25 Jul 2018

The Science of happiness

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:08 pm on 25 July 2018

At the forefront of a new scientific movement to study the habits of happy people, Emiliana Simon-Thomas says altruism and allowing yourself to feel other emotions are key. 

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Photo: pixnio free image

Dr Simon-Thomas is from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley and teaches an online course called the science of happiness. 

You can check out some of the Greater Good Quizzes here

She says the most useful way to view happiness is as a general quality of life, rather than a specific emotional state. “That it really involves having an easy time experiencing positive states, getting through the difficult times and having a strong sense of social support."

She says altruism is a big part of that. 

“We talk about compassion and empathy and these sort of basic states where again we attune to each other.

“The notion that while humans are fundamentally competitive … we’re also fundamentally cooperative. In many regards the most constructive and happiness fostering way to engage with the world is to leverage both of those.” 

Emiliana Simon-Thomas

Emiliana Simon-Thomas Photo: YouTube / Fair use

She says some neuro-economists were skeptical of the idea that generosity could produce happiness and so tested it.

“In a scanner, an MRI scanner, and in one condition [the subject] would win all of the prize that came with a particular success that they had achieved.

“Then in another condition they would be told that they would give half of the prize away, and in the third condition they would give the full prize away. 

The researchers found in the charitable giving conditions the rewards systems lit up.

Some of the things that have been traditionally associated with happiness are actually not helpful, she says.

“What we know isn’t a reliable contributor to happiness is striving for pleasure, immediately gratifying our desires or expecting our desires to be immediately gratified all the time."

She says “irrational exuberance”, the idea that people should be always cheerful and suppress their authentic feelings in favour of appearing to be constantly joyful, is not good.

“Life doesn’t afford us that kind of homogenous experience. Rather, we suffer, and we experience pain and loss and the emotions that come with injustice … and these are very important to the human condition. 

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Striving to be a smiling joyous person all the time actually is harmful to a person's overall happiness.  Photo: 123rf.com

“Any program that would limit one’s capacity to embrace those kinds of emotional states is going to be harmful.”

She says students are quizzed throughout the course on a scientifically validated survey, and what it's found is that by learning more about happiness their stress and loneliness tended to go down, and they reported sharing a greater sense of common humanity with others. 

“Also, here’s a sneaky part, we also ask the student to give us the name and email of a friend … and even according to friends people start to behave in a way that conveys greater happiness as a result of learning these principles.” 

The students begin by covering some basic techniques for thinking about happiness. 

happy and sad face

Learning about happiness in the course actually improved students' state of mind - and how happy they appeared according to friends.  Photo: chrisdorney/123RF

“One of the ways that we can become more optimistic is really to get in the habit of imagining and thinking about the things that do bring us joy and pleasure day in and day out rather than reflecting on the things … that make us feel bad about ourselves."

A good exercise, she says, is to write down three things on a given day that made you feel good. Students also spend time looking at gratitude, mental habits and the problems of perfectionism, self-compassion and mindfulness.

“It doesn’t seem to be so arcane or obscure anymore, people are embracing the idea that being able to notice the kinds of thoughts and reactions and reflexes that pop up in our minds is actually a service to be able to pursue a life of happiness. 

“How important it is to quiet the inner critic that many of us walk around with that really chips away at our self worth and makes it more difficult for us to enjoy and appreciate things that can contribute to our happiness in meaningful ways.” 

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 Dr Simon-Thomas says general happiness and knowledge of techniques for improving state of mind is helpful, but cannot replace actual treatment for those affected by clinical depression or anxiety.  Photo: 123RF

She says she would not prescribe the practices and exercises from the course as a cure for any kind of clinical disorder like anxiety or depression however.

“But I do think that any human being can benefit from exercising their day in and day out behaviours in ways that are conducive to happiness rather than playing a passive role in their experiences." 

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