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Searching for Happiness

I love cake. When I see it, I want it: I'm always sure it will make me happy when I eat it. Sadly, eating too much cake makes me feel ill. I know that, but it doesn't stop me doing it. I always think just one more bite will make me happy.

Have you ever made similar mistakes? Chasing after happiness so often ends in disappointment. But research is showing there are things we can do to make us thrive, finding contentment and long-lasting satisfaction. They're simple and effective and it's easy to feed them into daily life.

Stop a second, and think. Are you happy now, this moment? Are you sure?

It's so much easier to tell when we're not happy. Happiness itself is hard to pin down. Try searching for quotes on Google and you'll find page after page of ideas, all describing happiness differently.

There's just one constant theme; looking for happiness in material things is a waste of time. Shopping, food and making money feel good for a while, but they don't make us truly content.

At the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of scientists are taking a fresh look at the things that help people and society to blossom. Dr Martin Seligman, the Center's Director, and his colleagues have using tried and tested scientific approaches, and their work is paying off. They've managed to find qualities and values that make people feel better and, amazingly, even help them to live longer.

The virtues described by Seligman and his colleagues need work. Here are the Big Six virtues.

Wisdom: using skills and knowledge wisely

Courage: having the will to achieve despite difficulties

Humanity: appreciating and looking out for other people

Justice: behaving justly and strengthening the community

Temperance: doing a little of what you fancy but having some restraint and self control

Transcendence: understanding that the world is bigger than the individual.

The Greek philosophers knew a thing or two about this over two thousand years ago. Epicurus, Democritus and Aristotle all wrote of the importance of happiness, and linked well-being to 'virtues' that are strikingly similar to Seligman's.

These are things that we know, if we're honest, are good for us. The trouble is, we get tempted along the way by things that seem as though they'll make us happy but that let us down in the end. There's a constant battle going on between 'quick fix' happiness and the longer term, more real and lasting kind.

But there's no need to beat ourselves up about how far we fall short of the virtues. That won't make us happy either.

So, instead of trying to stop doing things, which we all know is almost impossible to keep up, let's look at adding the good things to our lives. By adding more and more activities that make us feel truly better in the long term, we can help ourselves to make better choices without pining for the things that don't last.

Here's an example. Appreciating beauty is a personal strength that helps us to feel a spiritual connection to the world. Seligman calls it 'transcendence'. So why not make sure that, every day, you enjoy something that pleases one of your senses.

It could be something you see, or hear, or touch, smell or taste. The important thing is to take a moment to appreciate its splendour.

If you love music, make time to listen to your favourite piece. Really listen, don't do something else at the same time, but let the good feeling wash over you.

Or if you love chocolate, sit down, eat a piece, making sure that you fully appreciate everything about it. Enjoy the feel of it in your mouth, the smell and the taste. Realise how much more pleasure you're getting from taking your time to appreciate it, than you get when you wolf a bar down so quickly you can hardly taste it.

Of course, it's easy to enjoy beautiful things. Sometimes, though, it's good to nourish a personal strength that may not feel so good at the time, but that has a long lasting positive effect on our feelings.

Courage is one of the Big Six virtues. One of the personal strengths of courage is perseverance. That's about carrying on with something even when you want to stop. So, next time you lose enthusiasm when you're cleaning the car, give yourself a small target to reach to keep yourself going. Give the wing mirror an extra polish, or clean out the glove compartment. Refuse to give up until it's done.

Then stand back and enjoy your well-earned success. Feel that burst of pleasure that means you've had the courage to finish the job and know that you've truly done yourself good.

For a daily idea to help increase your store of happiness, you can download a free iphone application, here at iHappiness There are enough ideas to keep you going for a year, and you'll soon think of plenty more.