You can increase your happiness by applying practices from the science of happiness.
I came across an online course from Yale University–an Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut–on “The Science of Well-Being“. It’s taught by Professor Laurie Santos, and it became the most popular class ever taught at Yale. I took the course online and, in this post, I’m going to share with you 5 of the scientific ways to be happier which I learned in the course.
Keep in mind that the idea isn’t simply to gain knowledge about how to be happier, but to apply the research-based methods or practices I’ll be sharing with you below so that you can change your behavior and become happier.
5 Scientific Ways to Be Happier
Continue reading to discover 5 scientific ways to be happier.
1. Savor Experiences
Savoring is “the act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it” while it’s happening. It’s the first method from the course, “The Science of Well-Being”, which I’m going to share with you,
Most of us fail to stay in the moment and be fully aware of what we’re experiencing. Therefore, we fail to really enjoy our experiences. When you savor an experience, you lengthen and intensify the positive emotions that come from doing something you love, such as drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, taking a warm shower, playing outside with your dog, or going for a run.
Savoring can boost your mood in at least three ways.
- First, it can thwart hedonic adaptation–for our purposes, hedonic adaptation is getting used to the good things in your life so that they no longer have a positive impact on your happiness levels–by keeping the good things in life in our awareness.
- Second, savoring can help us avert mind wandering and keep us fully grounded in the present. It allows you to be fully engaged in what you’re doing or experiencing.
- And third, savoring can increase gratitude by making us grateful for an experience while we’re having it.
You can practice savoring by picking an activity to truly savor each day. Savor the activity by applying techniques that enhance savoring. These techniques include the following:
- Being mindful and fully conscious while participating in the activity;
- Thinking about why that experience makes you happy;
- Telling someone else how much you’re enjoying the experience;
- Participating in the experience with someone else;
- Showing physical expressions of enjoyment; and
- Thinking of how fortunate you are to be having the experience.
In addition, keep in mind that there are things which can hurt your ability to savor an experience. These include the following;
- Reminding yourself that the activity you’re enjoying will be over soon;
- Telling yourself that it wasn’t as good as you had hoped;
- Thinking about ways in which the activity could be better; and
- Telling yourself that you don’t deserve the positive experience.
For one week, keep track of all the experiences which you savored during that week.
2. Keep a Gratitude Journal
I write about gratitude quite often on this blog because it’s such a powerful emotional state. Gratitude is being aware of and appreciating the good things in your life and being thankful for them. Research shows that gratitude has a myriad of postive effects, including making you happier and healthier. While the point above was about savoring experiences as they’re happening, this one is about recalling positive experiences at the end of the day, feeling gratitude for them, and writing them down.
You can pratice gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal for a week. Each night, take five to ten minutes to write down five things for which you’re grateful. It can be big things or little things, such as feeling gratitude for the person who held the elevator door open for you, the co-worker who helped you complete an important project on time, your child’s goofy grin, or the Indian food your spouse treated you to.
As you write down the things that you’re grateful for, be sure to focus and relive each experience–think about the co-worker who helped you, see your child’s face in your mind, or recall the taste of the chicken curry you had for dinner. You can write down a word for each thing you’re grateful for, or write down a phrase, whichever you prefer.
3. Engage in Random Acts of Kindness
Professor Santos explains in the course that one way to be happier is to be kind to others. Researchers took a group of people, measured their subjective well-being, and then asked them how often they did kind things for others. They discovered that the happy people were more likely than the unhappy ones to do kind things for other people. Therefore, if we want to be happier, we should be seeking out opportunities to show kindness to others. One way to do this is to perform random acts of kindness.
To put this into practice, over the next seven days, engage in seven more random acts of kindness than you normally do. You can spread them out however you wish (e.g., one a day, all seven in one day, and so on), Your acts of kindness don’t have to be life-changing for someone else, but they should have a positive impact on another person. Here are some ideas for acts of kindness:
- Donate blood.
- Offer to pick up groceries for your elderly neighbor.
- Bring in snacks for your co-workers,
- Say something kind to a stranger.
At the end of each day, write down the random act or acts of kindness you performed that day. Make sure to have seven of them by the end of the week.
4. Make Social Connections
As Professor Santos explains, making social connections is more important for happiness than most people think. People with close social ties are less vulnerable to premature death, more likely to survive serious illnesses, and overall happier than people without close social connections.
Put making social connections into practice by making one new social connection per day for a week. It can be calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, asking a co-worker to join you for lunch, or even chatting with the barista at the corner coffee shop. The important thing here is that you take the time to genuinely connect with others.
A fifth way to increase your happiness is to control your mind so that it’s not constantly going all over the place instead of remaining focused on the present. That is, become more mindful and stop your mind from wandering all the time–ruminating about the past, thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, wondering about what others thought of you at the party you went to the previous night, and so on.
In one experiment in which participants were paged every so often and asked where their minds were, researchers found that our minds are not with us about half of the time. This has to do with a certain feature of our brain, and how our brain uses energy. Different parts of our brain kick in depending on the task we’re involved in. But there’s also a network of the brain that turns on when we’re not really focused on anything. That is, when our minds are wandering. This is the default network.
The default network is defined as “a network of interacting brain regions known to activate ‘by default’ when a person is not involved in a task”. It’s more efficient in terms of energy to run this network than it is to run other networks of the brain, which may be one reason why we default to it as often as we do. The default network kicks in within a fraction of a second after we take our focus off of a task.
The default network allows us to think outside the here and now. It takes us out of our present reality and allows us to think about something else. If you’re put in a scanner and asked to think about the past or the future, the parts of your brain that light up are all part of the default network. The default network does all those things that our brain does when we get out of the here and now.
On the one hand, the default mode allows us to think about the past and the future, as well as to think about different perspectives. In that sense, having this default network is a cognitive achievement. However, it’s not good for your levels of happiness to be constantly leaving the present moment.
In one study, 2250 people were surveyed about their thoughts using experience sampling. Researchers would pin people every once in a while and ask them the following three questions:
- What are you doing?
- Are you thinking about what you’re doing?
- Are you happy?
They found what I shared with you above: people mind wander about 46.9% of waking hours. In other words, about half of the time people are mind wandering, even if they’re supposed to be focusing on a task. Researchers also found that mind wandering has a negative impact on happiness. As Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert indicates: “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achivement that comes at an emotional cost.” He adds the following: “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
One way to stop your mind from wandering is to meditate. When you meditate you turn your attention away from distracting thoughts and place it on one point of reference. The point of reference can be your breath, bodily sensations, a positive feeling such as compassion, a specific thought, and so on. The main point is that you stop your mind from wandering and get it to focus on one thing.
In one study which looked at the question of whether meditation can help us stop our mind from wandering, researchers brought in expert meditators and compared them to a control group. They reached two conlusions. First, that the default network is less active in meditators while they’re meditating. And second, they found that meditators were also more focused on the here and now even when they were not meditating. In other words, meditation can help curb mind wandering during daily life, thus making us happier.
For the next week, spend at least 10 minutes a day meditating. If you’re new to meditation, try one of three guided meditations available on SoundCloud. At the end of the day, log when and for how long you meditated,
In the course, “The Science Of Well-Being”, Professor Santos refers to something known as “the G.I. Joe Fallacy”. “G.I. Joe” was a popular animated TV show in the 1980s. At the end of each show, there would be a public service announcement that ended with the tagline: “knowing is half the battle”.
However, Santos explains that this is a misguided belief. Merely knowing something is not enough to make you change your behavior. You have to put the knowledge into practice and change your habits in order to change your behavior. That is, if you want to increase your happiness, you have to put the five methods that I shared with you above into practice.
Live your best life by applying the scientific methods for increasing happiness listed above.