Professor Brendan Kelly is consultant psychiatrist at Tallaght University Hospital, Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of The Science of Happiness: The six principles of a happy life and the seven strategies for achieving it (Gill Books). He reveals his everyday habits that build contentment.
Create a regular routine
I wake at six in the morning, every day of my life. Workdays, weekends, holidays, it makes no difference – this can be a point of some tension!
Getting up at a set time every morning helps enhance our days and nights. Just as we need to learn to sleep, we need to learn to wake up properly and tell our body the day has begun. Pressing the snooze alarm or lying in bed checking our phones is unhelpful.
Once you’re awake, get up fully and start your day, perhaps with some exercise or stepping outside to let the morning light hit your face. It’s healthy for our minds to have things that measure out the day and give it rhythm – breakfast, morning coffee, lunchtime. Our daily habits shape so much of our happiness, and research shows making small improvements to our activity, diet and sleep can be transformative over time.
Build movement into your day
I cycle to work unless it’s very wet, in which case I drive – there’s no heroism in my cycling! I’m not someone who rides as if they’re in the Tour de France. Cycling creates wonderful space in my day. I ride past a dual carriageway that’s inevitably choked with traffic while I’m breezing along under the trees, so there’s a light, comparative joy. Gentle movement and an active, day-to-day life are very much conducive to psychological wellbeing and happiness. I have a standing desk in my office and like to go walking on weekends.
I arrive at work at 7.30am. This gives me quiet, protected time in my office for 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation. I do a pared-down form of meditation. I simply sit in a chair for 20 minutes, becoming aware of my posture and the intention to cultivate a moment-to-moment awareness of whatever is present – usually, the thought “why am I sitting here when there’s so much to get done?”. The skill is simply to notice the power of these thoughts. That’s enough to disarm them.
Mindfulness has been grossly oversold as the solution to everything and this has distanced some people from what’s an extremely helpful practice for happiness. Research shows an eight-week course of mindfulness reduces the chances of a relapse into depression. For those who are well, it increases life satisfaction and sense of control.
Take time out for lunch
Lunch is an essential part of my day because I’ve been up since six, so it must happen. Usually, it’s a homemade sandwich and green tea. We know a balanced, plant-based diet can help mental wellbeing, but it’s overstating research to suggest particular vitamins or minerals bring you happiness (although nutrients such as vitamin B12 and omega-3 oils can help brain health). I try to eat mindfully, but like many people, I struggle. I do clear 30 minutes for lunch, and I’ve moved the position of my computer so if I eat in the office my screen and emails are out of my direct sightline. The physical set-up of our environment shapes a lot of our behaviour.
Mix with happy people
My day is a mix of seeing patients, teaching students, doing research and supervising trainees. There’s an enormous amount of human contact and it’s something I miss if it doesn’t occur. Easily the most rewarding part is talking with patients who tend to be very open and extraordinary. After work, I’ll meet friends or go to my book club. Social connection is so powerful and we know from research that happiness moves across social networks very strongly. So one way to become happy is to hang around happy people. It rubs off and becomes mutually reinforcing.
Eat with others
Most evenings, my wife, two children and I have dinner together, maybe pasta with vegetables and meat. The big thing about dinner is that everyone is here, it’s a family-connection occasion. The ritual of dinner is far more important for happiness than the food consumed. In every culture that’s been studied, eating together is important. It strengthens bonds and gives stability.
Read before bed
I go to bed at 10pm and read. Absorption activity is vital for happiness – finding something you can really get engaged with where hours suddenly pass. I tend to read travel books – it’s a great way to end the day. A physical book is good because there are no lights or screens and it’s a welcoming way into sleep. We need to value sleep more and sleep for longer – eight to 10 hours if possible (it varies across our lifespan). There are strong links between sleep, emotional regulation and happiness. I sleep well. Dreams become more intense and colourful when you meditate. Sometimes, I wish I didn’t wake so crisply at 6am – I once woke at 7am and felt fantastic.
Lock your phone in the car boot
I’ve never used social media. It allows us to make apparent social connections quickly at high volume, and I think many struggle to manage this. People know they’re using it excessively or feel bad after looking at Instagram, yet off they go and do it again. It’s a difficult cycle to break and I’m very happily sitting this one out.
Of course, social media can be essential for work or family but it’s necessary to step back from it and recognise this clicking and connecting is addictive. Try putting your phone in the car boot at 8pm and leaving it there until the morning. It’s a more committed version of turning off your phone and helps you become aware of the false sense of security social media brings.
The less alcohol the better
I don’t drink alcohol at all. I like mornings, I love 6am and I don’t like anything that dampens or diminishes that. Alcohol is a depressant, it slows down the nervous system and impacts your physical health in numerous ways. The WHO has changed its alcohol advice over the past 10 years – it used to give safe limits, now it says the less the better. So zero is the ideal amount in terms of happiness and wellbeing. Some people’s lives are structured in a way that zero alcohol is a difficult goal to achieve so it’s about balancing that as well.
For many of us, life is a frenzy of emails, activities and constant to-do lists. In this “always on” culture, we constantly neglect and undervalue rest yet, traditionally, it was seen as a valuable process of bodily rebuilding. Rest is an oddly active thing – it creates space for our bodies and minds to replenish, so stopping is important. You don’t necessarily have to do nothing, just step back and do less or do something different. For me that’s cycling, but it could be swimming, gardening, reading or meditating.
Professor Brendan Kelly is consultant psychiatrist at Tallaght University Hospital, Dublin, professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of The Science of Happiness: The six principles of a happy life and the seven strategies for achieving it (Gill Books).