Happiness made easy

25 04 2015

Everyone wants to be happy. There are a lot of theories and even philosophies that explain the “science of happiness”, but as a layperson, I just want to know exactly what I can do to achieve happiness. While there are no shortcuts, researchers have put together a number of practices, which, when incorporated in our lives, will actually make us happier.¬† Here they are for the benefit of the mankind ūüôā :

  1. Three Good Things – Every day at the end of the day, write down three good things that happened to you that day. This is the easiest. Before hitting the bed, my son and I tell each other the three good things that happened to us that day. Makes the ritual exciting ;).
  2. Active listening – take time to listen to someone, with total focus. Take an active interest in what the other person has to say. Show support and empathy. Practice it at least once a week.
  3. Random Acts of Kindness – Each day, do an act of kindness to one or more people. The key is to be kind in different ways and to spread them across the days. Doing 10 kind things a day and nothing for the next few days, doesn’t work. Also, it is important to do different acts of kindness, rather than doing the same thing to the same person or different people. Much to my chagrin, I didn’t find this practice as effortless as I thought it would be. For one thing, maybe I have a higher threshold for kindness. And also, it is sometimes embarrassing to feel good about myself by just being or doing something nice.
  4. Forgive – This is perhaps the hardest one. Make a list of people and actions that warrant the effort to forgive. Take each one, think about it and reflect on how it impacted you – psychologically and/or physically. When you are ready, “decide to forgive”. Here, it is important to understand what forgiveness really means. It does not mean forgetting or condoning the actions or even reconciling. It just means that you are letting go of your resentment. Extending the hand of mercy actually helps “you” more than the recipient. The other person doesn’t even have to know that you have forgiven him/her.
  5. Meditation – Mindful breathing, Body scan meditation. Being mindful helps you calm down and brings serenity when practiced regularly. Of course, there are lot of other benefits associated with meditation. Its positive impact on our lives cannot be overstated. The crux of mindful meditation is not about not having any thoughts but rather being aware of them when they occur and bringing the wandering mind back to the breath. This awareness itself helps us in being more mindful. Research states that a wandering mind is the cause of happiness, not the consequence. A focused or mindful mind is happier.
  6. Self-compassionate Letter Рidentity something about yourself that makes you feel sad or ashamed  or insecure etc. Then write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance of the part of yourself that you dislike. When you feel really down, or berate yourself for something, or generally feel bad about yourself, imagine what you would say to a best friend who feels the same. Extend the same compassion towards yourself.
  7. Best Possible Self – Imagine the best possible life you can imagine in the next five years and write down about it. Consider all relevant areas of your life – career, relationships etc. Be very specific. I found that having multiple best possible selves is really helpful because it broadens our thinking and enables us to learn more about ourselves. It helps us to be more optimistic – even if plan A fails, we have other plans ready. ūüėõ
  8. Gratitude Journal – Write about the things or experiences for which you are grateful. Do it thrice a week to be effective. Don’t overdo it. ūüėõ
  9. Gratitude Letter –¬† Write a honest and candid letter to someone to whom you are grateful for. Better if it is someone/something that you haven’t thought about lately or that is not often on your mind. Deliver the letter in person and read it to him/her.
  10. Writing About Awe – Write about a time when you felt “awe”. It might be about nature, work of art, human kindness, or spiritual experience.

Part 12 of Science of Happiness Series (Final).

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9    Part 10    Part 11


Mindfulness and happiness

29 12 2014

In my opinion, much of our worry and unhappiness are the result of our inability to be in “the present”. Most of the times, we tend to be ruminating about our past or worrying or planning about the future. Inspirational author Spencer Johnson (most famously known for his¬† “Who Moved My Cheese”), in his best-selling book “The Present” emphasized that “the present moment is the best present (gift) you can give yourself.” None can fail to agree with this wisdom. But, in reality, mind-wandering is so ubiquitous that it’s affecting our lives adversely.

Do you know that our minds wander about half the time? A study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert on 15,000 subjects¬† revealed that¬† people think about something other than what they are doing about 47% of the time. Of course, it varies among various activities. But it is interesting to note that in every activity other than sex, our minds wander at least 30% of the time. Even during “work”, our minds wander half the time. Too bad!!

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Research finds that being able to be aware of the present – being mindful to ourselves, and our surroundings will reduce stress & anxiety, and improve health & happiness.

Mindfulness is generally defined as “non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). In “Mindfulness Meditation”, one should focus on breath and every time a thought occurs aka mind wanders, one has to bring the focus back to the breath. The idea is not to have no thoughts at all, because it’s almost impossible. Realizing that the mind is wandering and consciously bringing it back to the “breath” is the crux of this type of meditation. With practice, it will become easier and also one will observe that the mind wandering is reduced – it slows down.

Shauna Shapiro, internationally recognized expert in mindfulness, defines “mindfulness as “the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention in an open, kind, and discerning way”.¬† She emphasizes that “intention”, “attention”, and “attitude” are¬† the important aspects of mindfulness. We need to set the compass our heart to pay attention to something intentionally. And we need to approach it with the right attitude – with openness, curiosity, warmth, a sense of trust, gentleness, kindness.

We need to be kind to ourselves. Calming our mind is not an easy process.¬† But every time you catch your mind when it’s wandering and bring it back to whatever it is your are doing – if it is meditation, focus on the breath – you can congratulate yourself. You should not be frustrated that your mind wanders. It’s how it is and you are trying to calm it down. Be gentle and kind to yourself. It gets better with practice.

At this point, there¬† is a need to make a distinction between “mindfulness’ and “meditation”. Meditation is much broader in its scope.¬† Being mindful is only one part of it. Also, you can practice mindfulness even when not meditating.

A related concept is “flow”, a state when we truly feel like we’re “in the moment” or “in the zone”. We all experience it occasionally – when we are engrossed in some activity and lose all track of time.¬† “Flow” is intrinsically rewarding. We achieve “flow” when we engage in a task that is highly challenging for which we have a high level of skill.¬† The balance between the challenge and high skill is integral to flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the pioneer researcher of “flow”, says that it is the secret of happiness.

Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of “Emotional Intelligence”, in his latest book “Focus” focuses on precisely the same topic. Being mindful and focused is the most essential driver of success, not only for individuals and in personal settings, but also for organizations and workplace settings. He says that it is essential to be aware of our negative feelings and thoughts too. We need to acknowledge them and address them. I don’t know more about this book, but I’m sure it has lot of enlightening and useful stuff for all of us.

Part 11 of Science of Happiness Series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9    Part 10

Gratitude, happiness, and relationships

14 11 2014

Gratitude is another positive emotion that is strongly associated with happiness. Specifically, it boosts happiness, self-worth, social relations and optimism. It lowers negative emotions such as envy, materialism, self-blame etc.

To be grateful means to allow oneself to be placed in the position of a recipient‚ÄĒto feel indebted, aware of one‚Äôs dependence on others, and obligated to reciprocate.Above all, Gratitude is a mindset than a single act. The realization that all is gift is freeing, and freedom is the very foundation upon which gratitude is based.

One interesting thing is, gratitude may seem counter-intuitive to us.¬† “Thinking about oneself is natural, humility is unnatural.” We may have to really fight our narcissist instincts to cultivate gratitude in life, but it’s well worth it.

As eminent psychologist Thomas Gilovich puts it, there are two major enemies of gratitude:

  • The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry or negativity bias, which refers to our tendency to see the things that are holding us back more clearly than that are pushing us forward.
  • Power of adaptation – which refers to our tendency to get used to things and take them for¬†granted.

Practicing gratitude means counting your blessings. Life may not always be just, but you feel grateful for what you have got and move on. Gratitude amplifies the good in our lives – it enables us to notice the good, to reflect more positively on our past. It improves our social lives – because people like grateful people, it enhances pro-social behavior.

However, there is an important caveat to the practice of gratitude. More is not always good. Research studies have shown that while recording in the gratitude journal thrice¬†a week boosted¬† happiness,¬† recording daily didn’t result in any increase in well-being. So, don’t overdose on gratitude.

An important thing we need to keep in mind while practicing gratitude is that we should not ignore or fail to recognize our own effort and value. Grateful people give credit to others, but not at the expense of acknowledging their own responsibility for their success. They take credit, too. It’s not either/or. 

Research suggests that gratitude is a key ingredient to successful romantic relationships. Sara Algoe’s study found that grateful couples are more satisfied in their relationships and felt closer to each other. Amie Gordon has done some remarkable research on Gratitude in romantic relationships and she defines gratitude in this context as “appreciating not just what your partner does, but who they are as a person”. You just don’t thank the person for the “act” but thank their intention behind the act. She says that gratitude means “thinking about all about your partner’s best traits and remembering why you got into a relationship with them in the first place.”

This is really a profound insight because one of the major problems in long term relationships is that the spark usually fizzles out with time and partners take each other for granted before too long and this results in a kind of disillusionment and/or everyday dissatisfaction, which may introduce new problems. But if we continue to appreciate our partners and be grateful for their presence in our lives, the relationships will continue to bloom.

Couples researchers Philip and Carolyn Cowan have shown that when the partners feel that the division of work in their relationship is unfair, they are more dissatisfied with their marriage and more likely to think they would better off divorced. But Jess Alberts and Angela Trethwey theorized and affirmed that it’s not the division of labor but the expression of gratitude that’s the key to strong and lasting relationship.

Jess Alberts and Angela Trethwey explain how one partner gets stuck with a particular household chore. The first thing is, there is something called “response threshold”, which may be different for each partner. So, the one who has lower response threshold for a task acts earlier on it than the other. Secondly, if a partner is skilled at a particular task, it increases his or her chance to perform the task again. As a result of¬†these phenomena, the partner who does a particular task more frequently is perceived as a specialist and gets stuck with that task. Thus is the pattern set.¬† The problem here is that the under-performing partner does not feel grateful because, the over-performing partner is just doing his/her job. And this is a sure recipe for resentment and frustration. Given that each partner has different thresholds for different tasks and have different sets of skills, appreciating each other’s effort and contribution¬† and feeling grateful for each other boosts bonding. So, when the division of labor is unfair, perceiving the efforts of over-performing partner as gifts is important.¬† This typically makes the other partner feel obligated to reciprocate by offering his or own gifts by contributing more to household tasks.

Amie emphasizes the importance of communicating our appreciation and gratefulness to our partners; just feeling is not sufficient. Because only then it will result in the generosity cycle (That is, one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that convey gratitude to each other and promote commitment to their relationship.) :

Feel grateful -> Work to keep relationship (Express gratitude, show concern, be attentive etc.) ->Partner feels appreciated -> Partner feels grateful

However, practicing gratitude in abusive and/or unhealthy relationships is not good for you.

Part 9 of Science of Happiness Series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8

Forgiveness and happiness

10 11 2014

It’s not uncommon in our lives that we are (or feel we are) not treated well or caused harm by others and we find ourselves unable to forgive them. We strongly seek retribution for the injustice we suffered and often times are overwhelmed by the intense need to undo the past or seek vengeance.

“Forgiveness” seems a concept that is deemed to apply only to those special few, who are either highly spiritual and/or enlightened beings and is not in the capacity of normal “us”.¬† Even though it appeals to us intellectually, it’s often very hard to assimilate it and put it in practice. I myself was ‘uncomfortable’ with the idea and often wondered how one can/should approach it.

From the Science of Happiness course, I learnt that this delusion is deeply rooted in our misconceptions about what “forgiveness” actually means.

Researchers suggest that Forgiveness involves four components:

  • Acceptance that transgression happened
  • Reduced urge to punish or seek vengeance
  • Decline in avoidance
  • Increase in compassion toward offender for their own suffering

More importantly, Forgiveness is not

  • reconciling with the person who have harmed you
  • condoning the offence
  • absolving the offender of responsibility

Usually, we feel wronged because we expect certain behavior from others and we get something totally different.¬† Fred Luskin, one of the pioneer researches on Forgiveness gives it a simple definition: forgiveness is the ability to make peace with the word ‚Äúno.‚ÄĚ (Must read: Choice to Forgive)

Please take time to watch the below two videos. They describe the concept most effectively and beautifully. They totally changed my perception about Forgiveness.

(Too bad, no easy way to embed https videos)

But does “forgiveness” always work? What if, the transgression too big? “The big transgressions are not necessarily ‚Äúunforgivable‚ÄĚ because they are big. Instead, big transgressions are often the ones that, if they are ever to be surmounted, must be forgiven.” (Everett L. Worthington Jr.)

By changing our response to the transgression, we can rid ourselves of the negative effects on physical, mental, relational, and spiritual health that result from practicing unforgiveness. Clearly, these benefits lead to more happiness and greater satisfaction in relationships.

But there is an important caveat for the role of forgiveness in marriages. In abusive relationships, in which one partner frequently mistreats the other, the forgiving partner becomes less satisfied with his/her marriage.

Part 8 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5    Part 6    Part 7

Friendships and happiness

7 11 2014

Like many other important relationships, friendships also tend to relate to greater happiness. Studies have found that friendships are strongly associated with happiness. It is important to note that both quality and quantity of friendships matter. Like all associations, it may be difficult to determine whether friendships lead to more happiness or happy people tend to make more and better friendships but some studies have suggested that the former is more likely.

Some of the many benefits of friendships include:

  • Practical help
  • Emotional support
  • Confiding or sharing as coping
  • The tendency toward friendship counteracts the responses of stress.

Scientists define the tangible and intangible benefits we get from our web of contacts, coworkers, friendships, family, and more as ‘Social Capital’. We need to work on building this capital for our own happiness. We all have strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties constitute close relations, best friends, partners, family etc. Weak ties are our acquaintances, either online or offline, professional networks and the like. Both strong and weak ties are essential and contribute to our social capital. Social capital is a fluid and we need to nurture it continually. ¬†By setting the priorities right, we can avoid getting overwhelmed by having to maintain all of our ties.

In today’s diverse society, it is important to have egalitarian attitude because it makes interaction with people from other groups less stressful. As such, cross-group bonds play an important role in our happiness and health.

So, make time and reach out for your friends. You can only be so much happy in your life without them.

Part 7 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4     Part 5    Part 6

Parenting and happiness

5 11 2014

Does parenting lead to happiness? Can’t give a simple straight answer to this. The relationship between parenting and happiness seems nuanced. Research suggests the following:

  • If purposeful, then parents are happy
  • If parents share the responsibility, both are happier. But if only one takes care of the child, he/she feels stressful and unhappy
  • ¬†Happiness of parents also depends on the temperament of the child
  • When the children are young, parents undergo lot of stress and put in lot of effort leading to being unhappy – less happy than their original set point. But when the children are older, parents report more happiness than non-parents.
  • Older parents are generally happier than young parents (may be having better financial status and maturity enable¬†them to handle and enjoy parenting better)

Different people have different perspectives about “parenting”. Some even think that it is overrated.¬† In my opinion, getting married and having children are natural courses of life – both evolutionarily and socially. I find it very hard to understand how and when they have become debatable. People are commitment phobic and don’t want to get married. They want to try out all other possible arrangements instead. But I believe nothing proves to be as sustainable as marriage. It is an institution that survived so long. There must be something right about it. Likewise, some people are apprehensive about being parents. Parenting is a huge responsibility. It involves lot of effort, resources, and energy.¬† But whatever the costs of being in a marriage or¬† being parents, the benefits far outweigh them. No pain, no gain.

One of the popular tendencies I have noticed lately is that often people want the benefits, without paying the cost. Because the highly individualistic and materialistic western culture, which seems to be gaining popularity all over the world, professes that it’s one’s right to get what one wants and one is entitled to happiness. It defines happiness as pleasure. That’s the reason people want companionship and other benefits of marriage but do not want to deal with the duties and responsibilities it demands of the couple – both towards each other¬†and to the others (family and society in general). People like the laughter of kids but are wary of the difficult¬†process of raising them. Focusing on immediate comfort and short-term goals, people fail to perceive the big picture and envision the long-term gains. The need to understand that¬†happiness is “having a meaningful and purposeful life, rather than just pleasure-seeking” is paramount.

I don’t deny that getting married and/or becoming a parent ultimately comes down to one’s personal choice. There is nothing wrong in choosing not to. But, if you want to be happy in your life, give “marriage” and “parenting” a chance. The results of many scientific studies make a strong case for them.

Please note that I don’t mean to¬†generalize the notions I put forth here. Nevertheless, my opinions are based¬†on some of my observations.

Part 6 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4     Part 5

Marriage and happiness

29 09 2014

We are evolutionarily, and biologically wired to form social connections. And these social connections boost our well-being. The most important of our relationships are romantic relationships.

Marriage – it’s the cause of much happiness and otherwise too when it doesn’t turn out well. Some studies conclude that married people are happier compared to unmarried people. There is also another recent finding that says that once married but now divorced people are sadder than those who are either married or never married.

The question is – is it the institution or the people? Put in other words, does marriage makes people happy or happy people tend to have good marriages? A research study has shown that on an average it takes 2 years after marriage for people to come back to their baseline level of happiness. Hmm..

Nevertheless, a happy marriage is what most people seek. John Gottman has done a lot of research and conducted several studies trying to figure out the determinants and breakers of marriage stability.¬† A study conducted by him along with Robert Levenson focused on the communication skills between the couple that affect the marriage. By just watching a 3 -min muted video clipping of a couple chatting, he can predict with about¬†90% accuracy whether they will stay together after 6 years. Remarkable. Isn’t it? This technique is called thin slicing. He says that how couples interact on a day-to-day basis conveys so much about their relationship. According to him, there are four things, the occurrence of which can predict marriage instability or divorce:

  • Contempt
  • Criticism
  • Stonewalling
  • Defensiveness

So, what makes a stable and happy marriage?

  • Humor
  • Gratitude
  • Appreciation
  • Forgiveness
  • Emotional disclosure

Now that the wisdom is out in the open, make the best of use of it! ūüėČ

Well, of course, not all problems of a marriage can be solved by these tips but undoubtedly these will definitely help. The first and foremost thing that is essential, before one attempts to apply these invaluable dos and don’ts, is  one’s belief in marriage and the desire to make it work, without which everything becomes pretentious and superficial.

Part 4 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3

Relationships and happiness

25 09 2014

Relationships are an important part of our happiness. We derive a major chunk of our happiness from our various relationships –¬† both intimate and otherwise. Research has shown that number of friends is a good predictor of happiness. Also that talking with friends is strongly related to being happy. A Daniel Kahneman study found that intimate relations and socializing are the most highly associated experiences with positive emotions.

The converse is true too. Loneliness causes unhappiness. Lonely people have weaker immune system, difficulty of sleeping, and hyper-inflammation in their bodies. It is interesting to note here that social exclusion/loneliness (social pain) activates the same regions of the brain that signal physical pain.

From evolutionary perspective, we are a care-giving species. we tend to reconcile when conflict occurs (a reconciling species),  we have a sense that we are all fairly similar, we are a hyper-coordinated species. We imitate the behavior of other individuals in our group. We tend to maintain monogamy ( or at least try to).

We have lost some of our ultra-sociality now evident by the increasing no. of divorces, less happy marriages, and loneliness. So, what are the obstacles? – insecure style of attachment is one. There are three styles of attachment (John Bowlby):

  • Secure – loving, warm, and affectionate
  • Anxious – always worry about the trustworthiness of the bond ; worries, intrusive, insecure, feeling of abandonment; more likely to have experienced divorce, abuse, or loss of a parent
  • Avoidant – cold, aloof, dismissive

Secure people tend to have greater life satisfaction, greater happiness, more likely to be in stable relationships, experience more positive emotions on a day-to-day basis, more optimistic, more likely to forgive, to offer social support to their partners. Several studies have found that inducing feelings of attachment security in adults can help overcome some of the negative effects of an insecure attachment history.

It is argued that early childhood attachment patterns predict adult attachment styles in romantic relationships later in life. However, Meghan Laslocky, in this article, says that the pattern can be changed. She feels that it will help: to first learn about one’s attachment style (knowledge is power), then seek out partners with secure attachment style, find a therapist, and go to couple therapy -if both have insecure style.

Scientific studies have shown that we are also biologically wired to socially connect. We have something called “vagus nerve”, which is strongly related to feelings of connection and care toward others.- it is interconnected to oxytocin networks, regulates inflammatory responses to disease, it relates to stronger immune system, it helps you communicate, to empathize, feel compassion. Oxytocin is a hormone that is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” the “love hormone,” or the “moral molecule.” Oxytocin increases monogamous tendencies in mammalian species. It quiets stress responses. It‚Äôs a promoter of family attachments, social connections and friendships.

Can we seek and achieve happiness outside of our relationships? Absolutely yes, and it’s required too. Though relationships – life partner, children, parents, close friends, – contribute a lot, they are not everything. Depending solely on someone or a few for our happiness is a mantra for disaster. It’s difficult for both the parties. It often results in feelings of disappointment on one side and burden on the other side.

Part 3 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2

The pursuit of happiness

21 09 2014

It shouldn’t be a surprise that true, lasting happiness comes when we give, when we look outside of ourselves, when we are kind. So, what makes happiness a worthy goal? Well, research has shown that happiness results in longevity, better immune system, more creativity, better negotiation skills, better academic performance, more productivity, being more trustworthy etc., among others.

It makes sense because happiness is a state in which we have our minds open, we have positive emotions and feelings, we worry less and hence have more energy to deal with life.  Happy people:

  • have fulfilling relationships
  • are often spiritual or religious
  • savor the pleasures of the moment
  • have meaningful life goals
  • practice optimism about future
  • feel more gratitude
  • tend to help others more
  • make physical activity a habit

Sonja Lyubomirsky says that there are two main ways positive emotions help us:

  1. They open us. Literally widens the boundaries of our awareness and thus help us look at the big picture. (Directly relates to being more creative, problem-solving etc.)
  2. They transform us for the better. In fact, they bring out the best in us.

She moves on and emphasizes that a positivity ratio (no. of positive emotions/no. of negative emotions) of at least 3 is essential to experience happiness. Of course, we need to track this ratio on a daily basis for a while, say two weeks or so, to be able to comment upon our general degree of positivity. She has put up a free website to enable people to know and track their positivity ratio: www.postivityratio.com. How nice of her. It’s disturbing to realize that ratios lower than 3 are very common.

And we need to consciously strive to become happier. This brings us to the question  Рhow to go about it? Or in the first place Рis it possible to become happier? The pessimistic arguments include:

  • We all have a set-point or baseline of happiness that we are born with (determined by our genetics)
  • Happiness is a life-long personality trait, something which cannot be changed easily
  • We succumb to the phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation”, which means that we all adapt to things which give us happiness and after a while they don’t make us happy any more.

While there is ring of truth to these ideas, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues believe that there are intentional activities we can pursue to counteract our set points and hedonic adaptation. According to them, the determinants of happiness are:

  • 50% – genetic disposition
  • 10% – circumstances
  • 40% – intentional activity

While these percentages are approximations, she draws our attention to the small role of our circumstances in determining our happiness. She also alerts us to the fact that the 40% intentional activity may increase or decrease our set-point. So, we must be really careful about our actions.

Some of the things that hinder the process of achieving happiness include certain mental habits, which include our inability to correctly judge what is going to make us happy and how long will it make us happy. A phenomenon, referred to by Dan Gilbert, a happiness expert, as affective forecasting suggests that we are bad at predicting how a life event will affect us. We usually revert sooner than we think we will. Our psychological immune system works better than we think it does. Hedonic treadmill also adversely affects our pursuit of happiness.

The point is we should not look for happiness in wrong places. As Daniel Kahneman deduced, above a certain point ($75k per annum), increase in income level does not result in increase in level of well-being. Another psychologist, Tom Gilovich has found out that people derive greater happiness down the line from the money spent on an experience in contrast to the money spent on a material good.

To conclude, let me put down the three essentials that contribute to happiness.

  • Moderate levels of Physical exercise
  • Sound sleep
  • Sense of achievement

But trying to become happier is like trying to lose weight. You need to work on it consciously, steadily, and with perseverance. And we were given our first happiness practice. It’s called “Three Good Things”.

Instructions: Each day, write down three things that went well for you that day. Be as detailed as possible. Focus on positive feelings. Explain what you think caused it.

This is a good start. What do you say?

Part 2 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1

The science of happiness

10 09 2014

Learning new things and acquiring new knowledge has never been this fun. Massively Open Online Courses, called MOOCs for short, have revolutionized learning. Offered by prestigious academic institutes on a variety of topics, it’s a pleasure all the way to be part of them. And a majority of them are absolutely free. Consequently, in a fit of greed, I sometimes find myself enrolling in a number of courses simultaneously, only to leave many of them after only a week or two. I constantly have to remind myself to check my priorities and choose wisely, and never pursue more than a couple of courses at a time.¬† Nonetheless, I successfully finished a few¬†courses and I can vouch for the brilliant material as well as great teaching. With this preamble, I would like to start a series on my blog, chronicling my experiences of my journey along some very interesting and wonderful courses, related to topics which are close to my heart.

Disclaimer: The content and ideas in these series will be borrowed from the course. The intent is not to reproduce any material but to ponder aloud and reflect on things from the course that interest/intrigue/disturb me. 

I’m currently pursuing The Science of Happiness from edX, offered by Berkley. Even in its first week, I can see its potential. I’m sure I’ll have great time learning about research on happiness and discover how to be happy. To start with, I must mention this amazing portal – Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, which has a wealth of information in the form of award-winning articles on anything and everything about leading a happy and meaningful life. Do check it out. The course instructors Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas are eminent scholars in this area of research.

As I was reading ‘Happiness, the Hard Way‘ by¬† Darrion M. McMahon, I was struck by how it was perceived in the past, by our ancestors. I was surprised to learn that earlier, happiness was never taken for granted. People used to feel that “not being happy” is the norm and those who are happy are the lucky exceptions. They used to perceive happiness to be a divine gift. So, it was ok not to be happy. In the past, people used to think that one cannot try to achieve happiness. It just happens to oneself. For some classical philosophers, being happy is not easy. It involves lot of pain. It sounds paradoxical, but living good lives is never easy. ūüôā

How much it contrasts with today’s notion that “happiness is our right” and that it’s in our hands! The problem with today’s obsession with achieving happiness is just that – an obsession. An unhealthy one perhaps. It results in lot of stress too. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should not strive for happiness.

But for that, one needs to have a clear and precise conception of what happiness really is. As Emiliana Simon-Thomas clarifies, happiness is not about always feeling good, not the absence of negative emotions, or not feeling pleasure all the time. Both ancient wisdom and current scientific research claim that happiness is about leading good and meaningful lives.

Dacher’s research is all about how compassion, gratitude, wonder, awe, and amusement, among other positive emotions, which he refer to as jen emotions, are essential ingredients of happiness. He says that “we are Born to Be Good“. He coins a new term y called the “jen ratio” as a true metric of well-being. Jen ratio is simply the ratio of ”¬† the recent actions by someone that bring good in others to completion” to “the recent actions that bring bad in others to completion”.

Darrin M. McMahon’s article beautifully brings together and contrasts the ancient and modern views of happiness. Let me quote from it: ‚ÄúHappiness is a life lived according to virtue,‚ÄĚ Aristotle famously says. It is measured in lifetimes, not moments.

June Gruber, in his article – Four Ways Happiness Can Hurt You, raises an interesting point: The state of happiness makes one slow down and relax, and hence hurts in competition. What I don’t understand is, if we are happy, how can we become less happy, so that we can fare better in a competition? Or, if we don’t see winning the competition as essential to maintaining or improving our happiness, does it matter if we win or lose? Or put in another way, if winning or doing better in a competition is essential to our well-being, we would definitely strive for it right? This implies that our present condition is “less happy”. Of course, I understand the logic that happy people lack the drive to do well in a competition compared to unhappy people (the same point discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book – David and Goliath). But why the blind pressure to succeed in the first place? After a point, success means nothing, just like money.

A small digression: Of course, success gives a sense of accomplishment and augments self-esteem. But I think that, after a point you have to free yourself from having to prove your worth to yourself and others. I think it all comes down to Gita’s philosophy – do what you have to do without thinking about the results. Enjoy the journey!

The important takeaway so far for me from the course is the unsettling notion that – pursuing happiness may actually make one unhappy.

I think that detachment is the best and “striking the balance/finding the fine line” is the second best.

Part 1 of Science of Happiness series.