The secret to happiness

Is our pursuit of happiness making us unhappy?


We should try not to be too hard on ourselves or other people, says Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. Indeed, we should all make the following resolution this year: "resolve to cut everyone a massive amount of slack, including yourself".

In The Times this week,Carol Midgley offered some advice which is just as hard, if not harder, to follow. Once in a while we "should all step bravely out of our comfort zones: drive to an unfamiliar place without satnav", go hungry for a while, or wear extra clothes instead of "lunging to switch on the heating".

Midgley has been reading a new book that says excess comfort is not good for us. It lowers our immunity to almost any discomfort and damages our psychological health.

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In The Power of Negative Emotion, two Americans, Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, and Robert Biswas-Diener, an expert in "positive psychology", date our addiction to extreme comfort back to the 1990s when the world seemed to be improving by leaps and bounds.

The Cold War was over; the internet was making life easier; the stockmarket was rising fast. Taking advantage of this, more and more people started wanting satnavs and heated car seats and ergonomically designed office chairs and more recently even, says Midgley, "plastic snowball-makers so our hands don't get too cold when we're having fun in the snow (yes, really)".

But the 1990s was also the time, argue Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, when terms like road rage and trolley rage started to take off. Aggressive incidents on the roads in America increased by more than 50% between 1990 and 1995.

"The year 1996 was the first time in history that students at college health clinics began complaining of anxiety more frequently than they sought help for depression or relationship problems, a trend that continues to this day," say the two academics. As our lives have become more comfortable, our fuses have got progressively shorter over small things.

After all, if you start thinking air conditioning in your car is a necessity, you feel disappointed if it doesn't work. And comfort addiction doesn't just make us more prone to be cross; it also makes us more prone to be ill. Once a bit of dirt was seen as stimulating the immune system; now our obsession with clean houses means we don't build up the same resistance to germs.

Midgley quotes a Birmingham-based social psychologist,Gary Wood, who thinks our "hyper-attention to detail in trying to make our lives discomfort-free is effectively perfection-chasing, which is bound to end in frustration". What we've forgotten is the old saying: count your blessings.

We'd be happier if we roughed it more and stopped being obsessed with owning the most up-to-date tablets or the springiest mattresses. Instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, we should follow Quentin Crisp's approach. "I don't keep up with the Joneses," he once said. "I try to drag them down to my level."

Tabloid money: Sweet talk from Alan Sugar

"The overpaid and hopeless tossers who run Sainsbury's have told contractors who build and refit their stores that they will in future have to wait 82 days to be paid rather than the current 30," says Kelvin MacKenzie in The Sun.

"This will hit particularly hard the pay packets of self-employed plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and carpenters." Could I suggest that all builders stop shopping at Sainsbury's stores until they resume their old terms. "Or until the useless CEO and his management team also feel the pain by having their pay cut in line with their sliding profits."

Good news for Ed Miliband at last, says Rod Liddle in The Sun. "The investment bank Goldman Sachs has predicted that the Conservatives are on course to win the next General Election. That surely means Ed's victory is an absolute cert. I'd trust Bob The Talking Goldfish for a more accurate prediction of the result than Goldman Sachs. These were the people who for more than a decade acted as chief advisers to yes, Greece."

"Size 16 ex-Miss British Beauty Curve Elena Raouna sent a message to Lord Sugar saying: Evening, sugar, can I call you that? Lol.' His reply: No problem so long as I can call you fatty'," says Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail. "She now accuses him of cyber bullying'. What did she expect? This is a man who sent his wife a birthday card saying: Best wishes, Sir Alan Sugar'."