On June 10th, I started the Science of Well Being Course through Yale University on Coursera. I remember learning about this theme of “happy” courses that became popular during covid. I intended to take the class then but got distracted with my many short lived ventures like learning mandarin, becoming a minimalist and studying the truth behind Buddhism. Well, now is the best time to see what this course is about. Full disclosure. I would say I’m a pretty happy person. I definitely did go through my most anxious days when I was deep in my insomnia and obviously sometimes I have my days where I’m stressed or not feeling the best, but I would rank my happiness level as a good 7/10. And that’s how the course pretty much starts you off. You do these surveys to find out what your current happiness level is and what your personality type is, to give that awareness of where you are mentally. There are homework assignments called “rewirements” meant to help you put paper into practice. You have to journal, do certain activities that can boost your mood, including:

  • Savoring & Gratitude – appreciating a happy moment when it’s currently happening
  • Showing kindness and embracing social connection with loved ones and strangers. Going out of your way to be kind
  • Exercising everyday for at least 30 mins and sleeping at least 7 hours for at least 4 days in a week
  • Meditation practice and a letter of gratitude to someone who’s been influential in your life
  • Appreciate time affluence and use the time doing what every you’d like
  • At the end you’d focus on one of these rewirements and focus on practicing it intentionally for 4 weeks

Why Are We Often Not Happy

Some fascinating finds from this lesson came from the countless research papers that indicated ways we can make ourselves happier or sadder. It also illustrated our misconceptions on happiness: how what we think makes us happy can make us unfulfilled and things we think would make us unfulfilled may eventually make us happiest.

For example, In the (Levine et al 2012) study, students were scored on how they would feel if they got their final test grade and it exceeded their expectations, they got exactly what they were expecting or got a lower grade than they expected. The students were surveyed before they received their grades, choosing a score between 1 to 9 (1 being extremely sad and 9 being ecstatic) of what they projected their happiness level would be in each of those scenarios. Then, after they received their grades they chose a number between 1-9 expressing their actual happiness level for the current scenario they were in. What the researchers found was that the students assumed on average their happiness score (out of 1-9) would be 8.27 when getting scores above what they expected. 7.81 happiness when getting exactly what they expected and 4.42 average in happiness when getting below expectation. However, when the students received their test grades and went back to record their actual happiness score, the scores were pretty shocking. Actual happiness score for higher than expected grade was 6.55, 6.45 for exactly what was expected and a surprising 6.36 for lower than expected grade. This study suggests that we often dramatize what we think our reactions will be to good scenarios but most importantly, bad ones. For these students, they thought that getting a lower than expected grade would be the end of the world but when reality sinks in, it just isn’t.

Several other studies followed with this notion that we have an inherent misconception about not only what makes us happy and sad but also the depths of happiness and sadness tend to be exaggerated on both ends. When the negative scenario happened, they weren’t nearly as sad as they thought they would be. Our minds tend to dramatize negativity which is why, in many cases, we can’t trust our minds to feed us accurate information. In this scenario getting a really good grade and getting a very bad grade did not create drastic reactions on either end as the individuals coped with reality.

Things Our Mind Does to Create Unhappiness

The course also goes over the annoying features of our mind:

  • Annoying Feature #1 Our Mind’s Strongest Intuitions are usually totally wrong.
  • Annoying Feature # 2 Salient reference points can dictate our happiness. (Silver medal winners may not be as happy as the bronze winner as the bronze winner may be thinking “I just made it!” and the silver winner’s reference points tells him “damn, I almost got gold”. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to reference points.
  • Annoying Feature #3 Our minds are built to get use to things. We get accustomed to positive and/or negative things overtime.
  • Annoying Feature #4 We don’t realize our minds are built to get use to stuff

How We Can Become Happy

Some of the ways we can negate some of our annoying features of the mind and free ourselves from negativity include:

  • Invest in experiences vs material things. Because we adapt to things, investing in experiences for our memories means that we don’t have time to get used to it because an experience is fleeting. We can, though, fondly look back at it. (Van Bowen & Gilovich 2003) Surveyed people asking how happy experiences made them vs how happy material items purchased made them at the time and retrospectively. The experiences outweighed the material items. They found this in every level of income, experiences outweighed material purchases.
  • Savoring– stepping outside of an experience to truly appreciate it.
    • Be in the present, be fully absorbed in what your doing.
    • Communicate and express your feelings about a situation in the moment.
    • Think about how lucky and blessed you are
    • Take pictures (but don’t be more absorbed in the pictures rather than the moment. Use pictures to be able to look back and savor.
    • Rethink happy memories as though you’re playing back a memory tape.
    • (Things that can hurt savoring include: not being present and thinking instead about the future. telling yourself whatever is occurring isn’t as good as you expected. Reminding yourself nothing lasts forever. Thinking it would never be this good again. Telling yourself you don’t deserve good things)
  • Negative Visualization– thinking about how things would be without the things you’re currently blessed with. Or pretend this day would be your last. What would you miss?
  • Gratitude– act of being thankful and a real sense of gratefulness. Has incredibly powerful psychological effects. (Emmons & Mccolough 2010) had people write down what they appreciate, the control group were asked to write about their week and another group had to write about the obstacles in their day. The group that wrote about gratitude were able to exercise almost a whole hour more every week compared to the other groups. Physical symptoms were reduced, the upcoming week and life as a whole was thought more positively by the gratitude group.
  • Reset Reference Point– Eating chips next to chocolate can make us enjoy it less that eating it next to something we wouldn’t want to eat like sardines. If you’re accustomed to your situation, you can think back to when you were living or experiencing a worse situation which can rest your reference point and help you appreciate your current standing.
  • Stop” technique– if you’re comparing yourself in a negative light or negative thoughts are occurring, literally say “stop” to interrupt the flow of negativity and let your brain know you’re not approving these thoughts.
  • Social connectionMyers 2000: people with social ties are less vulnerable to premature death, more likely to survive a fatal illness, less likely to fall prey to extreme stressful events in life. Diener & Seligman 2002 study: divided people up amongst those that were happy and unhappy. Findings weren’t surprising. People who were very happy had more close friends, strong family ties, and more likely to have romantic partners compared to those who rated they weren’t happy. Also when rating time spent alone, the more unhappy people spent more time alone and less time with their families while the happy people spent less time alone and more time with their families. Nick & Schroeder 2014 did a study to examine people’s happiness scores when communicating with others. People were placed in groups in which they had to either make a connection, stay in solitude or do what they would normally do on a subway train. People rate their current happiness and predict if they’d be more happy being in solitude vs making a connection on the train. People typically felt being in solitude would make them happier as socializing with a random person on the train seems mortifying for some. But of course the opposite happens. The people in solitude actually were less happy after the train ride and the people who had to make a connection on the train actually had an increase in happiness. They also found that the people who were talked to, in a similar study, also rated higher in positivity when being talked to. This finding shows the importance of social connection but also, again, how our mind deceives us slightly in terms of what we think would make us happy vs what actually does.
  • Time Affluence– You have time to do the things you’d like to do. Whillans et al 2016 gave two scenarios to people. 1) Tina who values her time more than money. Willing to sacrifice her money for more time. and 2) Maggie who values her money more than time. Willing to sacrifice time to have more money. People were asked who they were more like. The people who were more like Tina, who values her time, also rated themselves to be more happy than the group who rated similar to Maggie who values money over time.
  • Mind Control– Mind wandering to things not in the here and now. (Killingsworth & Gilbert) asked a sample of people what they were currently doing and asked if they were currently thinking about what they were doing. Findings were that 46.9% of people were not thinking about what they were suppose to focus on. Why? A network in the brain called default network kicks in by default whenever we’re not doing a task. Seems to be more efficient to default this part of the brain when not concentrating. In a scan, when you’re done with a task, other parts of the brain lights up. Neuroscientists describe it as task non -responsive regions. Default mode network (DMN) can come on within a fraction of a second once you’re done with the task. This region helps us think outside the here and now. Neuroscientists scan people’s brains when actively thinking about the past or future (outside of the here and now) and that’s exactly what parts of the brain kick on when it goes into default mode. We seem to be the only species that can get out of our own current moment however it tends to stress us out more. Mind wandering, especially about negative things brings unhappiness.
  • Meditation– Can help turning attention away from wandering thoughts and focusing it on something else. It’s an extremely effective way to quiet the mind and unwanted thoughts. Brewer et al 2011 scanned meditators brains while meditating and found that they were using the DMN (Default mode network) less while meditating. They were focused in the present. Also found other regions in the brain have more connections with other parts of the brain to shut up the DMN and this also occurred outside of meditation which suggest it can curb mind wandering when meditating and when not meditating. Fredrickson et al 2008 found that love and kindness meditation over 8 weeks improves happiness score.
  • Exercise– In the Babyak et al 2000 study, they had a group of 156 people suffering from major depression. They were split into 3 groups. One group just added exercise 3 x per week for 30 mins to their routine, another group only took the anti-depressant zoloft, and the last group took zoloft and exercised. The study was implemented for 16 weeks. The results revealed that in the exercise group, about 90% of people recovered from depression. Solely medication group was about 50% recovery and the medication plus exercise recovery was about 60%. Hillman et al 2008 found a correlation suggesting connection between physical health and cognitive performance among children and elder adults. Those who exercise more perform better cognitively.
  • SleepDinges et al 1997 studied group of people sleeping 7 or more hours a night. These people naturally rated their moods high. When they were restricted to 5 hour sleeps, their moods were rated very poor and as soon as they were allowed 7 hours of sleep again, the moods rose. Number of physical and emotional complaints also rose with reduced sleep. Sleep can also help cognitive performance. Walker et al 2002 had a study in which they taught people a cognitive and motor task and tested the subjects on this task either after a long period of being awake (trained at 10 am and tested them at 10 pm) or they tested after a night’s rest for a required number of hours (trained at 10 pm and tested at 10 am). Found people who slept prior to the test had a significant boost in cognition over the people who were trained and tested after hours of being up. Some sleep researchers advocate taking naps in the middle of the day to get a cognitive boost.
  • According to the course:
    • After one night of bad sleep you’re hungrier, more likely to have on the job accidents, more haggard looking, losing brain tissue, immune system goes down, memory problems, more likely to be very emotional.
    • After chronic sleep deprivation (5 hours or less consistently) increases risk of death, decreases sperm count, increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, obesity and stroke.

Plan of Action to Change your life TODAY

We have situational habits that tend to lead us astray so, simply put, we need to find and create situational habits that support us vs bring us down. Alot of the studies that talk about habits focus on food but practicing these good habits can apply to many situations. Brian Wansink states will power is overrated, changing the situation/ your surroundings can help reduce the grip our bad habits have on us. Painter et al 2002: had a group of secretaries with either a bowl of candy on their desk, bowl of candy 2 meters away on another table less visible or candy hidden in their drawer. Results found that the secretaries with candy on their desk consumed 48% more than the ones with the candy 2 meters away. When comparing the candy visible on the desk vs hidden in the drawer, the ones with candy in the drawer consumed 25% less. Even though there was proximity, the visibility was important and the secretaries with the candy in the drawer didn’t have the constant visible reminder the secretaries with candy on the desk did. Visibility and convenience matters. Wansink et al 2016 also did a study on what was visible on people’s counters and analyzed their weight. He found that those with cookies/baked goods, chips, crackers, cereal and soda visible had up to 10kg more in weight than those who had the same goods but it was not visible. On the contrary when you have nutritional foods visible like fruit and vegetables, weight was seen to be less than those who had those items hidden.

Similarly, if social media is a concern you can delete the social media app. Shape your environment to have less of the bad cues that are causing you to value things that aren’t serving you. Just by having positive things that are valuable to you or motivate you to do positive things around you, it can help you focus more on your goals. Surround yourself around like-minded people who are already doing positive habits that you’d like to do and also continue to build community with love and kindness.

You also want to think about your goals in a more specific way.

  • Think about what your goal is and create quantitative specificity behind it. It gives you a plan to act on.
  • Goal visualization is also very important. Positive thinking towards the goal is only half of it. Think of the outcome in detail but also think about the obstacles that may get in your way (mental contrasting). This helps create a realistic perspective on your goal. You have visualized both things that you need to succeed. Just thinking about the good that could happen or just thinking about the bad that can happen can prevent you from actually taking action.
  • Finally goal planning is necessary. If-then plan can be a great technique to gain will power. Set yourself up in a specific goal plan.. “if I see a cookie in the kitchen, then I will ignore it and grab an apple”. In the Gollwitzer and Brandstatter 1997 study, students had easy to meet goals and hard to meet goals. Students were asked if they have an implementation intention and the ones who did have an if-then plan had significant increase in meeting their goal especially the hard goals.
  • W ish, ponder on your goal
  • O utcome, think about the best outcome
  • O bstacles, acknowledge potential obstacles
  • P lan, have your if-then plan

This WOOP technique is a great way to complete goals. Duckworth et al 2013: Disadvantaged 5th graders chose a goal that was related to school work and they used the WOOP method to achieve this. Findings were that their GPA boosted an entire grade level, higher conduct rating by the teachers and less absences. Stadler et al 2009 study on exercise goals for middle aged women. Practiced the WOOP method and measured activity months later. Found that women asked to do WOOP vs control were exercising more but also increased activity time even 10 weeks on.

Conclusion

In the end, this course was a thorough, research based way to educate people on why their minds may do the things that it does. I think the most valuable lesson to learn from this course is that emotions and what your mind is telling you, or leaning towards often times can be deceitful and might make us sadder in the end even if our intention is to be happier. I do believe we have the logical side of ourselves that knows that watching tv all day when you have homework to do is unproductive and will leave you more stressed in the end, but we find it easier to listen to the side of our mind that tells us to indulge in what feels good now. With how advanced our brains are, it still has not caught up to the advancements we’ve made in life. To feel crippling anxiety when speaking in front of people does not make sense but to our brains it does. We must take control of how our thinking makes us feel and our reactions to it.

Having the understanding that we don’t have to be zombies to our minds and there are things we can do to take back control is only half the journey. This course beautifully gives tangible ways to create a plan of action and motivate you to fight for what you deserve which is happiness. There were alot of practices I learned to do while I was getting out of my anxious, insomniac state and I unknowingly used several of these tips. Learned to meditate, spoke to myself positively and stopped myself when I would start to think anxiously. I surrounded myself with loved ones, put sleep and nutrition as a priority, pushed myself to move towards what I truly want to do in life to make me more fulfilled. I could definitely improve on exercising though.

Overall, I can truly say these techniques are gold standard techniques for getting out of your negative head and living instead in a world of peace and love, enforced by you. This course has given me even more tools in my toolbox that can help me ward off any future negativity that wants to creep it’s way in. There’s true power in taking control of your mind and it should be everyone’s constant goal in life to do so.

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