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Happiness: The Science of Well Being

In light of International Happiness Day last week, today we will discuss how to live a happier, and therefore, a better life. This is for everyone, even if you already find yourself happy. There is every likelihood that the strategies listed here from Laurie Santos, and other researchers at the forefront of this field of study, will help to make you live your best life.

The idea for this blog came from just having finished Yale professor Laurie Santos’ course The Science of Well Being. It is Yale’s most popular course and is currently available online for free. The idea behind the course is to provide strategies we can all use to improve our happiness. The strategies are research-based and require the participant to actually implement the strategies to be successful. Before starting the course there are several options available for you to measure your baseline happiness level for comparison to how happy you are when you have completed the course. According to Dr. Santos; the majority of students find their happiness levels have increase after taking the course. My result was the same. Therefore, I thought I would summarize a bit of what I learned from the course as well as her podcast The Happiness Lab and Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris and some other prominent researchers in the happiness field of study.

As a side note, before I took the course, I felt I was a happy person. I only signed up as I had heard good things about it. In the end I learned so much and even if I already was doing some of the strategies without knowing they helped, the course has given me more concrete knowledge on how to make myself happier on days when I may not be feeling it.

One of the key aspects to being happy is to have our basic needs fulfilled. Having such necessities as food, water, and safety are crucial to have to even think beyond them. Think of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (the image below was taken from this website); it is very difficult to be happy if you do not have your basic needs met. However, after we have these needs met, can we be happy? Dr. Santos has actually researched the minimum salary (in the US) that a person needs to reach a point where more money is not necessarily going to provide more happiness, and it isn’t as much as you are probably thinking it is.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

However, once we have our basic needs met what will make us happy? This is not a discussion on depression, though I think these strategies can help with depression (it is still important to discuss this with your doctor). Nor am I talking about moments when tragedy has struck, you’ve lost someone close, or you’ve lost your job. This is just a discussion on a general day to day sense of happiness. If we are feeling down, what can we do to cheer ourselves up?

Dr. Santos’ main themes throughout the course are ‘what will make us happy isn’t what we think it is’ ‘and ‘happiness takes effort.’ For example, we may think winning the lottery will make us happy, but will it really? We also may think that an accident leaving us paralyzed will make us less happy, but does it? In the course she includes the research as to why this is not the case. As an example, going back in time would I chose to have the aneurysm I had, no. However, in many ways my life is actually better because of it and I am who I am partly because of it. When death looks you in the eye and you live, you appreciate life so much more.

So, what are these strategies that Dr. Santos discusses? She has identified eight and at least two of them are ones we are all well aware of. They are important to our physical and mental well being and important to incorporate into our routine, even if only temporarily.

· Exercise – who hasn’t started to form a regular exercise routine? Some people are great at sticking to it, and others attempt to start time and time again as they understand the importance of exercise for their physical and mental health.

· Sleep – we all know we need it, but some of us are better at making sure we get it than others.

But what are the other six strategies?

One of the core strategies that Dan Harris’ highly recommends in his podcast, that Dr. Santos suggests we try, and that psychiatrists the world over have been suggesting for patients suffering from PTSD, depression, and anxiety (and maybe more mental health issues than I’m aware of) is Meditation. But what is meditation? Wikipedia defines it as a practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state. Meditation has been shown to calm people, improve a person’s ability to concentrate, and give a more positive outlook on life. According to Dr. Santos it even helps improve social connectedness. There are many different forms of meditation and I think everyone needs to find what works for them. I myself have tried a variety of meditation methods but I find practicing Yoga works the best for me. However, I do find myself resorting to the meditation techniques I have learned when I am having difficulty falling asleep, or other times where I need to be calm and relaxed.

Gratefulness is another one of the strategies. For instance, practicing this through dedicating time daily to write down 3 or more things in your life that you are grateful for. Dr. Santos brings this strategy up and links it to research showing how effective it really is. There is so much research into this topic which supports this as a sound strategy to help you improve your happiness. Dr. Robert Emmons has done some fascinating experiments with people on how reflecting on what they are grateful for improves ones:

· outlook on life

· progress toward important personal goals

· social connectedness

· optimism

Another one of Dr. Santos’ strategies is to practice Savouring something that made you happy, or brought you joy, every day The idea is that returning to a positive experience allows you to maintain the positive energy from the event. In addition, she states that sharing it with others helps maintain the feeling of happiness even long after the event. I realized that I do this one regularly without even thinking about it. Okay, I don’t write it down, but almost everyday I do find something in my day that I have really enjoyed and, when I think back on the event, it makes me smile. The actual knowledge that this strategy works and then mindfully focusing on it has really helped me feel happier on a daily basis.

Using your Signature Strengths is also a valuable strategy and Dr. Santos provides a method for determining the strengths that you are best at and she delves into the science behind why using these strengths makes us happier. Her suggestion is to find ways to utilize your signature strengths when you can. She even provides a list of ideas on how you could use them. Again, for me I discovered I used three of my strengths regularly. While taking her course I focused more on being aware of using them and sure enough, it did improve my mood. Actually, as I write this, I feel I need to review that section and try it again.

Random Acts of Kindness are something we all hear about: the waitress somewhere in the US who receive a huge tip from one of her customers, the person who was ordering their coffee and told that the person in line before them had paid for it, etc. It surprised me that the research shows that the giver of these selfless acts ends up feeling happier than the recipient. Dr. Elizabeth Warren Dunn from the University of British Columbia has done trials where she asked students if they received money would they rather spend it on themselves or others – the answer – themselves. However, when Dunn and her team actually gave these students money, the students found it more satisfying to spend it on others (I’m pretty sure I heard this on Dan Harris’ podcast or The Happiness Lab too but I couldn’t find it again, so I looked up the information on Wikipedia). When I have tried to implement this, either through her course or just because there was an occasion to do so, it has definitely improved my outlook. The acts can be small or big. For example, there is a man who always leaves a trail of smiley faces in the sand where I run (his is on the left). I started leaving my own triangle face beside them when I was out there (mine is on the right).

Sometimes if I manage to make it back, later in the day, to the spot where we have left them other people will have added to their mark (see picture below for one example) and the feeling of seeing other people react makes me feel happier myself. It often turns into the use of another strategy being implemented without effort, savouring. Even as I write about this my mood is improving.

Social Connection is probably the strategy I find improves my happiness the most immediately. We all know doing things with our friends is important to our well being. Covid definitely took advantage of our need for social connectedness to thrive. Dan Harris, Dr. Santos, and Dr. Dunn have all discussed the importance of regular social interactions on our happiness level. In one of Dan’s podcasts, he discusses an experiment with commuters on a train and how talking to one another actually increases both parties’ moods. One of the results of social connection that surprised me though was that even small interactions can help improve our mood. Just smiling at people on the street or the little interaction with strangers in the sand, it doesn’t matter. Although, this is something I had already tried to do every day, taking Dr. Santos’ course made me try to be more mindful of the actions during my outings. I have found it fascinating how much it can improve my happiness in a day, or my mood after someone else has dampened it. Again, these moments often end up becoming savouring moments for me.

Aside from Dr. Santos’ main themes, one of the key take a ways I have learned from this course is to trust my instincts on what I think will make me happy, and to try to implement them thoughtfully. The course has also made my exercise routine much easier to complete knowing that scientific research has proven I will be happier today because of it. In addition, if I get out and run and manage to have a positive social interaction while out running it will be even better. This can lead to random acts of kindness, and every one of those items alone or together can lead to a savouring moment, and to something to be grateful for. Usually, I will arrive home from my run with a smile inside and I realize after taking the course that there are small things I can do to help keep it there all day long.

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