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The Four Fundamental Pillars of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

What makes us truly happy? This age-old question, once pondered by philosophers, continues to intrigue and challenge us today. Happiness, for many, is like a crisp packet in the wind, elusive. For others, it's a consistent byproduct of being. But why does happiness vary so much between persons and the periods in our lives? It boils down to the foundational elements of our lives—elements we often overlook or undervalue.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking - Marcus Aurelius

The world’s longest scientific study of happiness which began in 1938 gives us juicy data that alongside other research provides a blueprint for long-lasting happiness and a fulfilling life. This blog aims to use the recurring themes from the research that are adjusted for culture, socioeconomic situations and a multitude of other factors. The research goes beyond just self-reporting questionnaires and takes a 360 view of the individuals involved analysing their medical reports, habits, and reports from loved ones to extract consistent truisms. 

Health

Why Start with Health?

Because without it you have nothing. Taken to the extreme, you're dead making your happiness irrelevant. Therefore, health is paramount. Just like an oxygen mask, sort this out first so you can help the other pillars of happiness

Good health will have positive feedback in all areas of your life giving the energy, self-confidence and mental clarity to take your best version out into the world. Think of it as putting on your oxygen mask first; it's about ensuring you're equipped to help yourself before you can effectively help others or chase your dreams. 

Where to Start with Health?

Exercise

Begin with regular physical activity. At least 5 times a week. Humans are not designed for sedentary lives. It's not your fault that much of modern life is sedentary. It is though, your responsibility to do something about it. So move. To make time to get your heart rate up. The reason to start with exercise is because it creates a domino effect. 

Exercise more and you will sleep better. When presented with eating options you’ll start to lean towards the healthier option so as not to waste your hard work. The exercise domino doesn’t just stop with health. The discipline and relationships you will form will start to snowball in the right direction.  

Just think of the fittest and healthiest person you know, there’s a good chance that the other areas of their life will also be in good condition. 

Sleep

Prioritise quality sleep. Establish a routine that allows for 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night. Too much emphasis is placed on a morning routine. While this is important, it's worthless without an evening routine. Maintaining discipline by reducing screentime and light exposure, and sticking to a consistent bedtime, can significantly improve your sleep quality. Everything else is much harder without consistent good sleep.

Hydration and Nutrition 

Focus on whole foods and reduce intake of processed foods and sugars. Drink plenty of water. That coffee you’re drinking as soon you awake is slowing you down. 

Waiting 90 minutes after waking up enhances caffeine's effectiveness by allowing adenosine levels to rise. 

Time Outdoors

Spend time in nature and natural sunlight, ideally before you start with screens, to enhance your mood and mental health. Take our morning and evening routine course to learn more about the reasons why and how you can start to build these habits.

Taking good care of your physical health will have a positive impact on your mental health. The two are interconnected. For example, the study "Exercise for Mental Health" demonstrates that regular exercise significantly boosts mental well-being by enhancing neurotransmitters, reducing stress, and improving self-esteem and cognition.

Relationships

The Power of Connection

Relationships form the social backbone of human existence. We evolved to rely on them for our survival and that's why our hardwiring craves them still today. They are essential not just for personal growth but for finding joy and purpose in life. Our connections with others can bring immense happiness and provide a buffer against the trials of life. Good relationships allow both parties to learn and grow.

The evidence from the Harvard Study of Adult Development shows that robust, positive relationships directly correlate with better health, longer life, and greater overall happiness. One of the biggest indicators of healthspan in the participant's 90s was the strength of their relationships in their 50s.

One thing you can’t make now is an old friend.

Where to Start with Relationships?

Take stock

Everyone's network of relationships will naturally be very different. Review your friends, family and romantic relationships as a starting point. Reflect on which relationships are positive and matter the most. What is within your control to ensure these remain healthy relationships? Are there any toxic people doing more harm than good? Perhaps they deserve a bit of distance. 

Make new connections

Enhance your communication skills to deepen connections. Participate actively in what interests you. Here it's the easiest way to meet like-minded people. Enjoy running, join a running club, they are essentially social clubs masquerading as fitness clubs anyway. 

Like chess? Join a chess club. Don’t let self-doubt or insecurities stop you. With discomfort comes growth and reward.

Appreciation

Regularly express gratitude and appreciation to strengthen bonds. When you think of someone that's usually a prompt to make contact, let them know you’re thinking of them. This is a great way to keep in touch with people.

Help others

So much of the research shows one of the best ways to boost happiness is to go out of your way to help others. For example, work by Aknin et al. showed that those who engaged in prosocial behaviour, such as spending money on others, reported higher levels of happiness compared to those who spent money on themselves.

Sometimes known as the ‘helpers high’ can lead to significant increases in well-being, improved mental health, stronger social connections, and even longer life expectancy showing the interplay between the pillars. 

From an evolutionary perspective, helping others may have developed because it strengthens group cohesion and improves the survival chances of the community. This reciprocal altruism, where one individual helps another, expecting that the favour will be returned in the future, enhances trust and cooperation within groups, which is crucial for survival in a historically hostile environment. 

This behaviour can also be seen in animals like vampire bats that share their feed with bats that were unsuccessful in their hunt. Interestingly those who took the offer and then refused to share in future were remembered and shunned from further sharing. 

Our brains have evolved to derive satisfaction from aiding others, embedding these behaviours as rewarding making altruism integral to human nature.

Wealth

Wealth isn't merely financial. True wealth is the ability to find satisfaction in the present moment and to be content with what one has, in balance with using goals to pursue growth.

Contentment in the present is a form of emotional and psychological wealth that far surpasses the mere accumulation of material gains.

That’s not to say more money doesn't make you happier. When used in the right way it could. If the accumulation of money is at the cost of the other pillars it could end up with a net negative. Instead, use money to invest in the other pillars and into experiences. Think about your bank balance in terms of experiences accumulated and potential experiences alongside the numbers on the screen.

Starting Points for Wealth?

Forecast

Understand what experiences you want to have in your life. Making a bucket list and creating a vision for your ideal life 5 years from now is a great place to start. Take our goal-setting guide for this here.

Once you understand what you want, you can reverse engineer how much money you will need for this. This will stop you from chasing money just for the sake of it and will show you what you might need to work towards so you can analyse if the sacrifices are worth it.

Budgeting

Begin by understanding where your money goes. Create a budget that aligns with your values. Make it your mission to either reduce outgoings or increase incomings so that you can reach a place where you don’t have money worries. Peace of mind is one thing money can buy. It empowers you to make choices that can enrich your life, reducing stress and enabling you to invest in experiences and the other pillars that bring genuine happiness. 

Savings Goals

Set achievable savings goals to provide a financial buffer and peace of mind.

Mindful Spending

Focus on spending that brings long-term satisfaction. Quality experiences, time with friends and family and helping others are likely top candidates.

Freedom

Having solid foundations with the other pillars will allow the pursuit of freedom which represents our ability to choose our path—how we live, where we work, and what we pursue. Freedom shapes our ability to mould our lives in ways that align with our deepest values and aspirations. Being very clear on what you want and what you are designing for will help avoid the trap of too much freedom.

Starting Points for Freedom

Self-Reflection

Regularly assess your personal and professional life to ensure they reflect your true desires. Journaling is your best friend here.

Be yourself

Don’t worry this isn’t about to go into cringy dating advice. Freedom to be yourself is important though. Achieving great things and making new friends by pretending to be something else is a recipe for meaningless outcomes. Acting your way there will feel empty, almost like someone else achieved the thing. Instead, bring your brilliant uniqueness to the situation and be the best version of yourself, not someone else. 

Pursue Passions

Dedicate time to hobbies and interests that make you feel alive and fulfilled. Design for autonomy that gives you the chance to learn and grow and pursue what's most important to you as you go through the seasons of your life. 

Empirical Backing

Research consistently supports that autonomy—a core component of freedom—is strongly linked to higher well-being and life satisfaction. This autonomy allows individuals to live authentically and make choices that resonate with their true selves.

Weaving Together the Pillars

Firstly this blog has attempted to show how we can build more consistent and long term happiness but it's important to highlight a misconception of happiness deferment whereby we think in the future when we just solve X we will be happy all the time.  Life has natural peaks and troths this approach is about creating systems that raise your baseline and allow you to return to it quicker.

Each of these pillars supports and enhances the others. None can run in isolation. I have written this in a funnel starting with what the research shows has the biggest impact. It is the approach I would take with a blank canvas or a life where all pillars needed some TLC. Reflect on your own pillars and ask yourself which needs the most attention and create a logical plan to improve your baseline happiness. 

Next time you don’t feel quite right, like you’re slipping down into a negative spiral you can use these pillars to run a diagnostics to get yourself back on track. 

The vast majority of life's problems can be fixed by a good night's sleep, an intense workout and a conversation with a friend. 

By nurturing each aspect—health, wealth, relationships, and freedom—you create a reinforcing cycle of positive feedback that elevates your life's quality and raises your baseline level of happiness and sense of fulfilment. 

There is no silver bullet for this stuff. Life is complicated and hard. These four pillars are interconnected and reinforcing. By improving one, you often uplift the others. Start today by choosing one area to enhance, and let the positive changes unfold. Remember, the journey to happiness is ongoing, and every small step counts towards building a fulfilling life.

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