Week 1: The Science of Happiness
The (never-freaking-ending) pandemic has not, to put it lightly, been a happy time. But it has been and continues to be a rich period for scientists who study happiness. Researchers around the world have followed what happens to wellbeing during the biggest collective threat to happiness most of us have ever known.
While reports of stress and anxiety are at a record high, the University College London’s COVID-19 Social Study, an ongoing study of more than 40,000 people found that people’s sense of meaning—the feeling that life is worthwhile—stayed stable throughout the spring lockdown.
What makes people resilient in the face of such grim circumstances? Recent research highlights a few activities that seem to help the most.
Humans have evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And through our actions, we can further boost the elements of our brain that help with becoming happy.
So to kick off our January: two science-backed ways to increase happiness.
Build productive habits.
Professor Lauri Santos, who teaches The Science of Well-Being as an online Yale University course, advises students “the data suggests that becoming happier is a lot like learning to play the violin or row crew. They’re not impossible to do. You just have to commit to practicing.
"About 50% of our happiness is genetic. So yes, some people are predisposed to being unhappy, and they might not think it's worth it to seek out these resources, or even realize they could feel better,” she says. “People also assume that our mood is dictated mostly by what happens to us, but that's only 10% of it. The good news is that 40% of our happiness is under our conscious control, and 40% is a lot. It's just a matter of doing the work."
The real magic here is how our brain’s biology and our habits can combine to rewire the mind, making us happier. Through a process called neuroplasticity, the brain changes over time as it reacts to new experiences and actions. So the more we allow ourselves to be happier and engage in habits that bring us joy, the more content we naturally become.
Start a meditation practice.
A regular meditation practice for just ten minutes a day is enough to make significant improvements to our well-being.
Research of 121 volunteers found that 10 days of the meditation app Headspace resulted in a 16-percent increase in happiness. In that same study, people reported feeling substantially fewer negative emotions than the average person after using Headspace for 10 days.
With meditation, we can also change the brain through this same neuroplasticity process and effect positive change to help us with staying happy.
None of us know how to be happy all the time. That would be impossible, and not even desirable, as our rich range of emotions is what makes life interesting.
But what we can control, with practice, is how we react to these feelings to not give them too much power over us. By ceasing the search for always being happy, we can shift our perspective and live in comfort with all the emotions we experience in life. And the more we can make these shifts, the happier we will ultimately feel in our lives.