Lately, with all the talk about the Mardi Gras celebration, I’ve noticed that books on happiness seem to be springing up everywhere. There are books on how to find happiness, how to keep it, how to be content and how to be fulfilled. Just take a walk through any bookstore and you’ll likely find titles such as Hardwiring Happiness…The Art of Happiness… Stumbling on Happiness…Authentic Happiness…the list goes on and on.
And why not? Sure, I get that everyone wants happiness. But we don’t always know how to get it. It seems to be an age-old problem; even ancient philosophers and gurus have long pondered the meaning of happiness and wondered how to get it. In more recent times, however, a fairly new field of psychology has sought to provide some answers.
Keep positive and carry on
Positive psychology aims to shine a light on how we flourish and thrive. It’s not just about how to get rid of negative thoughts or how to get out of a bad mood but about how positive emotions of hope, and the strengthening of resilience, can greatly benefit us. Positive psychology is based on the idea that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives; to cultivate what is best within themselves for a life filled with better love, work and play.
The science of happiness
I’ve recently come across a free online course, The Science of Happiness, created by The University of Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. The course teaches the science of positive psychology to anyone interested in learning how to apply it to their own lives. The course is also focused on happiness being “inextricably linked to having strong social connections and contributing to something bigger than yourself—the greater good.”
Tens of thousands of people have signed up for past courses and The Science of Happiness will be launching as a self-paced course this December.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, co-teaches the course. She shared some important insights on happiness in a Berkeley Wellness news release.
So what’s happiness all about to her? From a scientist’s point of view, she says, happiness is “the propensity to feel positive emotions, the capacity to recover from negative emotions quickly, and holding a sense of purpose. Happiness is not having a lot of privilege or money. It’s not constant pleasure. It’s a broader thing: Our ability to connect with others, to have meaningful relationships, to have a community. Time and again—across decades of research and across all studies—people who say they’re happy have strong connections with community and with other people. That’s sort of the recipe for happiness.”
Money can’t buy it
You may have heard before that money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness. Simon-Thomas agrees, but notes that “studies show that money increases happiness when it takes people from a place where there are real threats—poverty—to a place that is reliably safe. After that, money doesn’t matter much. Research by the Nobel laureate psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman showed that money increases happiness until about $75,000 annually, and after that our emotional well-being doesn’t increase with income.”
Hardwired for generosity
It’s no surprise that having strong social connections, as opposed to being lonely and having weak social connections, are important factors for happiness. Simon-Thomas says that “there are systems in the body that drive us to be more social. For example, the mesolimbic dopamine system linked to addiction also makes people feel pleasure when they give to others. If you measure hormones and activity in the body and the brain when people are being helpful or cooperating, you can see that pleasure happens. We’re hardwired to be generous with others.”
Replacing harmful mental habits
The Science of Happiness course looks at harmful mental habits such as perfectionism and the idea that one has to get everything out of a given moment or be dissatisfied, and counters it with “practical ways to cultivate mindfulness, gratitude, forgiveness, and kindness. These are activities that research has shown increase our sense of well-being and strengthen our connections with the people who matter in our lives.”
Wisdom to live by
The take-away is that it’s not striving for happiness that matters, but enabling yourself to have the experiences that make you happier. To spend time with someone who matters to you. To know that you are there for them when they need support, and they are there for you. Sounds to me like some good science!