Why we strive for happiness but then often ignore it when it arrives

It’s easy to lose awareness of the pleasures of day-to-day activities

You probably don’t need to look up the paintings of Pieter Breugel the Elder to call to mind his images of peasants dancing and feasting. They are among the most reproduced images in the world. These peasants lived in the 16th century when everyday life was tougher than it is now and they have something to teach us.

I mention this because I’ve been looking at some research conducted last year for Aware, by Amárach Research, which found high levels of anxiety among Irish people. Four out of five people reported experiences of anxiety, three out of five reported money worries that impacted their mental health, and 10 per cent of people under 25 said they were experiencing depression.

So, are we more distressed now than those 16th-century peasants?

Or than people who lived in, say, the 1950s when times were also hard?


We don’t really know because people didn’t talk so much in terms of depression or anxiety then as we do now. In the 1950s, someone might be said to suffer with their “nerves” if they had mental health problems that caused them distress.

Whatever the comparison, a few lessons from Breugel’s peasants might do us some good.

The first is they made space for their singing, dancing, feasting, carousing and carrying on. They knew they were happy when they were happy. I wonder if we move so fast now from one thing to another could we easily lose the awareness of the pleasure of day-to-day activities?

Australian research, published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal, found that encouraging people to recall and reflect on pleasurable moments reduced their levels of stress and further increased good feelings.

I like to remind myself that if I allow pleasurable feelings to pass by without giving them any notice, then I am cheating myself. We strive for happiness, so why ignore it when it arrives? And you don’t have to look for big-ticket items. I get a fleeting feeling of happiness when I hear car engines idling on the street, though I don’t like driving. I’m with the graphic novelist Debbie Jenkinson who told Una Mullally recently about her enjoyment of just drinking tea, going about the ordinary day, seeing a cat crossing the road.

Never mind the logic, feel the happiness – it’s free.

The second lesson from our dancing peasants is the physicality of it all. Their dancing, carousing and feasting are very physical as – for us – are walking, running, going to the gym, doing yoga, moving your body. Brisk walking lifts your mood, not only while you are doing it but after you stop. None of these remove the problems of the world but it will give you a boost as a person living in this world.

Breugel’s peasants are, of course, having fun in a crowd – probably the whole parish is there. It’s a social network and networks have the capacity to change participants’ emotional states and behaviours. If the people you mix with are happy then you are likely to be happier. It’s social contagion, but in a good way.

Connection can help us to feel better, both offline and online. In that Aware survey, 72 per cent of respondents said social media helps distract them from the problems and 62 per cent said that it helps them connect with others. It can have negative impacts also but the effect seems to be more positive than negative.

What I’m describing here is an attitude of self-care. But it’s pleasant and easy. At the very least we can make a habit of noticing good feelings and experiences.

We live in a sometimes scary landscape, but it’s important to realise that dotted around that landscape are some islands of positivity. When we find these islands we would do well to give them the awareness and attention that, while it might not turn us into dancing peasants, gives us a needed sense of positivity in our lives.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).