There was a class in college that everyone wanted to take called “The Science of Happiness,” and I always regretted not signing up for it. It's truly my one big regret from college.
Thankfully, Yale has given me a chance to redeem myself. After the internet blew up over the fact that Yale students were flocking to a course on happiness, the school decided to make it free to the public on Coursera. I jumped at the chance to hear what the latest science has to say about how to live a better, more fulfilling life.
One of the first things I learned in the class: positive psychology is a legitimate scientific field! Social scientists are conducting sophisticated experiments (controlled, randomized, replicated, etc.) every day to reveal the human experiences that contribute to well-being.
I wont wade into the details here, but know that this post is backed entirely by the scientific findings revealed in this course. If you have any interest in sources, please don't hesitate to reach out -- I'd be more than happy to provide.
Now, to the fun stuff! What I learned in “The Science of Happiness,” and how you can benefit from it:
Your brain is a miswanting hooligan
Here’s the big LOL in terms of your brain and happiness: We believe so firmly in the things that we want, or more aptly, the things the brain wants. We believe, without a doubt, that once we get these things, we will finally be happy. You’re probably very familiar with some (or all) of these things the brain typically wants:
Lots of money
I’m certainly guilty of wanting it all. But the crazy (and sad) thing is, the things the brain thinks it wants are usually not the things that end up making us happy. At least, not in any sort of lasting way.
It’s first helpful to understand why this is. There are all of these ways that the brain tricks you into thinking you want or need something. Professor Laurie Santos breaks it down into what she calls the “annoying features of the mind:”
1. Your strongest intuitions are often wrong
This one is perhaps the most baffling to me, because I consider myself to have a higher-than-average amount of self-awareness. It’s something I actively cultivate. But this is an idea I’ve never even considered. What if the things my brain wants are not the things that it needs?
Try a quick exercise on yourself: What wants and desires occupy your thoughts most? How many of your actions and decisions are guided by those desires?
I can honestly say that a lot of my actions are dictated by the desire to achieve a body closer to the beautiful women on social media and fashion blogs. I’ve certainly been seduced by the siren song of social status and “achieving” more of it through buying cool stuff or going on sweet vacations.
The Takeaway: This class taught me that getting the perfect body, landing the perfect job, and/or having a bunch of people jealous of your life will not make you happy.
To myself, I say: The first step to recovery is knowing you have a problem :)
2. Your brain operates on reference points
This one is a little more intuitive, but so critical to remain aware of.
Our minds absolutely suck at picking relevant reference points. Like yes, it might make sense for you to compare your salary with someone in your exact position, in the same city, who has the same amount of experience and a similar skill set. It does not make sense to compare your salary to your friend working in a completely different profession. It makes even less sense to compare your salary to anyone you see on TV, “reality” or otherwise.
I’ll give you another, more personal, example. I went to college at a place many people have not-so-affectionately termed, “The University of Spoiled Children.” Truth be told, there were a lot of spoiled children running around. I was lucky to grow up in a lovely middle class family in a small town outside of a big city. Looking back on my college experience, it was surely psychologically detrimental for me to be surrounded by the children of millionaires and movie stars. I was surrounded by so much more wealth (and beauty, for that matter) than was appropriate to compare myself to. Even having this wherewithal now doesn't really stop my brain from feeling inadequate when re-confronted with such excess.
The Takeaway: Your brain absorbs the reference points it’s exposed to -- indiscriminately. So when you see models on Instagram or crazy rich people on TV, those become your reference points, no matter how ridiculous the comparison.
It’s worth noting that social media is the newest and most egregious perpetrator of this “annoying feature feature of the mind.” Various studies have found that the effect of social media in terms of social comparisons ranges from neutral to bad, but never positive. Definitely something to think about if you're a heavy user.
3. Your brain adapts quickly & consistently to pleasurable things
This is the part where you’ve finally gotten the thing you wanted. Finally, that promotion or those 10 pounds down. You’re glowing! ...for one week. After that, your brain sets its sights on the things that you still don’t have, or could have, and now want (even if you didn't before).
It’s called the hedonic treadmill. Once you get more money, true love, the perfect body….you just adapt to it. No boost in long-term happiness.
Perhaps the worst part is, we don’t realize this is happening. We lack the inherent self-awareness, and thus wonder why the things that used to make us so happy no longer have the same effect.
You can see a microcosm of this when you’re eating a really delicious meal or dessert. The first few bites are mind-blowing, phenomenal. But by the tenth, a small party isn’t popping off in your brain each time. Yet we keep eating, expecting to get the same jolt of pleasure as we did from the first bite. We end the meal wondering why, if the food was so delicious, we now just feel sick.
There is an upside to this; while the mind is highly obstinate to positive outcomes, it’s also highly resilient to negative ones. Remember that when you don’t get the job (or boyfriend) you’re angling for, or fail to lose those five pounds before your vacation. You won’t be sad for long.
The Takeaway: Contentment in the present moment is key, because looking forward to happiness in the future is an ever shifting goal post.
There are ways to make your brain chill
So what if you do actually find true love or change your lifestyle and suddenly look bangin' in a bikini? These are healthy things to take pleasure in (to a degree, as with everything). So is landing an awesome job or finally making enough money to go on annual vacations.
You want to hang on to the genuine happiness these events bring. So here’s what science has to say about how you can thwart hedonic adaptation and continue to reap the happiness rewards:
1. Savor the good things
The act of savoring is defined by Professor Santos as “the act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it.” I love this one because it goes hand in hand with mindful eating, something I’m passionate about. There’s a couple of ways you can better savor the good things in life:
Share the experience with another person
Talk to someone about it
Verbally or physically express your joy
Be fully present in the moment
Here's some important reminders on how not to savor an experience. You'll quicken hedonic adaptation if you think...
About what’s next
How it could be better
How it will never get any better than this
That you didn't deserve this
That it wasn’t as good as you’d hoped
The Takeaway: When experiencing a good thing, try to be in the present moment and avoid social comparisons.
2. Spend your money on experiences
You’ve probably heard this one a million times. What you didn't know is that there is an abundance of research to back it up.
Experiences make us happier than things and for a longer amount of time. One study that I found super interesting cited that people actually find you more likable when you’re talking about your experiences versus your things.
I’ve definitely had this happen to me; I easily bond with folks over places I’ve traveled to or even just things I got up to over the weekend. But as soon as I start talking about the pair of shoes I just bought, I see people’s eyes glaze over. The findings are simple; people find you really superficial when you talk about your things, and that leads to a negative character judgement.
The Takeaway: You can avoid being perceived as vain and boost your long term happiness by simply spending your money on experiences.
3. Practice gratitude
This one’s the easiest! There’s nothing more simple and available to you today, right now, than grabbing a piece of paper and starting to practice “Three Good Things.” All you have to do is write down three things that went well today and why they went well.
To reinforce this habit on a daily basis, I recommend treating yourself to a special journal that is explicitly reserved for reflecting on all that went well in your day. I get absolutely giddy when I get to pick out a new journal -- I pick something that oozes “me,” something I know will make me happy every time I pull it out of the drawer. For an example of a regular gratitude practice, check out my first Thankful Journal on Blue Sky Mind.
The Takeaway: Gratitude is one of the cheapest and easiest habits you can introduce to boost your everyday well-being.
4. Try some negative visualization
Employing negativity to increase well-being is something I'd never heard of, but the technique of negative visualization is another backed by science.
All you have to do here is think about what your life would be like if you’d never had certain parts of it: What if you’d never met your partner? What if they were suddenly gone? What if you’d never gotten your current job? Where would you be financially?
I find this useful when I'm headed to the gym for a workout I don't want to do. I think about what it would be like if I didn't have the option to go to the gym, like if I were paralyzed in an accident or bedridden with cancer. The simple act of reflecting on life without the option to do this hard thing makes me understand how lucky I am to get to do it at all.
The Takeaway: Thinking about the absence of positive elements in our life can help us feel a deeper appreciation for the fact that they are, in fact, still around.
Put “The Science of Happiness” to Use
To do a quick recap, the first few weeks of "The Science of Happiness" focused on why we're so naturally unhappy in our modern lives. This is due to miswanting nature of the brain, egged on by it's various annoying features.
Fortunately, we found out that there are strategies to overcome some of these annoying features, allowing us to reap the full happiness benefit of our blessing (even if they've come from a place of miswanting).
If you've made it this far in the post, my challenge to you is this:
Take note of your miswanting in a given day. Take note of your reference points and of the good things you take for granted in lieu of wanting more or better.
Perhaps start trying to incorporate more savoring, experiences, gratitude, and negative visualization into your week. Where are the moments in your schedule that these naturally fit?
For me, I try to savor every yummy meal and sunny day, with a little smile (even when no one is around) and a thank you to the universe. I practice gratitude every night before I drift off to sleep. I think about experiences when birthdays roll around and I’m looking for the perfect gift for someone. And I employ negative visualization when times are tough and I need a little boost of appreciation.
I’ll be launching Part 2 of this series in the coming weeks, which covers the science of things that actually make us happy. Don’t forget to subscribe to the blog, so you never miss a thing!