Laugh in the new year – happiness is up to you

As a new year rolls out like a blank canvas, you may have had more than a passing thought on how to turn every “Happy New Year” you’ve been wished into just that.

We live in a culture that encourages us to be our best, bright, bubbly selves, but reaching those dizzying heights of self-exhortation often elude us.

Sure, we can book into happiness conferences or retreats, buy books on wellbeing, hire a happiness coach and even take study courses about the personal, social and professional advantages of happiness at work – or we can try something much more lighthearted.

When David Hume donates blood, the 54-year-old leader of the Banyo Beehive Laughter Club is told he has the blood pressure of a 21-year-old.

“It’s a positive thing to hear,” he says, “and I put that down to laughter and general exercise as well.”

Following in the waddling footsteps of silent-film comic Charlie Chaplin, who’s reputed to have said, “a day without laughter is a day wasted”, he’s one of many Australians laughing for wellness through “laughter yoga” since its arrival Down Under in 2003.

Around Brisbane there are a number of laughter clubs all run by certified leaders, springing from one started 15 years ago in inner-city New Farm Park. Regionally, there are clubs as far afield as Hervey Bay, Mackay, Rockhampton, Mount Isa and Cairns.

The Banyo club usually attracts more women than men prepared to try something new, but the activity is for everyone and all ages.

It has scientifically proven health benefits and can lift a heavy mood naturally within minutes. When meetings hit even gender numbers, David says it’s a photo moment for their Facebook page.

If you think sharing a belly laugh with strangers might feel awkward, don’t worry about being a newbie – you can fake it until you make it, as the brain can’t differentiate between a false laugh and the real McCoy.

The same happy hormones called endorphins are released to reset your physical, mental and social wellbeing for the better.

“I know of people who’ve been on medication for depression and through coming to laughter yoga they’ve eased themselves off until the point they’re not taking medication,” David says.

Laughter yoga combines breathing exercises, a brief meditation, gentle stretching, belly-shaking laughter – and it’s free. A small donation may be asked to cover venue costs.

There are 1400 Buddhist meditation drop-in centres globally, so it’s likely there’s one near you where you can grab some mental space to calm your mind.

The Sunshine Coast has the Chenrezig Institute in the Eudlo hills while Kadampa Meditation Centre runs meditations in locations throughout Brisbane, including Wooloowin, Kenmore, and their new city centre in Spring Hill.

They’re peaceful spaces offering guided meditations and practical teachings to improve your meditation practice and deepen your peace of mind.

In Buddhism, you look inwards and find your strengths and weaknesses.

National Administrator, Buddhist nun Gen Kelsang Tsering, likens it to being a scientist of your own mind and finding out what you base your happiness on.

She says by recognising and focusing on your good qualities you can develop your own recipe for happiness.

“Fixing faults in our own life rather than trying to fix everyone’s else’s is something we can achieve,” she says.

Modern Buddhism lays bare many of life’s everyday problems. Under a qualified teacher, classes may cover how to train your mind to be more positive, enjoy better relationships, overcome anger, increase self-confidence and conquer stress.

You don’t need to be a Buddhist to try the classes, as they are open to everyone, regardless of background. They allow for drop-in visitors, so there’s no need to book and each class is self-contained.

If you’re too time poor to get out the door, then connect to the world-wide community of Christian meditators at home in the comfort of your easy chair. Download the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) app and get started.

It’s another tradition of contemplation that can be practised by anyone, wherever you are on your life’s journey. The app includes a timer, an opening prayer, daily wisdom and weekly teachings.

If you’d prefer to connect in person with other practitioners, choose from the 100 groups in Queensland, some interfaith, running from private homes or church buildings.

National coordinator for WCCM Australia, Mirella Pace, says there are about 500 groups in Australia, and that number is growing as people reach retirement and search for a deeper connection in life.

“Meditation builds community because as we share the silence together, rather than using words, we are communicating at a deeper level,” she says. “Christian meditation offers a way of stillness, simplicity and silence that is very appealing to older people.”

Apart from tapping into ancient religious traditions, what else makes for a happy, healthy and meaningful life?

According to what is probably the world’s longest study of adult life, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one clear message keeps emerging: good relationships keep us happier and healthier, not fame or fortune.

The 75-year study is still going strong and is now turning its attention to the Baby Boomer children of the original participants.

Internationally-recognised thought leader and founder of Access Consciousness, Gary Douglas, 75, says while it’s important to have good relationships, they’re not the sole catalyst for our own happiness and fulfilment.

Focusing on having a good relationship with yourself will ultimately allow you to feel truly content and happy.

“One of the things I try and get people to recognise is that nobody makes you happy, and nobody makes you unhappy,” he says.

“You are the creator of your own life and happiness is a choice.”

The key to being happier as we grow older, Gary says, is not dwelling on the frustrations of what we haven’t got, or what we’re not getting from others.

Rather be thankful for the fact that we wake up in the morning, then start to have fun and be joyful. It’s up to us to expand the possibilities available.

If you’ve ever been tempted to feel a little smug about your love life when friends around you are splitting up, then that’s the time to look at your own relationship.

Couples counsellor, Raywyn Roberts, a clinical psychotherapist with Partnership Power Counselling, says it’s never too late to revive a relationship that’s been limping along and, in doing so, reboot your own happiness.

“Couples come and see me and they’ve got something from 20 to 30 years ago, or from when they first married that they haven’t repaired,” she says.

“It’s like having an elephant in the room, or a thorn in your shoe. It’s never too late, especially when you have so many memories to pull from.

“There doesn’t need to be anything psychologically wrong with people to go to couples counselling. I’ve had people who’ve said I just want my relationship to be better.

“When home is going right, we have the extra energy to go out into the world.”

Mending a stuck relationship can take a number of sessions, and while there’s no government rebate for couples counselling, limited rebates are available from private health funds.

Treating yourself to a week’s holiday may feel good at the time, but it’s far smarter, Raywyn says, to invest in therapy for long-term relationship happiness.

Committed to reducing the obesity crisis, the Queensland Government has weighed into the happiness stakes with its “Find your Happy Healthy” campaign targeted at males and females, aged 45-65.

For those interested in a healthier lifestyle, the take-home message is that it’s achievable, improves your wellbeing and can be fun.

 STEPS TO HAPPINESS

• Laugh more
• Calm your mind
• Build healthy relationships
• Choose to be happy
• Find your happy, healthy self (healthier.qld.gov.au)