The Science of Happiness
Seven months ago I hit the reset button on my life: I quit my job and my flat and started living a nomad lifestyle. I wrote a lengthy blog post about my thought process and how I was just gonna focus on doing whatever makes me happy. But wait, what is it actually that makes people happy? I was already onto the idea that happiness doesn’t come from acquiring money or status or things and that we just get used to any new circumstances. That said, when it came to explaining what actually makes people happy, my post was pretty hand-wavy, along the lines of “happiness comes from within”… Luckily, I’ve had a lot of free time in the last half year to research and think more about it! :)
No, I didn’t go on a month-long meditation retreat in India to “find myself” and I also didn’t go to the library to read the thoughts of ancient philosophers. I’m a strong believer in the scientific method and always looking for evidence while trying to stay open to changing my mind, so one day I just put “science of happiness” into Google. Turns out there has been a lot of research on happiness in positive psychology, a new branch of psychology that only emerged in the last decades (I guess everything before that was “negative psychology”, i.e. making unhappy people not unhappy, rather than happy…). When I saw that UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center is even offering a course on the science of happiness I signed up without hesitation.
In this post I want to summarize what I learned about happiness from the course and various other resources. Of course, plenty has been written on the subject already, including by people who know a lot more about it than me. I actually started writing down everything I learned just as a reflection exercise for myself, but figured why not make it into a blog post in case anybody else finds it interesting!
First things first, how do we define happiness such that we can actually measure it and conduct meaningful scientific experiments? Most commonly positive psychology uses happiness to mean a subjective measure of life satisfaction. Think along the lines of “how satisfied are you with your life on a scale from 1 to 10”, even though most studies use a more complex model. You might object that this isn’t a very objective measure, but arguably what makes people happy varies from person to person and any attempt at creating an objective measure would fail to capture that. If you are still not convinced that this measure is worth optimizing for, be advised that it is correlated with various health benefits including living longer, having lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system and many more.
Note that this definition of happiness is different from feeling happy as much as possible. While frequently feeling positive is strongly correlated with life satisfaction, the brain just isn’t made for feeling positive emotions all the time. In fact, studies suggest that people who regularly feel a wide range of emotions, including “negative” emotions, actually report a higher life satisfaction than people who only feel positive emotions.
Why most people are wrong about what will make them happy
If you grow up with Western media and advertising, you can’t be blamed for thinking that the key to happiness is making lots of money, being successful, famous, beautiful, and having kids with a partner who also ticks these boxes. However, these are all external circumstances, and there’s a lot of scientific evidence that any changes in our circumstances only influence our happiness levels temporarily because we quickly adapt to them (an effect called Hedonic adaption). Many studies (like this one) have tracked the effect of major life events on an individual’s happiness over time, including marriage, promotions, childbirth, money gains (e.g. lottery wins) as well as negative ones like death of a loved one, getting fired, or suffering serious injury or disability. For all of them, the average self-reported happiness saw a spike (or drop) for a few months or a year, but then went back to the pre-event happiness level. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth pursuing these changes, but it does suggest that you’re probably wrong if you think you need any of those things to be happy.
Another way to study this is to take a long list of circumstances (e.g. income, health, nationality, whether you’ve experienced childhood trauma…) and look at how much these correlate with people’s happiness level. A frequently cited meta-analysis estimates that only 8–15% of the difference between people’s happiness can be predicted by their circumstances. So how else do we explain that some people are happier than others, if not through differences in their circumstances? The same analysis estimates that around 50% actually comes down to genes (yes, easy to tell by the round numbers that psychology is not an exact science and has large confidence intervals…). This number is derived from studies that tracked the happiness of twins over decades and showed a strong correlation in the happiness levels of identical twins, whereas there was a much smaller correlation between non-identical twins. While this implies that some people are just naturally happier than others, it still leaves a large part of the variance unaccounted for. This leaves room (or hope?) for the possibility that we can influence our happiness without changing our circumstances or genes, which is what I’ll be focussing on in the rest of this article.
Why happiness is a skill you can train
Take a moment to pause and think about how satisfied you are with your life. Where would you put yourself on a scale from 1 to 10?
If you actually took a moment to reflect, this question probably triggered a lot of associations in your brain. If most of the things that came to mind were things that you judge as positive (maybe you’re very satisfied with your social life and your career), chances are you rated yourself higher than if most of the things that came to mind were things that you judge as negative (maybe you’re dissatisfied with your social life or your physical or mental health and that came to mind?). I’m massively simplifying here, but these associations more or less come down to which neurons fired in your brain when you asked yourself that question. Were it the neurons that make you think how great your family is and cause oxytocin to be released, or were it the neurons that make you think how you’re not good enough and cause anxiety?
Luckily, neuroscience has found that the brain constantly reorganizes and builds new connections between neurons, even in adulthood. This is called neuroplasticity and suggests that we can have some influence on how our brain is wired. For example, if we manage to activate two regions at the same time, the connections between them will grow slightly stronger. I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy to do or that we can do anything if we just believe in it or that we can modify our brain the same way we can modify Sims. To the contrary, changing mental habits is usually a very slow process and there are lots and lots of limits that our biology imposes on us. All I’m trying to explain here is why training our mind could possibly influence our happiness even in the slightest way.
So let’s get more practical and talk about the activities that science has found to actually have a positive influence on our happiness. Of course, it would be nice if the instructions for a happy life could be summarized on a fortune cookie or a tattoo, but probably happiness is a bit more complex and multifaceted than that. Instead, I compiled a bunch of “happiness tips” that I believe have a good amount of evidence to support them, without any claim that this is a complete list. I tried to roughly group them into three categories: how to relate to your own thoughts and emotions, how to relate to people, and how to relate to life in general.
Tips for Happiness: How to relate to your thoughts and emotions
Tip #1: Practice self-awareness
We all have habits and behaviors that are unhelpful and can get in the way of happiness. If you want to change them, clearly you can’t do that without first becoming aware of them. The vast majority of our behaviors and decisions are done out of habit, without our mind consciously thinking about them. However, every time we do become aware of something we just did or thought, it gives us an opportunity to choose a different way to act or think, thus reinforcing a different pathway in the brain.
We do need to be careful though not to make things worse by using our newly won awareness to judge ourselves harshly every time we notice a “bad” behavior. If we do that, we’re not actually replacing the unhelpful habit with a more helpful one, but rather we’re adding another layer of unhelpful negative emotions such as guilt on top of the behavior we’d like to change. Instead, we want to practice non-judgemental awareness that we can use to gently nudge our mind in a more helpful direction.
There are plenty of ways to practice your self-awareness, such as journaling or talking therapy, but the one with most evidence for increasing well-being is probably mindfulness. While mindfulness is actually about bringing your attention to the present moment rather than to your thoughts, this does require you to become aware when your mind wanders (which it inevitably will, because that’s what minds do). The most common (but not the only) way to practice mindfulness is through mindfulness meditation, which has decades of research showing various mental and physical health benefits, including stress-reduction and even pain reduction. Of course, mindfulness has its limits and in the example of pain it can’t magically make physical pain go away. It can however help to reduce the pain you experience by reducing the additional layer of worrying and negative emotions we add on top of what’s actually happening.
If this sounds like woo-woo to you, then I’d have to acknowledge that there’s a lot of pseudoscience in this space and that you should do your own research rather than listen to some random guy on medium. It’s very easy to cherry pick studies that prove whatever you want to believe while ignoring those that provide evidence against it (I’m sure I fell for that somewhere in this article myself, so do let me know if you think that’s the case!). On the other hand, it’s also impossible to read all the studies yourself (or even conduct them), so at the end of the day you need to decide which sources you think are trying to figure out the truth and which sources don’t. By the way, I’m not even saying that things like Reiki can’t work for you. In fact, the more I research the science of happiness, the more I can see why many elements of spiritual or religious practices can be beneficial for people. It’s just that concepts like “vital energy” or God can’t be proven wrong and are therefore not scientific, because proving theories as wrong and then coming up with better theories is what science is all about. Of course, things that don’t have scientific evidence can still be true, they just don’t belong in a post on the sciene of happiness.
Tip #2: Accept all of your emotions
Our emotions obviously play an integral part in our happiness. However, happiness in the sense of life satisfaction is not at all about feeling great all the time. In fact, I believe that the desire and societal pressure to feel happy all the time is actually one of the biggest causes of unhappiness. Negative emotions like sadness, guilt and anxiety are an integral part of the human experience. If you try to sweep any negative feelings under the rug, so that you can tell yourself that everything is awesome, then you’re just setting yourself up for even bigger problems down the line. You’ll no longer just feel guilty or anxious about something, but now you’ll also feel guilty for feeling guilty and anxious about feeling anxious, because you think you’re supposed to be happy and something is wrong with you. Numbing yourself to your negative emotions is likely to also numb some of your positive emotions, which is clearly not beneficial for happiness.
Instead of fighting your emotions, I want to suggest that we should accept them for what they are: psychological states influenced by neurophysiological changes that are mostly outside of our control. Instead of trying to manage our emotions, we should try to manage our reaction to our emotions. There is evidence that experiencing a wide range of emotions (“emodiversity”) is actually more important for mental and physical health than just feeling “positive” emotions as much as possible and as few “negative” emotions as possible.
Accepting your emotions is also crucial for emotional resilience, i.e. how quickly you will be able to recover from a crisis, which itself is linked to happiness. It is certainly something you can practice, e.g. if you regularly think about sad events or even death, you can become more comfortable with those feelings, which can help you to accept your emotions and bounce back more quickly when the inevitable happens.
Of course, before you can accept your feelings, you first need to be aware of them. Naming and talking about my feelings is certainly not something I learned as a kid and the unspoken social rules of toxic masculinity made sure it wasn’t something I was interested in learning until a few years ago either. That said, I don’t think it’s something that requires a lot of talent, everyone can practice naming their feelings and with that build up self awareness over time.
Tip #3: Don’t be governed by your emotions
While it’s important to accept your emotions rather than to ignore or fight them, that doesn’t mean you should always do what your emotions tell you to do. In fact, happiness won’t come from only following your emotions, because evolution has not primed us for happiness. For the most part of human history, if someone was born with chronic contentment and just spent their life meditating under a tree, they would have either starved to death or been attacked or at least they would have not reproduced and spread their genes. In fact, evolution probably primed us to have a negativity bias and be anxious about all kinds of things, because there were actually a lot of real threats. However, if all the basic needs like food, shelter, safety and WiFi are abundant in your life, then this bias might no longer be helpful and will cause you to worry about things that aren’t actually worth worrying about.
With this in mind, we sometimes need to act against what our emotions tell us to do. By doing so, we can reinforce different paths in the brain that might even lead to a different emotional reaction in the future. For example, we can choose to tackle our fears and expand our comfort zone by getting into situations where we are confronted with that fear. Every positive experience is likely to reduce the fear we associate with that type of activity in the future.
That said, more often than not our emotions have something valuable to tell us that we should listen to. While always doing what our emotions tell us to do is unwise, so is always overruling them and constantly trying to push ourselves beyond our limits (especially if we judge ourselves for the way we feel, as described above). Finding the right balance for ourselves seems to be one of the key skills for happiness that we can only train over time.
Tip #4: Accept your thoughts, but don’t be governed by them
Pretty much everything I said above about emotions also applies to your thoughts. Most of our thought patterns were burned into our brain a long time ago and are subconscious. We can’t really control the first thing that comes to mind when we experience something, the same way we can’t control our emotions. However, we can change our “second thoughts”, i.e. how we relate to our thoughts and emotions. We often judge ourselves for our thought patterns or habits, but that does nothing to change them, it just adds a feeling of guilt on top. However, if we accept ourselves the way we are, then we can shift the focus from beating ourselves up towards constructive action.
To give an example from my own life, I regularly beat myself up for being “lazy”. When I spend hours on social media or playing games instead of working on this blog post, I often feel guilty about that. Beating yourself up for that is obviously not helping you to be happier, and it’ll usually also not help you to be more productive… It helps me to remind myself that this guilt is rooted in the societal belief that your value as a human is somehow linked to your accomplishments and productivity. Essentially, it’s a subconscious fear that people will love me less because I’m not producing as many amazing things as I could. Of course, on a rational level I don’t subscribe to that at all and I don’t think that people around me really care that much about how I spend my time. As an optimistic nihilist, I don’t see a reason why your self-worth should be derived by your accomplishments rather than just by being. Therefore, I try to let myself enjoy the time I want to spend on social media or playing games or whatever I want to do at the moment.
Of course, sometimes these things aren’t actually what you authentically want to do, but rather a way to procrastinate and get instant gratification. The thing is that social media & Co. are so optimized for capturing your attention and giving you a constant dose of dopamine that you really can’t blame yourself for falling for that. Modern life is a constant battle for your attention that you can’t always win. Furthermore, if you’re procrastinating, there’s usually a reason behind that other than you’re just a “lazy person”. A common one is being overwhelmed, e.g. every time I want to start working on this post, it seems like an incredibly hard and large task (obviously setting myself very high standards doesn’t help), yet it’s very enjoyable once I get started. Another common reason for procrastination is fear of failure, e.g. consciously or subconsciously I’m worried about writing something wrong or useless here and having people think less of me because of that. Again, once you become aware of those thought patterns, you can focus your attention on something more helpful, e.g. if just one person becomes slightly happier by reading this, it was worth my effort, and if I made a mistake then I will learn something from it. I could probably write a whole article on procrastination, but I hope you can see that this is just one example of unhelpful thought patterns where accepting your thoughts and trying to reframe them in a more positive way is actually more helpful than trying to fight them and being self-critical.
Sometimes we judge our thoughts and biases so harshly that we even deny their existence. For example, through personal experience and media everyone has biases towards groups of people that are based on attributes like skin color. However, we have learned that racists are terrible people, and to acknowledge that we treat people differently based on their skin color, even if just subconsciously, would be a threat to our worthiness as a human. Unfortunately, if we don’t accept those biases, we can also not change them or investigate our own role in systemic racism because we are focussed on defending ourselves instead. This is another example that hopefully shows that we shouldn’t let our thoughts and emotions define us. We are more than our thoughts and emotions and we shouldn’t derive our self-worth from the way we think or feel.
What I’ve described here is a core part of self-compassion. There is growing evidence that self-compassion can be learned and that practicing it contributes to happiness. I’m going to talk more about self-compassion later on after we’ve explored what compassion is exactly and how being compassionate with other people contributes to happiness.
Tip #5: Try to be present
I already talked about the benefits of mindfulness when it comes to self-awareness, but there is evidence that practicing to “live in the present” and focus your attention on whatever activity you are doing is also beneficial by itself. This app pings people at random times to ask what they are doing and how happy they feel. People consistently report feeling better when they are focused on whatever they are doing in the moment, rather than when their mind wanders and thinks about the past or present.
If you paid close attention, you might object that this is about feeling happy, rather than about happiness as we defined it above (life satisfaction). It’s certainly worth reiterating that the goal isn’t to feel happy all the time, so I’m also not suggesting to never think about the past or future, but there is still a correlation between how you feel moment-to-moment and your life satisfaction. To me this is just further evidence that our minds like to wander and find things to worry about. Becoming aware of instances where that is not actually helpful and gently bringing our attention back into the present can help us to be happier. That said, the results showed that even mind wandering about pleasant things felt worse than being present with activities like household chores, so there’s more going on here than just unnecessary worrying.
A closely related concept is flow, a mental state where you are fully engaged in what you are doing (“being in the zone”). Research links regularly experiencing flow to higher well-being including happiness, although there still seem to be some open questions about why that is exactly. It might be a more indirect effect, e.g. regularly working on something that you find engaging might give you a higher sense of meaning (something I’ll also talk more about later). As always though, flow and being in the present is not something that’s achieved by force. If you beat yourself up for not being engaged in writing that report you don’t actually enjoy writing, then that’s not going to make you happier.
To Be Continued…
Alright, I’ve realized there’s way too much I have to say about happiness for a single blog post… If you enjoyed reading this far, please like, share, and subscribe on medium or to my mailing list. The more encouragement I get the more likely I’m to make this a series of posts and write about the benefits of other things like compassion, gratefulness and optimism that science has found to contribute to happiness. Maybe I’ll even write about how chasing happiness directly is detrimental to happiness :)
I’ve also started doing a life coaching course and have been coaching a few people using everything I’ve learned about the science of happiness and from my own personal growth journey. So if you’re interested in getting a free happiness coaching session, or in just having an informal chat about anything I wrote here, don’t hesitate to reach out!
Last but not least, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the science of happiness quite yet, so more likely than not I got something wrong here. If you think that’s the case, please comment below or eMail me. Being wrong is an essential part of the scientific method and I’d love to learn from other points of view!