Friday, January 23, 2009

Five happiness-inducing habits

A few months ago the UK government's science and technology think tank Foresight concluded its Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing.

The report includes an evidence-based list of five simple daily habits for mental wellbeing. These activities, which are likened to five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, are recommended to every person in the UK:

1. Connect with other people, be they family, friends, colleagues or neighbours.

2. Be active. Go for a run, walk around the block after dinner, putter in the garden or take the kids sledding.

3. Take notice. Be aware of the details of daily life - the beautiful, the humorous, the surprising. Be conscious of the world around you and your reactions to it.

4. Keep learning. Take a photography course. Learn to knit. Tackle a work problem in a different way.

5. Give. Show kindness to others. Volunteer. Support a charity. Donate blood.

The report, the result of a two year study involving over 400 international experts, concludes that making these five activities a part of daily life can have a profound impact on people's happiness.

These recommendations crystallized a few things for me.

First, they offer an explanation for why a day at the clinic is almost always extremely satisfying, whereas a day at home with the kids must be carefully crafted to provide close to the same level of happiness. I'm not talking about long-term gratification or blissful moments, where at-home mothering easily holds its own. I'm referring to my state of mind at dinner time, when I review the day.

Medicine has an advantage in that it inherently ensures that I connect with colleagues and patients, take notice of the details of others' lives, learn continuously and give to others. I tick off four of those five boxes just by going through my day. I check off all five when I hunt for free parking and walk eight blocks to the clinic.

Staying home with the kids, few of those five activities occur spontaneously. When the path of least resistance is followed, a length of time at home seems to naturally tend towards isolation, inactivity, monotony and boredom. Most of my days at home are pleasant ones, but only because of the work I put into making them so. Scavenging in the woods, photographing ruddy cheeks and muddy boots at the beach and meeting up with friends for afternoon tea at Honey's Doughnuts make for good days, but require concerted effort on my part.

Second, the list validates the time I take during the day for pleasurable pursuits. Knitting while the kids nap, bringing The Element of Lavishness along to the beach and fiddling with a setting on my camera during lunch are often accompanied by some guilty twinges. Shouldn't every moment with my children be devoted to them? And any spare ones be spent reading Parkhurst Exchange?

But I see that all of my hobbies include several of the five happiness-inducing habits: photography involves learning and taking notice; writing requires taking notice, connecting with others and learning; and gardening entails being active, learning and taking notice.

Now I can articulate why tucking away pockets of time for these activities during the day is not frivolous: it may quite literally preserve my sanity.

(This is a combination and reworking of two posts from my personal blog.)


  1. Although, another interpretation is that surely, when home with the kids we connect with our kids spontaneously and in moments small and large; we're active with them (even if it's running around the living room); we take notice of their joys, their worries, their wonderment, their smells; we're aware of the details of daily life (as stated the beautiful, the humorous, the surprising); we're conscious of the world around us and our own and our kids' reactions, for example take watching/experiencing inauguration day; we keep learning (how to take care of them better and more fully); and we give and give and give (our love, our time, our energy, our lives).

  2. As always, a thoughtful and well-written post. I agree with the work assessment: all of these happen simulataneously for me while teaching med students and residents and that at home it doesn't always. At home, it takes a little more.

    Protect those pockets! There's sanity, but also, there's identity.

  3. Great post. Thanks for writing it.


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