Last year I was introduced to The Science of Well-Being, a free course offered online by Yale University. For ten weeks, you attend short lectures and complete mini-assignments to learn scientifically-backed methods on how to live a happier life.
I’ve written this post essentially to type out my notes from the course, solidify what I learned, and give an honest account of how I’ve applied the practices to my own life. I don’t intend for this to preach to anyone but myself, although by sharing this publicly, someone else may learn something or feel inspired to take the course themselves.
Are You Happy, Really?
If it sounds silly to you that someone would need to learn how to be happy, I don’t blame you. We should all know what makes us happy, right? That’s what I thought too, but then why are so many people often angry, depressed, or anxious? The year 2020 gave us a lot of reasons to feel unhappy (and 2021 likely will continue this as well) but a happy life has evaded a lot of people in modern society for decades now.
In week one of the course, it’s explained to us how we chase things that we think make us happy, but they don’t. We want a better job, the perfect body, the ideal romantic partner, or a big house with lots of stuff in it. I’m definitely guilty of wanting some of those things.
The reality is that these things don’t make us happy (at least not in the long-term):
- You get that promotion you worked hard for, and then you find yourself working even harder still to move another step up the never-ending ladder.
- You achieve your goal weight, but move to focusing on other “flaws” that you need to “fix”.
- You have a boyfriend or girlfriend who ticks all your boxes, until you realize they’re just as imperfect as every other human.
- You get that beautiful big house, only to learn that your neighbor has a bigger house so yours is no longer big enough.
If you can relate to any of those scenarios, it’s because the mind is programmed that way. These are the annoying features of the mind that exist to thwart our attempts to be happy.
Annoying Features of the Mind
- Miswanting: We are bad at predicting what will make us happy.
- Relative comparisons: We compare our status and achievements to other people, instead of focusing absolutely on ourselves.
- Hedonic adaptation: We get used to our achievements and they no longer bring us joy. Even when we get those things, our happiness (which may spike for a brief period) returns right back to our baseline level of happiness in life.
Thwart Your Mind
If we don’t realize how our mind is working against us in these ways, we will continue to strive for things in pursuit of happiness that don’t lead us to it.
Here’s what the course suggests to counter those annoying features of the mind:
- Invest in experiences more than stuff. Nice possessions can give us a short-term rush but after a while we just get used to them (hedonic adaptation). We end up with less money and no more happiness. Instead, if we spend money on experiences (like a vacation, a concert, a nice meal with a loved one) we create memories that last a long time after the experience is over.
- Savor positive experiences more. A good experience can pass us by if our mind is elsewhere. Say you’ve just hiked six hours to a beautifully scenic viewpoint. Instead of savoring where you are, you might be thinking about how your feet hurt on the climb, how you’re going to get down later, or trying to capture the perfect photo of it all for Instagram. Stop, breathe, and let your mind take it all in.
- Employ gratitude by regularly taking stock of the good things in your life. We don’t stop to realize how lucky we are that we have our health, a job that pays, family members who would do anything for you, or whatever you have in your life that you might easily take for granted.
- Make use of negative visualization, where you imagine what your life would be like without some person or thing or if a specific experience is going to end soon. You’ll learn to better make the most of it while you still have it.
- Reset your reference points: What or who are you comparing with? We are easily swayed by the people in our lives and by what we see on tv and social media. If you desire to live in a pricey apartment, is that because all your friends live in fancy apartments or is it because that’s what you really want? If it’s the former, try and stop yourself from making this relative comparison. If it’s the latter, then go for it (if you truly think it will make you happy of course!)
How to Be Happy
At this point in the course, I’ve learned what won’t lead to happiness and how to recognize that. But I want to know what will make me happier!
Most of the advice that follows is stupidly simple, but many of us just don’t focus our energy on these things as much as we should. That’s why the course gives weekly assignments (called “rewirements”) to help us put these things into practice and form habits. Here’s an honest account of how I did with each assignment:
Random Acts of Kindness
It’s scientifically proven that doing nice things for others helps us feel good. It reminds me of the episode of Friends where Joey shows Phoebe that there’s no such thing as a selfless good deed, because every time she did something nice for another person, she herself felt better which made it a selfish act!
In our modern world, most of us lead a pretty insular life. While we don’t try to hurt other people, we don’t often go out of our way to do nice things for others either.
This assignment challenges you to do a random act of kindness for someone every day for seven days. These acts don’t have to be grand gestures — even one small act of kindness a day goes along way. These are some of the things I did over the course of a week (and being honest, I probably wouldn’t have thought to do these if not for the prompt by the assignment):
- I bought my partner a bottle of the chocolate soy milk he likes, even though we normally shop for groceries separately.
- I stopped by the office at the gym to thank the manager for all the COVID-safe practices they implemented.
- I thanked a friend for introducing me to one of his friends (who later became my good friend as a result.)
- I sent another friend a silly birthday present of socks with our faces printed on them (which was significant because we never buy presents for each other.)
- I sent a self-care package to another friend who recently had a baby.
In addition to the above acts, I have gotten a lot better at reaching out to random friends that I don’t see often. I ask them how they’re doing and let them know when I’m thinking of them. Normally I would never bother, but these small acts show them I care and helps to strengthen our friendships even while at a distance.
After the week was done, I definitely did not keep this up as a daily practice but it has had a lasting effect on me nonetheless. My brain is more primed to do kind things for other people more regularly.
Forming deeper connections with people feels good, but it’s something I’ve definitely struggled with due to social anxiety. The research shows that people who can spend meaningful time with others and forge richer connections do live happier lives.
The prompt this week was to have a meaningful social interaction with at least one person a day (it could be a stranger or someone in your life.) Here’s what I did:
- Spent a lovely evening having (socially distant) drinks with new friends, which really got me out of a COVID lockdown-induced funk.
- Had a 90-minute Zoom session with family back in Ireland.
- Ran into an elderly neighbor on the street and stopped for a long chat (when I normally would have muttered a quick hello and continued about my day.)
Being introverted, I definitely have a limited supply of energy for social interaction, but whether you’re introverted, extroverted, or somewhere in between, we all benefit from the mood-boosting power of social connection.
Time > Money
Prioritize time over money. I’m naturally wired towards this so I didn’t linger on this point.
Stop Mind Wandering
A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. If we’re focused on something we did or said in the past or what could happen in the future, we’re not appreciating what is happening in the present moment. One way to combat this is through meditation. I’ve dabbled with meditation a few times unsuccessfully over the past number of years but started in earnest 6 weeks ago. I could write an entire post about the impact this has had on my well-being so far.
If I had to pick just one point here, exercise is the most powerful thing I can do to improve my mental health. If three days go by without getting a good workout in (easy to do as I live a very sedentary life otherwise), I feel it in my mind. I find it very easy to talk myself out of exercising, but I know that if I skip it I’ll quickly fall into a mental funk.
Sleep deprivation and unhappiness go hand in hand. If I have a bad night’s sleep, the entire day is a write-off. That’s why I get at least seven and a half hours a night. The course has you track your sleep for a week but this wasn’t something I needed to improve on personally.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have all the money you’ll need for the rest of your life, you likely have a job that takes up the better part of your day. Happiness in work is less about your paycheck and cool perks, and more about how you feel when you’re working. To feel happy in work, you need to:
- Use your character strengths (see below).
- Achieve flow for a good part of the day, i.e. when your mind is so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the time go by.
Research psychologists have put together a list of 24 strengths that humans can have as part of our personalities. We each have 3 – 4 signature qualities that drive who we are. Mine are:
- Prudence: being careful about your choices, stopping and thinking before acting.
- Honesty: you present yourself in a genuine and sincere way, without pretense, and take responsibility for your feelings and actions.
- Judgment: weighing the evidence fairly, thinking things through, and examining the evidence from all sides rather than jumping to conclusions.
- Perseverance: sticking with things, being hardworking and finishing what is started, despite barriers and obstacles that arise.
If you use your signature strengths often in your job and in your life, that leads to greater fulfilment. You can take the free quiz to learn your signature strengths and how to use them more often!
Adopt a growth mindset (“it’s ok that I’m not good at this now, because I can learn how to get better”) instead of a fixed mindset (“I’m not good at this, so I shouldn’t try”).
Putting It All Into Action
Most of these tips are quite obvious, right? Like duh, of course I should be nice to people, take care of myself, and nurture my relationships. But if many of us stop and really look at how we’re doing in these areas, we can realize we’re falling short. The assignments each week help to make these acts more of a habit in our lives.
To help turn these into long-lasting habits, we can:
- Harness the situation or environment we’re in. For example, delete social media from your phone if you are susceptible to relative comparisons or dress in workout gear in the morning to remove a barrier to exercise.
- Be specific with your goals. For example, instead of setting the goal of “I want to have more friends”, make your goal something like “I’m going to reach out to two people this week and make plans.”
- Visualize the result of your goals: imagine the positive outcome and predict the obstacles along the way.
Did It Work?
At the beginning of the course, you are asked to measure your happiness using a research-backed happiness model called PERMA. This method prompts you to self-report on your happiness based on how you feel on certain aspects of your life like meaning, loneliness, accomplishment, health, emotions, and more.
I honestly wasn’t expecting much from this course. I initially took it out of interest in the psychology behind it. I was surprised to see that my own measure of happiness using the PERMA model jumped from 7.95 out of 10 at the beginning to 9.4 at the end of the tenth week!
I’ve always considered myself a happy person overall, and people who know me would attest to that as well. This just goes to show that there’s always room for improvement and a chance to learn more about yourself in the process. I wholeheartedly recommend this course to everyone. It’s low commitment and most people should get at least something positive out of it.
I’m happy to answer any questions about this topic!