Is Happiness A Matter Of Positive Thinking?

Posted at 23:29pm on 27th January 2011
Photo: Pink Gerbera

As Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, suggests that "happiness" would be a better measure of national progress than GDP (gross domestic product) and the BBC's Breakfast programme tries to define the elusive emotion, I'm going to ask you what you think?

I first wrote on this subject more than two years ago, when I read a magazine article about it and, having given the dictionary definition, I made various suggestions then threw it open to readers.  Is happiness the same as contentment, I asked?  Is it something you can look for?  Or is it something that creeps up on you unawares?

Here, again, is the dictionary list:

  • Happiness: Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment
  • Pleasure: A feeling of satisfaction or joy; enjoyment
  • Contentment: Satisfied state; tranquil happiness
  • Joy: A vivid emotion of pleasure; extreme gladness

And here are my suggestions.


Ask any group of women and shopping is bound to come high on their list of happiness-inducing activities.  I have to confess that it is a mystery to me as to why this should be.  On the rare occasions that I set out to "go shopping" I can't get home quickly enough after the event.

Is it the shops, themselves, brightly lit with their dazzling window displays that are so attractive?  Or is it the throng of fellow consumers that bring on an air of camaraderie?  There is, of course, the thrill of the hunt: finding the right item at the right price; not to mention the moral boosting sensation of having something new to adorn one's body, face, hair or home.

But can you ever have enough?  The Daily Telegraph suggests, this week, that the average woman will have twenty-two garments in her wardrobe that she will never wear but can't bring herself to be rid of.  Can the sense of pleasure derived from owning more clothes than you can possibly wear equate to happiness?

Mark Twain, defining an optimist as "a person who travels on nothing from nowhere to happiness" would seem to suggest otherwise. 


Of course, you need money to shop!  The reverse of that is that you need to shop to show off how much money you have.  The two are symbiotic.

There's a saying that money can't buy happiness.  It's pretty clear, however, that the absence of it can make you miserable.  And there's no doubt that earning power can bring great satisfaction. 

Speaking as an author, I know that the act of creative writing brings me an enormous sense of satisfaction; writing and publishing a book enhances that satisfaction still further; and receiving fan mail from readers that tells me that I have achieved my aim to provide resources to inform, inspire and encourage, brings me great pleasure and contentment.

Few authors earn vast sums of money from their writing.  But for those who do, does there come a point when it all becomes rather meaningless?  Does two million pounds bring more satisfaction than one million; twenty million more than ten?

Andrew Carnegie suggests that: "If you want to be happy," you need to "set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes."


There is something about chocolate that is irresistible.  For me it is not simply the flavour, but the whole experience of something solid that metamorphoses into a thick, syrupy liquid. 

I have never been able to explain the craving that I frequently fall victim to, nor the fact that I can, at times, go weeks without even thinking about it.  However, it appears that changes in hormones may influence these desires.   Chocolate bars contain a group of alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines which are mood-enhancing we're told.  Perhaps that's why the yearning is stronger for women at certain times of their menstrual cycle.

Whether the fleeting pleasure of that melting moment is enough to be defined as happiness is another thing?  The downside is that it's fattening, rots your teeth, is high in fat and is short-lived in its effect.   

But as Alexandre Dumas says: "There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state to another, nothing more."


I wrote, last week, on The Joy, Or The Sadness, Of Teen Sex.  The article was based on a Channel 4 TV programme which, frankly, both repelled and saddened me.  Straight sex, it would seem, is certainly not sufficient to provide a feeling of satisfaction or happiness in many adolescents.   It seems to me that the problem lies in isolating sex from a loving relationship.   

Whilst the commitment and reciprocal love of another person will continue to give joy for years to come, the physical gratification of sexual orgasm – like the melting moment of chocolate - is entirely transitory.  It can also become addictive.  And in that case, like shopping, can enough ever be enough?

Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying: "Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give." 


Whether the achievement you're aiming for is to be a tennis pro, a winner of Strictly Come Dancing or the X-Factor, or merely to rent an allotment and grow your own veg, or to clean out the kitchen cupboard, it will require ambition and effort on your part.  And that, in my opinion, is fundamental to a sense of happiness.

Human beings are designed to achieve, and to do so creatively.  If your ambition involves creativity, your sense of happiness will grow in direct proportion to the effort you put in.  That's because creativity is not, necessarily, dependent upon success.

Consider the impoverished state of many of the now famous painters, sculptors, and writers in history.  It's clear that it was their art which fed their drive.  And as we all know, the pursuit of excellence may, or may not, result in fame and fortune.

Not only that, creativity often blooms in the soil of adversity.  As I said, in that earlier article, the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, founder, with William Wordsworth, of the Romantic Movement, suffered from Bi-Polar Disorder, had a failed marriage, suicidal tendencies and was an opium addict.  Yet his poems, Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner live on.

If happiness is defined by joy then as Leo Tolstoy has said: "Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness."


"What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" asks the poet, W H Davies, to which Wordsworth's earlier verse "I wandered lonely as a cloud" must respond: "and then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils." 

The popularity of nature as the subject of poetry, paintings and TV programmes speaks volumes about the deep need in human beings to connect with the beauty and wonder of their environment.   As these sunset photographs of Norway show, the world around us is awesome.  But is it beauty alone that moves us?  Or is it a sense of otherness?  Something, or Someone, beyond ourselves?

And  if beauty is the path to happiness, what of those who are condemned to live a lifetime of squalor and deprivation?  Can my happiness be shared by such people?  According to Budhist teaching it can!

"Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."


If none of the above fit the bill, then is finding happiness really a possibility?  There are those who would say that it's simply a matter of positive thinking: making yourself believe something that isn't true.

For me that falls short of reality.  Rather than attributing the pleasure, satisfaction, gladness and contentment of happiness to an exercise of  the mind, I see it as a feature of the soul.  Joy is a response to life; a natural and instinctive answer to knowing that, in the big scheme of things, you are a valuable part of creation.   

This joy, this feeling that seems to come from nowhere, swells inside you, and makes you fit to burst.  I have it from time to time when I look at my husband and know the security of his love for me.  It steals up on me when I see my grandchildren, big and small, and contemplate, with sheer amazement, the complexity of life and growth and speech and will and morality which exists in each of them.  It comes when friends cluster round me to help me through difficult times.  And it overwhelms me when I look around and know myself to be part of a community, loved and accepted, by my family; my church; my God.

As an author I have to face the fact that despite the pleasure that creative writing brings to me, my last book may really be my last.  My eyesight, cognitive powers and readers may desert me.  Even if writing and publishing remain possibilities, I may never write another bestseller.  I know that money can't buy happiness, and I know that positive thinking is useless when it comes to finding happiness.

But I choose joy!  I choose to make a joyous celebration of whatever life throws at me.  And I trust that my laughter, my happiness, and my joy will spread, like a viral epidemic, and infect the lives of others.

Because, in the words of Abraham Lincoln: "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

What's your definition of happiness?  Do leave your comments.  My list is by no means definitive.  It would be great to hear what you can add to it.


© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION

Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at


Your Comments:

Patsy White
29th January 2011
at 1:12am
Your point about choosing joy is something we should all take to heart. It is easier than one may think to wake up each morning (a biiiiiig reason to be joyful!) and choose to be joyful and happy about the new day that God has provided for one's pleasure and purpose.

One suggestion to aid the endeavor is the Buddhist idea of "Counting 100 Blessings." Starting one's day by thinking up 100 blessings practically insures a joy-filled day. I always start with God's Grace, one husband, three children, almost eight grands (there's 13 blessings already) and go on from there.
31st January 2011
at 2:38am
You are so right, Patsy! When I was little children were always being told to "count your blessings". I love the idea of the 100 every morning. Like you, I can count Grace, one lovely husband, three children (one no longer with us) and seven grandchildren (so one fewer than you) plus two parents still living. Fourteen in all plus lovely friends.

Added to that are a warm home, security, a good job, and a relatively stable country . . . Thanks Patsy! I could become addicted to this ;))
14th February 2011
at 9:14am
Mel, your post is well-thought out and truly inspiring. I like the way you've included God, family, and community in the scheme of things rather than making it an individualistic outing. Personally I feel that if happiness does not come to you as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. For it can be very exhausting to go chasing after it by way of get happy quick scams rather than putting your house in order first.
25th February 2011
at 6:39pm
Lizbeth, Thank you for your comment, and for highlighting the basics of happiness. I have to agree with you: happiness is not something you can chase after; it's something that steals up on you (love the way you put it "as naturally as leaves to a tree") when you least expect it.

It's hard to condemn people who go after the scams in pursuit of happiness. I can only feel sorry for them for being taken in.

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