The secrets of happiness

Why a bronze medal makes you happier than a silver

Who doesn’t want to be happier?

Yet how much time do you devote to what makes you really happy?

I write on the science of staying well and the following 6 ways to become happier are based, not just on centuries of wisdom, but on sound science. They work.

1 Write down 5 things you are grateful for – and put the list on the breakfast table wall

One of the main tenets of Buddhism is gratitude. Too often we concentrate on what we don’t have, instead of what we do have. By initially writing down 5 things you are grateful for, adding to the list and reviewing them regularly – you automatically ‘accentuate the positive’.

Surveys show that bronze medal winners are happier than silver medal winners because they are grateful to have won a medal at all – whereas silver medal winners regret missing out on the top spot. Change your focus to what you are grateful for.

2 Change NOW what you will come to regret later

Regretting a foolish action can be a learning experience – as long as you don’t dwell on it. Learn from it, forgive yourself and move on. Just as forgiving others, letting go of anger and moving on benefits YOU far more than the person who initially did you the harm.

But regretting what you didn’t do, but could have done, is betraying yourself.

A book that has inspired and changed the lives of many people is The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware. Bronnie was a hospice nurse in Australia for several years and was astonished that the regrets people had at the end of their lives were so similar.

So many of us tolerate unfulfilling jobs and careers. We’re too diffident to say what we really mean or want. We keep postponing that trip of a lifetime. And then it’s too late.

The days may seem long – but the years are short.

The regrets that people voiced again and again were:

I wish I’d had the courage to live my life that was true to myself and not the life others expected of me.

They regretted that they had allowed their dreams to remain unfulfilled. They failed to seize the day.

Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront muses that “I could have been a contender”. But he let the chance slip by, because he gave in to a threat from a mob boss and threw a fight.  He could have been – but he wasn’t.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

The need for work-life balance is real. Of course, we all want to spend more time with the family, but even small improvements help. Being sedentary, sitting for hours without a break, is as bad for health as smoking!

So if that’s you, take a break every hour for a minute or two. Now?

I wish I’d had the courage to express my true feelings.

So many of these people in the last days of their life regretted suppressing their true thoughts and feelings in order to keep peace with others. This fear prevented them from becoming what they were capable of. Courage is not the absence of fear but the conquering of it.

Steve Jobs put it well: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

We get so caught up in our work or daily lives that we let friendship slip by. We let the seemingly urgent supplant the actually important.

A simple message, note or thoughtful email, sent out of the blue to a loved one or friend, will brighten not just their day, but yours too. What would it mean to your partner to get a message right now that simply says “I love you”?

Psychologists confirm we like compliments more than money. One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make others happy. Pay a compliment today. Let your daughter know how much that phone call meant to you. Or your son know how much you enjoyed the book he recommended.

Studies show that practising a religion increases life satisfaction – but a study of over 3,000 adults showed it was not the religion as such, but the friendships made within the religious community, that made the difference. The connection to like-minded people. We are social animals.

So reach out to a friend you haven’t spoken to for some time.

I wish I had let myself be happier.

Surely the saddest regret of all. You don’t get a second chance at life – this is it. We are the creators of our own happiness.

There’s a common denominator in all these 5 regrets – failure to act when it was in your power.

Exercise is a great example for me. I know all the facts – that exercise releases feel-good endorphins, boosts mood and increases energy. It reduces the risk of EVERY main cause of mortality, dementia, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.  Yet I often let the day go by without taking time to exercise – because “I am too busy”.

It’s totally in my control to make time for a 30-minute walk.

I’ll do it today! No excuses. Will you?

3 Savour the moment

Years ago I helped many thousands of people who were desperate to lose weight. The single most successful slimming strategy cost nothing. It was to focus completely on what you are eating and get full enjoyment from it.

It sounds counter-intuitive – surely would-be slimmers should be trying to ignore food?  No – the secret was to slow down and fully savour the moment and the taste.  As a result, they became conscious of when they were full, knew when to stop and ate less.

This of course is essentially mindfulness. Being in the moment, fully concentrating on what you are doing – whether that’s eating, relating to your partner or companion, or listening to music. And not multi-tasking, especially with your mobile phone!

So close your eyes, take a deep breath and really taste that square of chocolate. Or stop and really drink in that view.

4 Have goals or projects

The purpose of life is a life of purpose.

I love this aphorism. We lose track of time when we are in a state of ‘flow’ – when we are engaged in doing something we really believe in.

Being in a wheelchair, with extremely limited ability to move, would surely curtail happiness? Yet Stephen Hawking states he is happy – because he has a clear purpose. He is making a difference.

We can’t all be theoretical physics geniuses, but we can all make a difference. We can all be the best possible versions of ourselves.

One of the facts about goals is that they are rarely accomplished without overcoming some failures along the way. And that sense of achievement, surmounting setbacks, is what makes for happiness, not necessarily the attaining of the goal itself.

You don’t have to be still in a career or job to set goals or take on projects. It’s possibly even more important to set goals if you have retired. Having goals includes continuing to learn. And learning something new is a proven way to cut the risk of mental decline.

Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford University. She distinguishes between people who have a ‘fixed’ mindset and a ‘growth’ mindset.

Fixed mindset people believe they are born with certain qualities and talents and they can’t be changed.

Growth mindset people believe that they can always develop more. They still encounter setbacks, but they keep encouraging themselves until those challenges are overcome.

You can set a goal of pleasure, but that’s a temporary feeling and often rather disappointing when attained. But you can’t set a goal of being happy – it’s a by-product of achieving other goals.

So what are your goals? What will you learn this year?  What is the best possible version of yourself?

5 Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good

or – Enough is enough!

Gretchen Rubin embarked for a year on what she called her Happiness Project, which became a best-selling book. One of her breakthroughs was realising that accepting ‘good’ made her far happier and more productive than pushing for an unattainable perfect and getting nowhere near achieving it.

In one example, she told a friend that she was sending out happy-birthday emails. He said, “Oh, you shouldn’t email! You should call or write a hand-written note, that’s much nicer.”

True, she said, but I won’t. It’s better to get something done imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly.

I equally know that if you are ‘well brought up’, you write a thank-you note after dinner at a friend’s. But I send an email. It’s not perfect but it’s good.

Enough is enough summarises the influence of money on happiness.

Can money buy you happiness? Yes, but only up to a certain point. So ditch that super-yacht.

You do need money enough to eat properly, educate your children, be comfortably housed and feel secure.  That’s the type of happiness related to life satisfaction rather than day to day mood.

What’s the optimum income level? It’s quite high. A Gallup survey of 450,000 responses in the USA put it at a family disposable income of $60,000 – about their national average household income.  That’s about £40,000 total disposable family income in UK terms.

Beyond a certain level, however, every survey of happiness and money shows that people who are most materialistic rate their lives as the least satisfying.

This is certainly not to ignore the fact that poverty, and the sense of lack of control and stress that accompanies it, has a devastating impact on happiness.

Enough is enough is another way of saying that happiness comes, from wanting what you have, not from wanting more.

6 Take care of your health

Not many of us spend a lot of time thinking about our health – until the first signs that it may be failing. And then we’ll do anything to recover it. Because good health is the cornerstone of happiness, as happiness is the cornerstone of health.

You are a very different person from last week. Here’s why:

  • You make billions of new cells – over 200 billion – every day
  • Your small intestinal lining cells replace themselves every 2-4 days
  • Your skin replaces itself every 10-30 days
  • Your red blood cells change every 4 months
  • Your skeleton every 10 years

BUT as we get older, cell turnover rate slows down.

Your body makes every new cell from the quality nutritional content of the food – what you eat literally becomes what you are. SO … you have a choice of what you are made of!

As I said in the opening, I write on the science of staying well.

And I believe the best summary of good nutritional choices is an introductory report to his seminal book by Dr Paul Clayton, the former Chair of the Forum on Food and Health at the Royal Society of Medicine.

It’s called Health Defence – An Introductory Report, it’s free and you can download a copy here.

So do it – become happier

  • Are you going to write out those 5 things you are grateful for?
  • How are you going to make sure you avoid those 5 regrets?
  • What is the best possible version of yourself?
  • How will you make a difference?
  • Will you pursue the good and take action, or pursue the perfect and procrastinate?
  • Do your food choices really build the best possible you?

As we’ve seen from this article, happiness is not something to passively hope for. It’s the result of positive actions.

As a final incentive to take action, here are some facts about happy people.

  • They have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • They are less likely to get sick from colds and flu
  • They have more abundant immune blood cells
  • Vaccines work more effectively in them
  • They live longer in better health – in one study 7½ years longer than those who felt negative


If you enjoyed this article, please share it with family and friends. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter for daily headline health tweets.

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Youtube

CTA Register NewsletterAnd register now for a free regular e-newsletter on the latest in nutrition and health research.

Dr Paul Clayton designed NutriShield as a comprehensive healthbutton-2 supplement with OPTIMUM levels of essential nutrients. See more detail elsewhere on this site or click on the button.

Dr Paul Clayton’s best-selling book Health Defence is available from bookstores. Or read a summary report here FREE simply by registering your email address.


See online here for delicious recipes from the Health Defence Cookbook incorporating healthy foods featuring in a Mediterranean Diet. Combined 3 courses strip


Argyle M. 1987. The Psychology of Happiness. London: Methuen

Baumeister R, Leary MR. 1995. The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychol. Bull. 117:497–529

Cowen EL. 1991. In pursuit of wellness. Am. Psychol. 46:404–8

Csikszentmihalyi M, Csikszentmihalyi IS. 1988. Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press

Deci EL, Ryan RM. 2000. The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychol. Inq. 11:227–68

Diener E, Diener M. 1995. Cross-cultural correlates of life satisfaction and self-esteem. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 68:653–63

Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E. The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin. November, 2005.

Ryff CD. 1995. Psychological well-being in adult life. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 4:99–104

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci. On happiness and human potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2001. 52:141–66

Steptoe A, Wardle J. Positive affect and biological function in everyday life. Neurobiology of Aging. December, 2005.




The healthiest fats and oils

Coconut oil? Olive oil? Avocado oil? Butter? What’s the healthiest?

Here’s the skinny on healthy fats. With such a range of oils and fats in the stores and conflicting advice – often from biased sources – choosing the healthiest is not easy.

Various fats and oils

The 3 main criteria for healthy oil or fat choice are:

  1. The ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids
  2. The level of saturated fat
  3. A high flash or smoking point, if the oil is for cooking

Most of us understand that unsaturated fat is good, saturated fat is bad and trans-fats are ugly. But it’s more complicated than that.

The Omega 3:Omega 6 ratio of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs)

The amount of Omega 3 in your diet compared with the amount of Omega 6 is important because Omega 3 oil is a powerful anti-inflammatory. This therefore decreases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, arthritis and even dementia, because inflammation in the brain has a role in Alzheimer’s.

The most important Omega 3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), with DHA playing a key role in maintaining good cognitive focus and memory.

In addition, the body uses fats in the diet to build cell membranes and a diet with a comparatively high Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio builds cell walls that are more flexible and therefore healthier.

In contrast, excess Omega 6 in the diet is pro-inflammatory. The emphasis here is on excess, because Omega 6 oils are still needed for skin, bone and hair growth and reproductive health.

The problem arises when the ratio of Omega 6 to 3 becomes excessive.

Omega 6 intakes have become excessive as most of the Omega 6 oils are cheap and used extensively in fast foods and ready meals. They include sunflower, soya, corn and peanut oils.

A report in the US National Library of Medicine confirmed that:

“Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio (typically 15:1 or higher), as is found in today’s Western diets, promotes … many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

In contrast, the report continues:

“A ratio of 4:1 (omega-6 to omega-3) was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.

“A ratio of 2.5:1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer and a decreased risk of breast cancer in women.

“A ratio of between 2:1 and 3:1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.”

So your ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 should be no more than 4:1 – ideally even lower.

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)

Monounsaturated fats – Omega 9 and Omega 7 – are also healthy.

Olive oil and avocado oil are the principal Omega 9 oils – these help lower cholesterol levels, boost the immune system and lower insulin resistance, which in turn lowers the risk of diabetes.

Saturated fats (SFAs)

Saturated fat in the diet does raise LDL cholesterol levels (the bad form of cholesterol) – and high LDL cholesterol raises heart and stroke risk. So it is wise to limit your intake of saturated fats.

Saturated fat from animal sources, such as butter and lard, mainly raises LDL cholesterol; some plant oils such as coconut oil contain a “healthier” saturated fat (lauric acid), which raises BOTH the bad LDL and the good HDL cholesterol.

And also more important – as always – is the big picture. 50% of people who die of a heart attack are found to have normal cholesterol levels.

Many of them, however, do have high levels of a special amino acid called homocysteine. The way to lower homocysteine levels is through a B vitamin rich diet including folic acid and betaine.

The importance of a high smoke or flash point for oils you fry with at high temperatures

If fat/oil is heated to the point that it begins to smoke, it starts to create toxins and harmful free radicals, which damage tissues in arteries and DNA – a potential trigger for cancer. So for high temperature cooking the best choices are oils that have a high flash point.

The healthiest fats/oils

Bearing in mind these three criteria: the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3, the level of saturated fat and the flash point, which are the healthiest oils?

The table below gives the answers.

Healthiest for salads

Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
% SFAs
Smoke or Flash Point
1:4 68% 18% 9% 107 C 225 F
Excellent for salads etc, but don’t cook with it
Extra virgin
13:1 11% 73% 14% 207 C 405 F
Macadamia 3:1 2% 80% 16% 200 C 390 F
Not cheap but versatile
Hempseed 3:1 75% 13% 10% 165 C 330 F
Walnut 5:1 63% 23% 9% 160 C 320 F

Healthiest for cooking

Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
% SFAs
Smoke or Flash Point
Extra virgin
13:1 11% 73% 14% 207 C 405 F
Choose best quality oil for higher flash point
or unrefined Canola
2:1 28% 63% 7% 177 C 350 F
Canola was developed from rapeseed in Canada in 1970.
Avocado 13:1 13% 71% 12% 271 C 520 F
Ideal for all cooking including to highest temperatures.
Rice bran 20:1 35% 39% 20% 254 C 490 F
Preferred for highest temperatures if no avocado.

Use in moderation

Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
% SFAs
Smoke or Flash Point
Coconut NO omega 3 2% 6% 82%
medium-chain triglycerides
177 C 350 F
May be less heart-risky than other saturated fats.
Butter NO omega 3 4% 26% 63% 177 C 350 F
Limit consumption.
(high oleic acid)
19:1 4% 84% 10% 160 C 320 F
But avoid standard sunflower oil (see below)
NO omega 3 32% 46% 17% 232 C 450 F
Sesame NO omega 3 42% 40% 14% 210 C 410 F


Fat/oil Omega
6 to 3
% SFAs
Smoke or Flash Point
Corn 46:1 55% 28% 13% 232 C 450 F
8:1 58% 23% 16%
and 0.5% trans
257 C 495 F
Safflower NO omega 3 75% 14% 6% 266 C 510 F
NO omega 3 66% 19% 10% 225 C 437 F
Cottonseed NO omega 3 52% 18% 26% 216 C 420 F
Grapeseed NO omega 3 70% 16% 10% 216 C 420 F
Palm NO omega 3 9% 37% 49%
“bad” long-chain triglycerides
232 C 450 F
Also environmentally damaging farming
Lard NO omega 3 11% 45% 39% 190 C 374 F

Our conclusions

Extra virgin olive oil is the choice for salad oil and for all except really high-temperature cooking. Get the highest quality you can afford.

For example, cooking tomatoes in olive oil releases more of the lycopene, and lycopene is linked to both prostate health and lower breast cancer risk. It’s the foundation oil of the Mediterranean Diet.

Flaxseed and hempseed oils are excellent alternatives to olive oil for salads.

The ideal oil for high-temperature cooking is avocado oil – excellent for searing meats.

Rapeseed/canola oil is medium priced and a good general choice. But avoid canola which is high-temperature-modified.

What about coconut oil?

Coconut and coconut oilCoconut oil has got a lot of media attention lately, but it’s 90% saturated fat and, along with palm oil and butter fats, it does raise LDL cholesterol levels. Indeed gram for gram coconut oil has more saturated fat than butter, which is a reason that the American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended against coconut oil.

So how has coconut oil gained its healthy image? Initially it was pointed out that the Polynesian diet featured coconut oil and Polynesians have low heart disease rates.

True – but as always in nutrition you have to look at the big picture. Polynesians also eat a lot of fish – with heart healthy Omega 3; they eat fibre-rich and anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables at most meals and are physically active.

That said, some coconut oil – especially for high temperature cooking – is not going to have a negative impact on your health. Indeed, some 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid – a so-called medium-chain triglyceride, which has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties and which can counteract the yeast Candida albicans.

Inflammation is more worrying than cholesterol

Moreover, cholesterol is not the clear cut baddie that the press makes out.

Our bodies make cholesterol internally in the liver, because it is present and needed in every cell membrane. It’s essential for the integrity of cells and for normal body function. Indeed it makes up 25% of your brain cell membranes and nerve cells.

By far the most significant driver of heart disease is not so much cholesterol as long-term, ie. chronic inflammation and excess oxidation – free radical damage to arteries and tissues. It is these that are the key underlying risk factors in heart disease, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers.

The way to counteract these two key threats is via a Mediterranean type diet – a high proportion of fruits and vegetables, oily fish and olive oil.

Even so, as you get older and nutrient demands increase, I believe you should add  a comprehensive supplement featuring anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant nutrients.

Choose fats and oils carefully – and add supplements

Olive oilUse extra-virgin olive oil as your baseline go-to oil, switching to avocado if you’re doing really high-temperature cooking.

By eating oily fish at least twice a week, taking a daily Omega 3 supplement, not consuming high levels of Omega 6s through other fats and oils, and adding, for instance, flax seeds to cereals, you can push your Omega 3-6 balance over to the Omega 3 side.

And if you like the taste of butter or other nut oils, including coconut, try to choose organic and sustainably farmed brands, and continue to enjoy them in moderation.


If you enjoyed this article, please share it with family and friends. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter for daily headline health tweets.

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Youtube

CTA Register NewsletterAnd register now for a free regular e-newsletter on the latest in nutrition and health research.

Dr Paul Clayton designed NutriShield as a comprehensive healthbutton-2 supplement with OPTIMUM levels of essential nutrients. See more detail elsewhere on this site or click on the button.

Dr Paul Clayton’s best-selling book Health Defence is available from bookstores. Or read a summary report here FREE simply by registering your email address.


See online here for delicious recipes from the Health Defence Cookbook incorporating healthy foods featuring in a Mediterranean Diet. Combined 3 courses strip


Coronary heart disease: seven dietary factors. DAT Southgate. The Lancet 1991

Effects of coconut oil, butter, and safflower oil on lipids and lipoproteins in persons with moderately elevated cholesterol levels. C Cox, J Mann, W Sutherland, A Chisholm and M Skeaff. Journal of Lipid Research 2017

Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials; Ronald P Mensink, Peter L Zock, Arnold DM Kester and Martijn B Katan; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 2003

The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Simopoulos AP. Biomed Pharmacother 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79.