Does 20th March spark any brain synapses? Not to worry, you’ve either forgotten (which is sadly more common than you think) or like myself, never even heard of the International Day of Happiness. Action lies at the heart of the day, to bring happiness to others. Online, a person is invited to take the pledge to build a happier world with options as open as a 24-hour smile, public laughing, yoga, or the use of guerilla hugs on unsuspecting citizens.

Happiness and its comrade ‘well-being’ are two terms that have progressed from a state of relative neglect in politics to become the buzzwords of civil servants and policy makers. Fingers crossed that they won’t be overused and abused, and will remain the birth right of every human being.

This paradigmatic shift was started officially in 2005 when the government of Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a replacement for the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an index that was falling short as a meaningful measure of their national quality of life. Bhutan’s embrace of this ‘New Economic Paradigm’ is proving to be more than a freak incident of David (the GNH) beating Goliath (the GDP). The entire 193 United Nations resolved to give ‘happiness’ greater priority as a central component of global sustainability, as well as its own day.

Gross global happiness, however, can only be achieved if all members of society have access to basic services and adequate livelihoods. The UK Government took steps towards adopting this new paradigm in its 2012 Integrated Household Survey (IHS), in which it questioned the everyday wellbeing of its citizens. Though the survey included people of all ages, a key population was not approached – care home residents. An aging population (the number of people aged 65+ will rise nearly 50% in the next 20 years), who are vulnerable to the Alzheimer’s epidemic will put care homes in higher demand. In order to provide an environment that contributes to happiness, the majority of care homes must undergo a culture change that focuses on quality of life and not only on quality of care.

“To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?” How would residents of care homes respond to this particular IHS question if they had the chance? It is no secret that our culture at large no longer respects elders who after the age of 65 have passed their ‘use-by-date’ – especially female professionals – and are considered a drain on taxpayers’ money. This is affecting the type of care that they receive. What trumps age and wisdom is a notion of success that is reliant on the mental flexibility and technological ability of youth to act fast, develop quick fixes and ensure economic profit for tomorrow. In an environment such as this, how can a generation from yesteryear compete? When old age is inevitable such a narrow definition of success infects the wellbeing of an entire society. A worthwhile life in a care home should fulfil basic material needs – a nutritious and varied diet, shelter, medicine (but not overzealous amounts) – as well as psychological needs such as a sense of security, social contact and meaningful activities, all of which are grounded in mutual respect between carers and residents.

In an aptly named manual, How to make your care home fun, the foreword declares, ‘It is through…activities that we find meaning in life and express who we are to the world.’

The National Alliance of Arts Health and Wellbeing established last year, similarly champions creative activity in its charter as an ’agent of wellness [to] help keep the individual resilient, aid recovery and foster a flourishing society.’ Not enough activities take place in care homes let alone meaningful ones. A widely known example of the healing use of culture is the discipline of Art Therapy, which was recognised in the mid 20th century for its combination of practical creative activity and developmental psychology. Today, it is frequently used across a whole spectrum of age groups and environments to anchor the mind and body in the present moment. Whether it is puppetry, collage or cooking, the mixture of work and play is key to unselfconscious identity forming action. The difference with cooking is that it does not require skill to be meaningful. It is holistically inclusive as we all need to eat and food is always tastier when shared.

Food is the strongest universal language, and it is available (or should be) to everyone. The taste of every ingredient is consciously or unconsciously bound to a memory and therefore carries special meaning for the individual. If you would like to get to know someone, start talking about food. Cooking is a perfect example of a meaningful activity in care homes as it is tactile, adaptable, varied and has edible end results. Like painting, it is inherently creative, with never-ending choices and combinations of colour, texture and taste. It also allows for non-verbal expression. This is particularly useful in care homes where they increasingly have to cater to people with dementia, a disorder projected to reach the million-mark in the UK alone by 2025.

For those able to verbally express themselves, or Reminisce (an activity using objects and pictures to stimulate the recollection of memories), food is a powerful trigger. Science has found that smells are recognised and stored from a very early age, making it a highly emotional and accessible trigger for people suffering from dementia who are more able to recall early-life memories. Activities with food can act as a time machine into the past or can ground a person in the present moment through a stimulation of the senses. Even residents who are physically unable to participate in the cooking activities can benefit from being engaged and included in such an evocative environment. Every meal shared is an opportunity to enhance a culture of happiness in a care home, every bite a chance for the individual to develop her or his sense of self and well-being.

“I dream of it in the night. I’m back in my kitchen, stirring something…on the stove. I miss all of it, everything. I was so happy,” says Peggy, a care home resident in Bristol. The ability of food to engage smell, touch, taste, sight and even sound means that it can combat apathy and enliven the spirit of a person. It provides much needed stimulation and can help build relationships through collaborative activity. A golden cake rising in the oven is a success valued as much as pay rises of the past might have been.

We need to recalibrate our ideas of success from the material to the temporal and take more time to be present. Being present in every action is the key to happiness, and slowing down allows us to be present. To be slow is to be wise, not unsuccessful. We all have the time, it is just a matter of using it in a way that promotes happiness, both for ourselves and for others.

‘When “I” is replaced by “we” illness becomes wellness.’ Meaningful relationships forged over engaging activities such as cooking underpin the UN’s slogan for 20th of March. If implemented, every day can be an International Day of Happiness.

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