We all want a happy life, but maybe pursuing happiness is the wrong way to go about it. Meik Wiking suggests instead that we focus on creating great memories.
The best-selling author Danish author, famous for the best-selling Little Book of Hygge - The Danish Way to Live Well has a new book out: The Art Of Making Memories: How To Create And Remember Happy Moments, written after researching a thousand people's most happy memory, which in turn helped him pinpoint the six ingredients vital for making happy memories.
Meik set up Denmark's Happiness Research Institute and is is member of the policy advisory group for the Global Happiness Policy Report.
He tells Kathryn Ryan he’s been amazed by the success of his first book and how the concept of hygge has been embraced around the globe.
“I thought hygge was a Danish thing, but I received letters on a daily basis from people around the world saying they’ve been having hygge all their life - they just didn’t know there was a word for it. I think that is what is uniquely Danish is that we have a word that describes those situations.
“But hygge happens everywhere. It is these feelings or moments where we have a sense of togetherness, of relaxation, of pleasure - of course that happens just as much in Wellington as it does in Copenhagen.”
His work at the Happiness Institute tries to answer how happiness can be measured, why some people are happier than others, and how to improve quality of life.
Meik says that happiness is a broad definition and can be a subjective thing for many people.
“When we try to quantify happiness we look both at an overall purpose and meaning in life - that’s what Aristotle thought the good life was. We also look at whether people have an overall satisfaction with their life and whether people are experiencing positive emotions such as pleasure and high levels of self-esteem on a daily basis.
“We should look at it the same way, for example, we look at another complex phenomenon like the Danish economy. We can also break that down into different components: GDP per capita, growth, exports, inflation levels, unemployment levels, and that gives us a language to talk about how the Danish economy is doing. That’s also what we need to do with happiness, break it down and look at the different components of what happiness consists of.”
Meik says that rather than being in the pursuit of happiness, we should see it as the byproduct of other pursuits. He says having happiness itself as an ambition is tough because we tend to raise the bar for what we regard as a happy life.
“I think if we pursue connection, if we pursue passion, if we pursue our interests, if we pursue bringing people together over some good food - happiness is going to be a byproduct of those ambitions."
One of the main global patterns the Happiness Institute has found is that people want to be able to form a positive narrative about their lives by creating happy memories.
“One of the wonderful things about working with happiness is we get to see how similar we are across the globe. We might be New Zealanders and Danes, but we’re first and foremost people and we can see the same things drive happiness in Copenhagen as in Christchurch.”
Meik says one of the problems faced by people with depression is that not only do they feel unhappy in the moment, they actually struggle to remember times when they felt happy.
“Happy memories can counteract some of the negative emotions and feelings like loneliness and anxiety - it’s a sort of happiness reservoir that we can draw on when we need it the most.”
With that in mind, Meik recommends creating as many happy memories as possible and has laid out steps to do so.
“The biggest ‘a ha!’ moment for me in writing the book was getting to an understanding that I can actually influence what I remember in the future, or what me, my family and my loved ones remember. I think embracing that role as a memory architect, not thinking of a memory as something random or you do not have control over and moving onto that role of influencing memory is the first core step.
“You also need to harness the power of ‘firsts’. What we can see in the happy memory study is that 23 percent of people’s happy memories are about first experiences - first kiss, first child, and so on.”
Meik says people consistently tend to remember first experiences.
“It’s one of the reasons we feel that time seems to speed up as we get older; the years go by quicker and quicker. The reason for that is, in our teenage years, in our early tweens, we have a lot of our first experiences.”
As we get older, first experiences became much more rare, so Meik recommends we seek out more first experiences. Part of that can be helped by doing things slightly outside of our comfort zone so they’re more likely to have an impact on us.
Another trick is to bring attention to a happy moment. He gives the example of Polish woman who shared a memory of having a pleasant dinner with her family and her mother saying “I hope you remember this moment.” It can, he says, help to solidify that memory, but should only be used sparingly.
For the younger generations who are more attached to their phones, he suggests curating a ‘happy 100’ where once a year you go through your photos and pick out a selection of photos that are your happiest memories of the year, then get those printed.
Finally, he stresses that we must accept unhappiness.
“In every human life there’s going to be heartbreak and misery and times of unhappiness - that is part of the human experience. But hopefully, we can find ways where we experience happiness as well and create conditions for good lives, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”