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The Science of Well-Being

My learnings from Yale's course of the same title. An insight into how happiness is misunderstood along with strategies on how to live a more balanced life.

Being happy is something that I obsessed about in my 20’s. For a long time, I thought it was a destination. I asked people a lot of questions about what they did for a living, where they’ve traveled and who they aspired to be. All in hopes of learning more about myself. 

I asked my uncle once for advice about how he lives his life, and he said “I’m just content”. 

There are only two people that have mentioned the word ‘content’ to me in my life. And apart from my uncle, the other was a manager, now friend, who remains the most positive person I know. 

So why does this word escape many of us? What is it that these two people figured out that some of us might have missed?

There is a science to happiness that we all likely know but find tough to apply. And in some cases, it actually defies our logic all together. Since I am curious about this topic, I enrolled in a free course online called ‘The Science of Well-Being’. It is offered through Coursera and it is Yale’s most enrolled course (1.15 Million people to date), showing how relevant the topic is to many adults. This article is a summary of what I’ve learned from this course. Better yet, this article is what I think the word ‘content’ really means.

Many of the items discussed below were results of research studies done as presented by Dr. Laurie Santos throughout the course. I highly suggest taking this course to help you better understand the conditions of the experiments. Similarly, with everything that’s going on globally with COVID-19, this course can bring clarity into how to stay healthy both mentally and emotionally during uncertain times. 

Misconceptions

When we graduate from university, it is likely that the first thing we aim to have is a good job (this was my goal). But a good job, and therefore wealth, has a limit in providing you happiness. Studies have shown that once basic life needs are met, salaries greater than $75K, will not add to a person’s overall well-being. Most people look for a high salary when looking for a job, but what people think they want in terms of compensation is continuously more (if you’re making $100K, you’ll want $250K). In other words, your instinct is to always raise the ceiling of your financial wants. We think we’ll be happy when we make more money, but this is due to a priority shift: society cares more about being wealthy than living a meaningful life.

Apart from wealth, there are other misconceptions. Owning “stuff”, for example, does not help. Infact, materialists were often less happy and had more mental disorders. For those of us eager to get married to solve our unhappiness, this is also not the answer. True love or getting married makes you happier in the first 2 years, but after that, the level of happiness of those married is equal to those unmarried. The same goes for people on diet plans or those that have cosmetic surgery. You think you’ll be happy, but you won’t. In fact most of the goals we think will make us happy, don’t. 

(I know this seems grim right now, but stay with me, it gets better.)

When people were asked why everyone generally, wasn’t happier, these were their responses:

1) Genetics, i.e. because people are genetically set to their happiness levels 

2) External factors: i.e. because of life’s circumstances (life is hard and bad things happen)

It turns out that this is actually wrong! Both genes and circumstances don’t matter as much as we think!

So what does control our happiness? Here is the breakdown as per studies:

  • Genetics – 50%
  • External Factors – 10%
  • Actions/Thoughts/Habits/Behaviours – 40% 

It is important to pause here. Yes, people that were born into privilege are more likely to live happier and healthier lives. And yes, every person’s biological make-up is different and so some may be more predisposed to be happy. BUT a significant amount of your happiness is within your control; it’s either situational or depends on your mind. This means that our minds are infinitely more powerful than we realize, and the quality of our thoughts can elevate us to where we want to be.  

Key learning: Instead of working harder to be happy on what we think we want, we need to start by setting the right goals. 

Annoying Brain Features

It turns out that our brain does mislead us at times. The course discusses the act of ‘miswanting’: “being mistaken about, what and how much, you will like something in the future”.

Not only is our mind’s intuition often wrong, but we also tend to think in relative terms (not absolute). For example: if you’re unemployed and then find a job, you’ll probably be happy. But it’s also possible that 6 months or 1 year in, that feeling of happiness will start to fade away. Why? Because we’re always comparing ourselves to others and to what we see on TV or social media. This impacts what we think we want, which then distracts from what we actually want. Social comparison is one of the main reasons that impacts how we like our salary or jobs. 

As an additional example, a silver medalist may be less happy because he didn’t get the Gold. But a bronze medalist may be elated for his achievement alone. In other words, what you think you could’ve gotten takes away from your happiness.  Studies have shown that for every $1 of income, a person’s required income (the amount they think they want) is $1.40. 

Another important feature is hedonic adaptation. It is basically the ability of your mind to get used to something, whether positive or negative, such that the emotional effects don’t work as well over time. For example, a few scoops of ice cream once a month will taste good, but if you have it every night, you may not enjoy it as much. Or a baby’s first words are always celebrated but when a 10 year old talks it’s considered normal. Why does this happen? When you get a good job, make money, or meet a partner, these things stick around and you get used to them. After a while you stop getting the happiness you expect and they reset your reference point (your new car, new shoes or new phone is not as exciting over time). 

The final point about annoying brain features is discussing ‘impact bias’. Not only do we not realize that our minds are built to adapt, but we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of a future event in 2 ways: intensity and duration. This means that if something bad happens, we tend to think it will impact us in a much greater way than it actually does. Infact, the impact bias for negative outcomes (i.e. being let go from your job), are much worse than the positive ones. Unfortunately, this bias does not get better with experience. Why? Two reasons:

1) Focalism: we focus only one aspect of the event (we lose sight of the surroundings — i.e. all the positive things that can happen)

2) Immune Neglect: we don’t think we’re as resilient as we actually are; your body/mind is more adaptable than you realize 

And this is the part that hurts:

We don’t have how powerful we are and we’re mispredicting our own potential.

While coaching clients, self-doubt is a consistent topic of discussion. Most of the conversations I’ve had with people & clients are riddled with fear. We forget that a little fear keeps us careful, but too much can blind us. If you realize that about yourself, then take the time to think about everything you have accomplished. Think about how far you’ve come, and then please ask yourself — “Why can’t I do it again?”

Key learning: the mind is a powerful contributor to happiness when its misconceptions are factored in.

Phi Phi Islands, Thailand, 2011

Happy Strategies

So, what are some strategies you can adopt right now to be happier?

  1. Stop investing in “stuff”, you’ll get bored quickly
  • Invest in experiences instead: art galleries, online learning, conferences, travel, social events, etc. Even in today’s circumstances there are many experiences online (lectures, podcasts, documentaries, networking apps, etc). This will allow you to have more to tell people & you won’t be so focused on social comparisons.
  1. Thwart your adaption
  • Savour moments and little things (like meals & meditation). The old cliché of ‘live as if it’s your last day’ is actually good advice. It will allow you to be present and practice more gratitude of what you have, rather than focus on what you’re missing. Gratitude, on its own, is a powerful driving of happiness: it has long lasting effects and it’s a killer of envy. 
  1. Reset your reference point 
  • Take a second to re-experience your previous circumstances. Better yet, the grass is likely not greener on the other side. Take some time to see what it would be like elsewhere. Do your best to avoid social comparisons; delete social media for days at a time if it helps you reset. Don’t do everything you enjoy all at once (instead of binge watching on Netflix, try dividing up the episodes — you’ll actually enjoy them more).

The goal of the above is not to do everything at once. Find something that fits into how you live your life (or something that has stopped you from living well) and try it. If Instagram affects your mood, delete it for a few days and see how you feel. Instead of reading the same type of book, try a new genre. If you’re planning to buy an expensive dress, ask yourself what else that money can buy? Above all, always be thankful for what you have. 

Key learning: find ways to focus on the little things, it matters in a big way.

What You Should Want

There are things you can do daily regardless of your current circumstances that will help you achieve a higher level of happiness. If you take time to think about them, these things do actually make you happier, but it’s easy to disregard their significance. 

For starters, showing kindness to others is incredibly rewarding. Remember the ‘Friends’ episode where Joey says, “there’s no such thing as a selfless good deed?” Maybe that’s a good thing. Good deeds aren’t supposed to be self-less, they’re supposed to make you feel good so you can do more of them and make an impact in the world. People think they’re going to be happier if they spend on themselves but you’re actually happier if you spend/do more for others regardless of the scale.

In a recent post, I spoke about the importance of getting on phone calls during social isolation. Why? Because social connection can make you less vulnerable to premature death, more likely to survive fatal illness, and less likely to fall prey to stressful events. In addition, when you’re around people, you experience a richer life – events are generally much better. People generally underestimate how important connection is. The effect of being alone on happiness was 7 times bigger than a 4 fold increase in income (this is dramatically underestimated by people).

Spending your time with people that bring you joy or growth is incredibly helpful to your well-being. You will often hear that highly successful people guard their time carefully as it is the most important resource they own. People that prioritize time over money are generally happier but more people generally value money over time. Spending time with others is a form of showing kindness and helps you avoid worrying about everything you aren’t or the things you don’t have (like good grades, a partner or a high-paying job). 

Being present is a large contributing factor to happiness and this is attained with mind control. Our mind wanders 46.9% of the time (i.e. cooking dinner, to do lists, what people think of you, etc), which means we’re not focused on what we’re supposed to be focused on. You are less happy when you’re mind wandering about unpleasant or neutral things (even if you’re pleasantly mind wandering then that is as happy as if you’re not mind wandering at all, which shows the power of being present instead). Studies also showed that when people are exercising they are generally happier than when they’re talking or eating, but they are happiest when making love (you are most present).

This leads to the final point of what you should want: healthy habits. The benefits of exercise and good sleep cannot be overstated. Exercising 3 times a week for 30 minutes can give you a greater positive energy boost than something like the antidepressant Zoloft (even combining Zoloft with exercise doesn’t give as much of a boost). Good consistent sleeping habits of 7 to 8 hours per night can improve your mood, appearance, cognitive function, and emotions, among other benefits. 

Key learning: I can control all the things that I should want. 

How Happy Habits Stick

Even as I learned about these things, I realized a lot of it is easier said than done. To continue on the track of good clichés, remember that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. It takes time to improve our mindsets, but it’s really important to just start. Pick something to work on and do your best to turn it into a habit. Habits are an incredibly important part of my coaching program because it is how our subconscious mind operates (if you’re in a self-driving car, you’ll want to make sure it’s taking you to the right destination). 

So how can we put these ideas to practice by changing our habits?

Strategy 1

Focusing on situations that support you is critical. Having a bag of chips on your desk as you’re working, if your goal is to lose weight, is not helpful. Putting the bag of chips in a cupboard will actually make you eat less chips. In a study, it was shown that secretaries ate 48% more candies when the jar was their desk vs 2 metres away. This proves that proximity and visibility affects your food habits. The same goes for exercising. If you put your workout clothes on display in your room, you are more likely to get dressed and exercise. Similarly, if you put books in front of you, you are more likely to open them. 

Focus on:

  • Changing bad environments (phone free dinners, or lights off at a certain time so you can sleep better, etc.)
  • Promoting healthy environments (notebook ready for journaling, fresh fruits/vegetables on the counter, etc.)

Strategy 2

Although we get excited about our New Year’s goals, most of us end up breaking them. Goal setting is an incredibly powerful method for establishing healthy habits, but deciding on the goals is only the first step. It is also important to practice visualization and planning for these goals. You can follow the WOOP method, which stands for: Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan.

  • Wish: think about your goal with specifics (i.e. how many times you want to meditate)
  • Outcome: what is the best case scenario you want (i.e you meditate every night for a month)
  • Obstacles: what are the challenges you will face in trying to achieve this goal (i.e. demanding work schedule or social commitments) 
  • Plan: create an if/then plan to help keep you on track (i.e. if I have a social commitment in the evening, then I will meditate first thing in the morning) 

I hope the above summary was helpful.  This course, along with the studies & interviews conducted, provide a different outlook on our daily priorities. 
If there is only one thing I would like to leave you with, it’s that being happy is not a destination. You can choose to be happy everyday. Start with taking care of others and yourself, and don’t be afraid to make changes in how you lived so far. It will be uncomfortable, but it means you’re growing. We all have the potential to create change, and this is not limited nor diminished by the circumstances of today. So, think boldly about who you are & where you want to go.

New Zealand, 2016
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