Lessons in wellbeing will soon be on the syllabus for every British schoolchild. But what about the rest of us? Rob Sharp takes a crash course in contentment

News that state secondary school pupils are to be given "happiness lessons" might seem overblown to Britain's adult population. For while the nation's nippers are to be prescribed formulae on smirks and smiles, it seems adults could also do with an emotional masterclass.

Children's secretary Ed Balls announced last Tuesday that state secondary schools are to adopt "Seal" – social and emotional aspects of learning – a culture that promotes "discipline, respect and good manners". Recent research suggests that only 57 per cent of Britons are "quite happy", with a mere 36 per cent of the population falling into the "very happy" bracket. So what can we do to improve our emotional lot?

Academics such as Richard Layard, who wrote the critically acclaimed 2005 bestseller Happiness, suggests that everything from health to our friends, family and even our working lives are vital.

Others insist the pursuit of happiness is a wasted opportunity. Cambridge University psychologist Dr Nick Baylis believes that trying to be happy all the time is an unreasonable goal, and that we should simply take the "rough emotions with the smooth". He says: "We are chasing happiness and that's why it doesn't feel right. There are no good or bad feelings. The question is how do we channel it in a helpful way? Heroclitus said in 500 BC: 'All things come into being by the conflict of opposites.' And William Blake said: 'Without contraries there is no progression.' We should take note of this in our day-to-day lives."

Family relationships

The German Socio-Economic Panel, an annual poll of the German population that re-interviews the same households every year, has found that people generally become happier after marriage. In the two or three years before tying the knot, people are already becoming happier; the year they get married tends to be their happiest. After that first year, the couple gradually becomes less content; but even four years into marriage, people still remain happier than they were before. "There's sufficient evidence in the psychological literature that relationships make us happy," said Professor Stephen Joseph of the University of Nottingham's School of Sociology and Social Policy. "When relationships meet people's need for belonging, then they are successful." There is a large surge in happiness when children are born, but within two years this dissipates. The research suggests that one of the benefits of married life is a more frequent and satisfying sex life. Married people are also healthier and live longer.

Work

Experts say that unemployment not only reduces income but decreases happiness by destroying self-respect. Research from the German Socio-Economic Panel suggests that the "pain" of unemployment for someone is much higher than that of losing income. The stigma is severe, according to German researchers Liliana and Rainer Winkelmann, and is as painful one or two years after the event as at the outset. Furthermore, when unemployment in a society increases, it affects the overall happiness of everyone in that society, including those with jobs.

Community and friends

Richard Layard claims that the quality of our community has a crucial role to play in whether we make friends, and how safe we feel. He also says that living where you can trust others is likely to make you happier. Researchers call the quality of a community "social capital". Scientists have tested how likely people are to return a lost wallet in different countries, and found that it is related to the perception of trust in that country. "Britain is not particularly high on this ranking," says Layard. "In Britain trust levels have fallen, as in America. We are the only two countries where this has happened, and we are closely linked. Elements of the value system of US culture are dangerous for us, such as the individualistic views embodied by multinational banks. The school system needs to counteract this."

General health

People display a considerable ability to adapt to physical limitations thrown up by day-to-day life, according to a 2002 study of kidney dialysis patients. But while we generally overestimate the loss of happiness felt by sufferers of many serious medical conditions, it appears that people can never adapt to chronic pain or mental illness. "The important thing is mental health, as regards the impact of health on overall wellbeing," says Layard. "An article published in The Lancet this week shows that depression has a much more serious impact on overall wellbeing than diseases like angina and diabetes. Yet, for those diseases, most people would expect to see a specialist, while almost none of those with depression would see a specialist. This is a shocking imbalance in British medical health care."

Diet

The brain chemicals that affect our feelings, moods, appetites and movements are made from protein fragments called amino acids, the ultimate source of which is food. One such brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) is serotonin, which is connected with feelings of contentment and happiness, and is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Good sources of this include bananas, milk, chickpeas, peanuts, turkey and chicken. Another neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (Gaba), which is found in seeds and nuts, helps us to relax. However, warns Iain Ryrie, director of research for the Mental Health Foundation, "the relationship between diet and mental health is poorly understood."

Personal freedom

A recent study of democracy in Switzerland found that in some Swiss cantons (regions), citizens have more rights to demand referendums than others. People living in cantons that allow more referendums are happier than their neighbours who are granted fewer rights. If we compare the cantons where these rights are most prevalent with those where they are least, the difference in happiness is as great as if the populace had double the income. These findings are highly relevant to the role of local democracy. Of all social ills, the one that causes the greatest misery, perhaps predictably, is war. Professor Joseph concludes: "Again, needs for autonomy, belonging and competence are what have made humans successful in evolutionary terms. When groups are able to cooperate and survive in hostile environments, they succeed."

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