex than their peers were less happy than those who thought they were having the same amount or more.
All the research shows that sex within a sustained and loving relationship is what’s best for health and happiness. A one-night stand can get the endogenous opiods going and produce a temporary high, but it won’t bring lasting joy and may have you waking up pondering the power of Shakespeare’s great line: ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action.’
For some, sex brings happiness. For others, it does quite the reverse. When I was much younger (and rather prettier) I worked with, and was propositioned by, one of my favourite comedians, the great Frankie Howerd. I later discovered that Frank (as he liked to be called) made a habit of exposing himself to married men. Max Bygraves, Bob Monkhouse, Griff Rhys-Jones, and scores more – with each of us, Frank went through exactly the same trouser-dropping routine. It never led anywhere, except to remorse on his part and a plea that we would not ‘tell on him’ to his long-suffering partner, Dennis.
Who was it who said, ‘On life’s long and rocky road I have found the penis to be a most unreliable compass’? It wasn’t Frankie Howerd. It was either Jean-Paul Sartre or John Prescott.
6. Sunshine and birdsong
I was a little surprised to find birdsong featuring so high on the list of what makes people happy, but perhaps I should not have been.
Birdsong heralds the break of day and the arrival of spring. Migratory male birds reach their nesting grounds a week or two before the females arrive: they establish their territory and, in the early morning, with the coming of the dawn, they sing, both to assert their territorial rights and to attract the females of their species as they fly by. We mortal