I was surprised to see that the second “Most Popular MOOC of All Time” teaches how to be happy. I thought it was impossible, but it turns out you can learn to be happier!
“The Science of Well-Being” is a 10-week course taught by Laurie Santos, cognitive scientist, and Professor of Psychology at Yale University. I strongly recommend it: Laurie Santos explains why we’re not as happy as we would like, and she gives actionable strategies to increase one’s happiness, all backed by scientific research. Here’s what I learned.
First, Sonja Lyubomirsky found the breakdown of factors that determine our happiness:
50% Genetic Setpoint,
10% Life Circumstances, and
40% Our Intentional Actions and Thoughts.
So even though our genes determine a large part of our happiness, we can increase it.
However, what we think makes us happy often doesn’t, or not as much as we think. For instance, Nobel Prize Laureates Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton proved in a 2010 article that “emotional well-being also rises with log income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000.” Said otherwise, after your yearly household—not personal—income reaches $75k, your happiness stays flat! I knew that money couldn’t buy happiness, but it’s better to have scientific evidence for it:
And yet, 71% of American freshmen answered that being “Very well off financially” was “very important in life” in the 2005 American Freshman Survey. They were 42% to answer similarly in 1967. On the other hand, in 1967, 86% answered that it was “very important” to “Develop a meaningful philosophy in life,” vs. only 52% today. A total inversion of values in 40 years!
Dozens of articles also prove that comparing ourselves to others makes us less happy. For instance, men declare they are less in love with their wives and find them less attractive after looking at models in magazines. We hate feeling ourselves lower so much that in a study, students preferred to be paid $50k if others got $25k than getting paid $100k if others got $250k!
That’s why social media and advertising can be bad. They push our drive to compare to each other. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, you see the best of other people's lives: they don't broadcast the boring part of their lives. So an easy and proven way to increase your happiness is to delete social media. I almost stopped using Twitter, and I do feel better.
Another easy way to be happier: don’t invest in things (house, car, jewelry…) but in experiences (holidays, restaurants, museums, outdoor activities…). Materialistic people are less happy, and it’s proven that your happiness goes back to normal a few weeks after you buy something because you get used to it. This is hedonic adaptation: our tendency “to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.”
Paradoxically, because experiences don’t stay, we don’t get used to them, so they have a long-term effect. If you have a great weekend getaway, thinking about it before and after feels pleasant. Experiences are also less susceptible to social comparisons and cooler to relate to others and discuss. In contrast, if you discuss your new Jaguar with others, they may be jealous and judgmental.
They are different techniques to thwart hedonic adaptation:
Savoring: The act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it. Deeply think about what made you happy, share it with others, think about how lucky you are.
Negative visualization: Imagine you would never have had or done this.
Gratitude: When we recognize and appreciate what we have received in life. Each night, write down 5 things for which you are grateful; research shows that it’ll make you happier and even healthier. Gratitude is extremely powerful; when you express gratitude to someone in person, it has positive effects even 3 months later!
A huge part of our life is our job. People often think that they’re happier during leisure than at work, but the opposite is true when measured. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this disconnect in our beliefs about work and leisure:
Contrary to what we usually believe […] the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
Leisure isn’t challenging, whereas we often find these challenges at work. When these challenges are intrinsically rewarding, we enter a state of great happiness called flow.
Research shows that if you use your top “Character Strengths” every day at work, you’re happier, and you call your job a calling. This free test finds your top strengths. If you try to use your top strengths in new ways, this will also make you happier at work!
Social connections are another vital source of happiness that has unfortunately been negatively affected by Covid, lockdowns, and “social distancing.” The effect of “feeling alone” on happiness is 7 times bigger than the effect of having your salary multiplied by 4! Research shows that happy people spend more time with others and have a richer set of social connections. Even talking to a stranger on the street can boost our mood. Meaningful social connections are even more powerful. Acts of kindness to others also make us happier. That’s why Laurie Santos asks students to talk to strangers and do random kind acts every day. For instance, when we have a bad day, we want to be alone at home, but the best way to feel happier is by talking to others and spending money on them!
But the most impressive way to be happier is to control our minds. When the focus of your attention temporarily shifts from what you are doing, you are “mind wandering.” This default mode of our brain is also called auto-pilot. The problem is: when we mind-wander, we tend to think more about unhappy things, so mind-wandering makes us less happy. Unfortunately, we do it almost all the time. Actually, sex is one of the only activities when we do not mind-wander, and that’s partly why it makes us happy.
The solution? Meditation! It turns us away from mind-wandering toward a single point of focus such as breath. Regular meditation practice can curve mind-wandering even after meditation. Studies also show that 30 minutes of daily meditation increase the size of your gray matter after 8 weeks and improve your score in cognitive tests.
In addition to meditation, physical activity and sleep also make you healthier and happier.
Using the tests suggested in the MOOC, I measured my happiness before and after the course: I’m about 5% happier now than I was a few weeks ago :) I also learned a ton of useful things about myself and others. I would love to know your methods to be happier. Do you know other ways to boost your mood?