The science of happiness

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During lockdown I wanted to keep my mind busy with learning. I need not have worried that I’d be bored since I still had a demanding full-time job, but gaps did start to open up where I would previously be out and about. In those new hours was a chance to explore personal interests. One of these was an online course on The Science of Well-being run at Yale University – available free and self-paced. It’s premise: understanding what makes us happy and how we can boost our happiness.

What we get wrong about happiness

The course debunks some of the ‘myths of happiness’ i.e. what we think will make us happy. That includes things like good grades at school, pay rises at work, falling in love and better material items (houses, cars, clothes). It’s not so much that these things aren’t worth aiming for, but studies show that we often over-estimate their impact on our happiness. For example, one study reported that people who get married experience a boost to happiness in the year afterwards, but then report similar happiness levels to the unmarried. Yet we are prone to comparison and thinking ”I’d be happier if I met someone and got married”, assuming the key to long-lasting happiness is just out of reach.

An important concept is hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill which is the way that humans return to a baseline happiness after experiencing a positive or negative life event. Think of the example of buying a new car. It is so shiny and clean at first. It has the ‘new’ smell’, protective covers on the seats, a sparkling windscreen and mirrors. But then imagine it a year later after many miles. Dust and dirt have collected, the bumper has a few scrapes from an unlucky car park manoeuvre and you now realise the speakers work less well than your old car. This applies to so much in life – perhaps we take things for granted, but a more forgiving explanation is this is just how our brains work. We adapt.

“Happiness is a mood state. Moods don’t last. It’s like a leaky tire that we have to keep inflating”.

Nicholas Epley, paraphrased from The Science of Well-being course

Boosting happiness

In reality no-one is happy all the time, but many of us would like to boost our happiness. The course describes things that are scientifically proven to do this and though not especially ground-breaking, they resonated. 

One is the idea of savouring. It could be as simple as having a piece of cake, cutting it in half and saving half for later. This reminds me of my childhood because I loved to look forward to things. I could picture a future treat so clearly in my head – a new copy of my favourite magazine, an ice-cold can of coke or listening to my favourite song. The actual experience was sometimes very fleeting, but I’m sure I got some kind of happiness in anticipation. I also count myself as good at savouring food. Friends who have seen me eat a pain au chocolat or fish and chips can attest!

Other factors that boost happiness:

  • A job or calling that uses your strengths
  • A growth mindset where you see failure as learning
  • Acts of kindness to others
  • Gratitude (actively recording things you appreciate)
  • Social connection (even just talking to strangers)
  • Time affluence (having enough time to spend doing things you like)
  • Meditation to control mind wandering
  • Exercise
  • Sleep

I’ve noticed many items here kept me going during lockdown. In particular connecting with students I’ve taught and seeing their successes, sending and receiving little gifts from friends and chatting to neighbours. These are little boosts. I could certainly improve my levels of meditation, exercise and sleep but it’s good to know these are accessible things available to any of us.

I’d really recommend the course and trying out a few of the techniques. We all need a boost!

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