The Science of Happiness

I recently took a course called ‘The Science of Happiness’ through Yale University. A great course! So, filled with all this research and connections between brain and action (or non-action). I love pieces like this because it keeps me from having to do the work of finding the data, putting it together, and then publishing it myself – someone else has done all the hard work and I get to just reap the rewards! But I digress.

Really what made this course so fascinating to me was what Professor Laurie Santos shared in the series: that our minds have the most annoying habit of tricking us into believing what will make us happy, when in fact, it will not.

What the hell does that mean, you may be asking.

Well, I will tell you what the hell that means.

It tells us four compelling components that keep us from achieving happiness – and it’s our brains fault. Damn bastard.

Number 1: The idea of “miswanting” (Gilbert & Wilson)

The term “miswanting” was developed by researchers Gilbert & Wilson who were able to prove that our brains will misinform us – I want that, I need that – to secure happiness. The truth of the matter is that our brain is totally unreliable in this venture. If I get that car, if I secure that job, if I look this way…I will be happy. Research shows, that’s just not true. Why? The answer begins to unfold in discovery number 2:

Number 2: Our brains do not think in the absolute, instead it makes determinations based on reference points (O’Guinn & Schrum)

What this means is that when we look at something our brain tells us, because of the surrounding reference points, that what we are seeing is true. This can, and many times is, a visual distortion that causes us to miss cues that would normally result in us being more honest about our choices instead of allowing what we perceive to dictate our choices, consciously or unconsciously. As an example, in a study by O’Guinn and Schrum (1997), there exists a correlation between the number of hours a person watches television and an impact on spending. The outcomes showed that the more hours one watched television the more money one tended to spend on “stuff.” Reason? The conscious or unconscious desire to keep up with those we surround ourselves with – our reference point. The more hours viewers watch they begin to perceive the happiness of those on the television. Viewers begin to listen less to what is being said and more to what they are seeing resulting in the observation that an actor seems happy in their craft. Actors make hundreds of thousands each year.  Happiness is connected to wealth. Wealth equals happiness and freedom to purchase whatever they desire. Thus, happiness equals purchases. That unconscious observation leads us to make decisions we believe will make us equally happy. Thus, until we become aware of our brains unconscious bias towards what we observe, we will continuously be impacted by our own visual distortion. To put this in terms of achieving happiness, we need to recognize that our brain is not always being honest with us. As such, we need to work to ensure that what we perceive to be either something that will bring us happiness or is bringing us happiness is true, we must first remove the reference points we are accessing our degree of happiness with.

What’s most interesting about this discovery as that our brain is incapable of sustaining that securing of happiness! Son of a nutcracker!

Let me explain in number 3:

Number 3: ‘Perceptual Adaptation’ (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon)

“Perceptual Adaptation” relates to how we move from what we see and believe will make us happy to no longer feel happy in what we perceived would bring us happiness. The reason? It’s because our brain will eventually adapt to what was once out of place or not normal to being so normalized, we eventually stop seeing it. The same applies to happiness. The term used to explain our adaptability to newness or ‘wantness’ is called Hedonic Adaptation. Hedonic Adaptation refers to the period after a person experiences a positive (or negative) event and the emotional response to such an event (i.e., an increase in positive feelings such as joy, exhilaration, or negative feelings such as sorrow) when the emotions wear off and we eventually return to a neutral affect related to the event. As it relates to happiness, sustainable happiness, it is not denying ourselves the purchase of a long desire item but reminding ourselves that our brain is tricking us when it says we will sustain happiness with said purchase – eventually, the item loses it’s newness and, like a child with a new toy, it too will get tossed in the trash.

But our brain’s still not done with it’s trickery! There is one more annoyance up its sleeve! And that brings us to understanding number 4:

Number 4: ‘Impact Bias’ (Gilbert et al)

Impact bias is the false belief that our happiness, or sadness, will endure – that what we feel will last forever. When it comes to happiness, failing to remember the Perceptual Adaptation, the brain leaves us in a constant cycle of high recovery – this item, this job, this purchase no longer makes me happy, but this new thing will! Even though we have historic evidence to prove that this process is futile, our brain still continuously seeks out the best thing, more of something, or the dream that ‘if this just happened’ our happiness will be secured. An interesting note is how research continuously shows, however, that over time 1. our emotional high from receiving what we desire is normalized and 2. our response to what one believes will be emotionally devasting is, in actuality, neither devastating nor long lasting. In other words – in either purchase or failure to acquire, the impact is minimal. Yet, we continuously fail to accept this and find ourselves desiring that better car, better house, or better job to finally achieve the happiness we believe and if we do not acquire it, we will never be truly happy.

So how does one get happiness???!!!

Really? You have to ask that question?

Did you learn nothing from all this work I did rewriting into plain English what these really smart and hardworking people did?!

Think about it and remember…what is your brain miswanting for you?

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