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Your No Fluff, Research-Based Guide to Happiness From Yale

Research data show that things we think will make us happy, don’t.



None of them makes you any happier yet you expect it will. Seeking happiness that way is going in the wrong direction. But we can become happier if we work on the right stuff.


This is a summary of the Happiness Series I shared with my newsletter subscribers about what I’ve learned in Dr Laurie Santos’ Yale course The Science of Well-Being. I summarized pretty much all of the theory and practice outlined in the course. But I highly recommend taking the course yourself.


You will learn:


  • Why our intuitions about happiness are almost always wrong.
  • Whether happiness is genetically predetermined.
  • The things that truly make us happy.
  • Physical, physiological and emotional research-informed strategies you can start practising today to increase well-being.


I know it’s a long piece, but I had to summarize 6 weeks' worth of material and this is the shortest I could write. It’s comprehensive!


Without further ado, let’s start by understanding why we look for happiness in all the wrong places. 


Annoying features of the mind

So why do we get our predictions about happiness so wrong?


It’s due to something Dr. Santos calls annoying features of the mind. Our brains are built for survival, not happiness.


Annoying feature #1 - The mind’s strongest intuitions are often wrong.


The tables below are the same length yet they appear different.



It’s easy to see our biases in the context of the visual system. This is the way our mind works with all other things too, including happiness. A lot of the intuitions we’re getting are incorrect.


Annoying feature #2 Our minds don’t think in terms of absolutes.

We constantly judge things according to reference points rather than absolutes. A reference point is a salient (yet often irrelevant) standard against which all subsequent information is compared.


For example 👇



You know what I’m going to say, right? These circles are the same size yet when we have the relative points (grey circles around it) we can’t see in terms of absolutes (orange circles only).


The same happens to our happiness. Because we’re a social species, we end up comparing ourselves to the lives of others. The reference points we’re exposed to on TV and social media have us feeling like the orange circle on the left.


You’re unable to evaluate your life on its merit and end up feeling unhappy by comparing it with the impossible standard of life set by the few.


When was the last time you compared yourself to a child in Africa having to walk 5km one-way just to get drinking water? 


Consider that there are millions of people in the world right now who would consider their prayers answered if they had the life you lead.


Annoying feature #3 - Our minds are built to get used to stuff.

This concept is called the Hedonic Adaptation or Hedonic Treadmill.


No matter how many times you thought that the next desire would make you happy, you returned to a baseline level of happiness after a temporary high.


This adaptation serves a purpose, helping us maintain emotional balance, but it also means that chasing after happiness through material possessions or status often leads to temporary joy rather than long-lasting fulfilment.


Annoying feature #4 - Our mind doesn’t even realise it gets used to stuff.

In other words, we’re not consciously aware the mind has hedonic adaptation built-in. When you get a bigger salary and want a bigger one you’re not like ‘Hold on a moment, why do I want a bigger salary if I already have what I said I wanted?’


This continuous striving is called the impact bias. A cognitive bias people display when they overestimate the intensity and durability of affect when making predictions about their future emotional responses.


Let’s take the salary example. 6 months ago you dreamed of getting $50k but now it’s just your baseline — $100k looks like a salary that will finally get you there.


  • Our predictions about becoming happy when we get X are lower than we project they would be.
  • Our predictions about how unhappy we would be if things don’t go our way (e.g. break up) are lower than we think they would be.
  • We also think that the duration of feeling happy/unhappy will have a long-term impact but it’s shorter than we predict.


Essentially, no matter whether good or bad things happen, we bounce back to the baseline level of happiness pretty quickly.


What affects our happiness baseline?

Remember the concept of hedonic adaptation? No matter what you get, you return to a baseline level of happiness after a temporary high.


What affects that baseline? Is it genes, circumstances or a mix of both?


Sonja Lyubomirsky set out to answer this question. Her research compared identical twins’ happiness levels with fraternal twins. The former presumably share the same genes and the latter similar life circumstances.

She also looked at studies of the happiness levels of people who had really terrible things happen such as becoming paraplegic, losing all their money, becoming a widow etc.


She came up with a pie chart that describes the contribution of both genes and life circumstances towards happiness.



It seems like we have a genetic set point for happiness. But what I found interesting (because that’s not the mind’s intuition) is that life’s circumstances only account for 10% of our happiness. The good news is that the rest is up to us. The ability to have 40% control over the outcome is high.


What are the thoughts and actions that contribute to our happiness?


1. Don’t invest in stuff, invest in experiences.

Counterintuitively, getting things like a new house, a car or clothing annoys us because they stick around.

In other words, things we constantly come in contact with get us back on the hedonic treadmill. Dreaming of Ferrari was really cool but now that Ferrari is your baseline, it’s not as fun any more.


Experiences, on the other hand, last a relatively short period, so they give us a sense of pleasure, happiness and enjoyment. We don’t adapt to experiences.


Another bonus is that experiences help others resonate with you because they’re less susceptible to social comparison.


2. Savouring

Savouring is stepping outside of experience to appreciate it and be mindful of what’s happening.

Like when you eat a delicious cake instead of washing it down your throat with tea, pause to appreciate the environment, taste, texture, flavour etc.


Strategies to enhance savouring (from Jose et al. 2012) 👇



Activities that hurt savouring 👇



3. Negative visualization

What would life be like if something wouldn’t have happened?


What if…


  • You were born in a different country?
  • Never met your partner?
  • Didn’t end up going to the school you did?
  • One of your parents would have died when you were young?

Etc.


Another similar exercise is imagining you have very little time left.

Not in terms of you’re going to die tomorrow but picturing that you are about to graduate, leave your current job, see your best friend or spend time with your parent for the last time.


Sometimes when the going gets tough or we’ve adapted to our current circumstances it helps to reflect on how we would feel if we knew we didn’t have much time left to do this.


No matter how long something lasts, one of these days everything you do will be for the last time. Oftentimes we don’t even know it’s the last time until it comes.


4. Reset your reference points

Remember that our mind doesn’t compare our lives on its own but in reference to the lives of others?

Here’s a set of strategies to stop that from happening.



Strategy 1: Concretely re-experience

Re-experience how you felt when you got that amazing thing (spouse, job, got into Yale, increase in salary etc). For example, remember what it was like with a smaller salary and appreciate having a bigger salary now.


Strategy 2: Concretely observe

Think of how you could be in a much worse position or situation. Become aware of the upside of your current position.


Strategy 3: Avoid social comparison

Dramatically reduce the usage of social media. Dr Santos advises deleting it altogether because our minds are too weak to resist the bait of tech companies.


If you choose to keep social media:


  • Be mindful of your state while scrolling. Use a STOP technique — when you catch yourself evaluating against other people, say STOP out loud and close the app.
  • Reflect on what sort of reference points you’re letting in. Curate your feed to get exposed to real things.
  • Reduce social media use significantly.


Strategy 4: Interrupt consumption



Interrupt the experiences that feel really good. The first bite of cake feels amazing. And so does watching a good TV show. It feels like you want more and it will be equally satisfying as it was at the beginning.


Well, that’s counterintuitive. The first bite of the cake tastes much better than having eaten the entire cake, doesn’t it? Continuing with something that feels good reduces our happiness.


To counteract this you need to split the experience into pieces (like watching 2 episodes instead of binge-watching all 10) because it helps you stop the hedonic adaptation.


I want to be rich and famous…

Matthew Perry was never supposed to be on Friends. One of his best friends, also an aspiring actor, Craig, was. Craig had to choose between playing Chandler or picking another TV show and well, we know what he did.


Matthew became Chandler and the rest is history. He was on top of the world. He was the world.

Money, fame, a career he loved, cars, houses, famous friends, beautiful women…Anything he could have ever wanted, he got.


His relationship with Craig died down and a few years later, they reconnected. They talked about Matthew’s success and he said: "'You know what, Craig? It doesn’t do what we all thought it would. It doesn’t fix anything.' Craig stared at me; I don’t think he believed me; I still don’t think he believes me. I think you actually have to have all of your dreams come true to realize they are the wrong dreams.”


Miswanting

We seek good grades, esteemed careers, more money, marriage, beauty, influence, only to find out it does not make us happier.


It’s not that happiness didn’t stay because we didn’t get enough of these things. It’s that we sought the wrong things. Luckily, research has shown that there are the right things to focus on to increase happiness.


Better Wanting

Don’t want more, want better. Better wanting strategies:


  1. Wanting the right parts of what we already want.
  2. Wanting better stuff that we don’t want yet (kindness and social connection).
  3. Focusing on mind control, time affluence and healthy practices.


Strategy 1: Wanting the right parts of what we already want

Let’s take a good job as an example. Research shows that getting a higher salary doesn’t make us happier. But having a career that allows us to use signature strengths and experience flow does.


Signature strengths

Feeling like you’re using your signature strengths over time will lead to less depression and more satisfaction as well as increase subjective well-being.



Using at least one of the signature strengths weekly decreases depressive symptoms (in blue) and increases and keeps happiness levels relatively steady for 6 months:



Feeling like your strengths are being put to good use increases productivity, job satisfaction and subjective well-being. By using signature strengths in new ways every day, we minimize hedonic adaptation and continue to derive enjoyment from activating our strengths.


To identify your strengths, take the free, research-based survey.


Flow

Another factor that increases job satisfaction is flow or being in the zone — maxing out our skills at the right effort level.



Signature strengths and a sense of flow don’t just apply to work of course. Any activity that helps us challenge ourselves and gain skills is the one that gives us joy be it a job or a hobby.


Researchers also found that contrary to our intuitions (people predict they’ll enjoy leisure time over work), we are more satisfied when we do meaningful stuff and feel challenged, not just stay home to watch Netflix.

Let’s take marriage as another example. Most of us want to have a long-term partner. The mind’s intuition is that another person loving us will make us happy.


In fact, us trying to make our partner happy makes us happy. There’s research to suggest that the more we do something for someone, the more affinity we feel towards them.


Remember, strategy 1 is wanting the right parts of what we already want. Instead of striving for a job that pays the most, strive for a job that challenges you the most while allowing you to use your strengths.

 Consider assumptions behind the goals and desires you hold to see whether you want the right parts of it.


Strategy 2: Wanting better stuff that we don’t want yet

Stuff like being kind and social connection. Happy people are also kind people. Kindness leads to happiness.


Want to feel instantly happier? Otake et al. (2006) found that even thinking about kind actions you’ve done before makes you happier. Seriously, try it now.


Happier people are thinking about doing more kind things and are more motivated to do them. And if you look at kind behaviours, they are doing more than unhappy people.



This suggests a link between being kind and being happy. Less kindness = less happiness. But what if we have less happy people to increase the number of kind actions that they do, does that help? Yes, but only if you perform acts of kindness daily, not once in a while.


Control — people who did 0 acts of kindness. Their happiness decreased. Doing acts of kindness on different days makes you a tad happier but at least you’re not unhappy. Daily acts of kindness increase well-being significantly.


What sort of acts of kindness? Pretty much anything you assume would make someone happy. Pay a compliment, say thank you, smile at a stranger, spend time with a loved one, listen intently, help out, donate etc.


A possibly unexpected (rather clashing with our mind’s intuition) finding by Dunn et al. (2008) showed that spending money on others made people much happier. Even if that left them at a disadvantage.


Aknin et al. (2013) tested whether this was a cross-cultural phenomenon and it appears to be so. People in third-world countries felt happier spending money on others even when it meant they wouldn’t get medicine for themselves.


By the way, the amount spent on others doesn’t matter. Whether it’s $20 or $5, it’s the act of kindness and thinking of somebody else that increases our well-being.


Strategy 3: Affluence, mind control and health


Affluence

Both time and money are scarce resources. You hear people talking about working hard so they save up enough to have more time later.


But would people prefer having more money or more time? Hershfield et al. (2016) set out to answer this question.


Although majority of people chose more money (69%), choosing more time was associated with greater happiness — even controlling for existing levels of available time and money.


Valuing time more than money makes us happier.
Having more time than money makes us happier.


Why does having extra time make us feel happy? Researchers proposed that more free time usually leads to more social connections.


Mind control

Mind control via meditation to be precise.


In their paper A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind, Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) found that mind-wandering makes us feel bad.



That means we’re unconscious (not in the here and now) for almost half of our day. That’s a bit scary if you ask me.


Our mind wanders due to something called the default mode network (DMN) — a set of interconnected brain structures that are spontaneously active during passive moments and during directed tasks that require us to remember past or imagine upcoming events.


Essentially, when you’re not engaged in a task, DMN kicks in. I assume that’s why the flow state feels good — the task requires enough effort and concentration for that never-ending chatterbox in our heads to shut off.


So, to be happier we need to have our mind to stop wandering. How? Meditate. Any practice that turns your attention away from wandering to the here and now is meditation.


The five most common are walking, choiceless awareness, body scan, loving kindness and concentration. I’ll leave it to you to google the benefits of each, but it’s been shown that meditative practices help us shut off the DMN thus making us happier.


Healthy practices

We have free, built-in physical mechanisms that have been shown over and over and over again to make us happier: sleep, eating well and exercising.


Exercise

Babyak et al. (2000) studied 156 people suffering from major depression. He divided participants into 3 groups:


  • Exercise group (3x week for 30 mins)
  • Medicine (anti-depressant Zoloft)
  • Exercise + medicine


Participants were followed for 10 months. Exercise showed the strongest influence of therapeutic benefit for depression


Crazy, right? Crazy and free. Not to mention that besides the happiness benefits, exercise also increases cognitive affect, memory and brain function, even into our later years.


Sleep

Ok at this point I feel a bit silly because I’m stating the obvious.

Sleep is so important that if you stay awake long enough, you’ll go nuts. Unsurprisingly, sleep plays a crucial role in our mood and happiness.



There’s more scary research I could share but I actually find this approach redundant.

I don’t know if you noticed but we went from I’ll sleep when I’m dead to scaring people about dire consequences if they don’t.


Stressing out about not sleeping enough just adds to the additional stress caused by sleeping less.

Don’t intentionally avoid sleeping but if there are circumstances that prevent you from sleeping, don’t despair. If possible, prioritize sleep and/or solve problems that get in the way of sleep.


Wrap up

If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult since we think them happier than they are — Charles de Montesquieu


This was a long one, thank you for reading. My inner nerd loved writing this.


The most important things to remember are:

  • Your intuitions about happiness are often wrong. Inspect your beliefs, goals and desires to gear them towards things that will actually make you happy.
  • Regardless of the circumstances and genetic predisposition, you have 40% control over your happiness. But it’s a practice — you have to put in the (right) effort.


Here’s the buffet of practices to choose from:


Physical

  • Get enough sleep (Dr Santos recommends at least 7 hours)
  • Eat well and exercise (Dr Santos recommends 30 mins daily)

Social

  • Practice an act of kindness daily
  • Prioritize social connection
  • Find ways to show others you thought of them
  • Avoid social comparison

Psychological

  • Meditate daily (Start with 10 mins and build up)
  • Practice gratitude (Write down 5 things you’re grateful for before bed)
  • Appreciate the little things on a daily basis (Savouring)

Emotional

  • Find a pleasure baseline after which you feel compelled to continue rather than enjoy it (Like binge-watching the entire season)
  • Appreciate what you have (What if it’s the last time you do X?)
  • Find your signature strengths and apply them daily
  • Engage in activities that put you into flow.


It might seem overwhelming, so pick one and practice for a week. Then pick something else. The easiest one is savouring. It only takes 30 seconds once a day to pause and appreciate what you see/feel/taste/notice/hear/touch. I guarantee that if you practice it for a week, you’ll feel much better. That’ll give you enough motivation to keep going and try something else.


If you got to the end, thank you for reading. I appreciate you and good luck!


Post image by Drew Colins on Unsplash


All pictures provided are screenshots from Dr Laurie Santos' Course Slides