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 🙂 :

  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 – identity 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. 😛
  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. 😛
  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

How to learn: The right way

26 01 2015

I distinctly remember the feeling of despair that engulfed me when I was 10 and envisioned a weary future with seemingly never ending years of academics interspersed with vacations that always seemed just too short. The end of the tunnel, when I can forget schooling and get on with life carefree, seemed too far to be comforting. I dreaded the journey; the plethora of assignments, and exams.

What I never imagined was that along the journey I would succumb to Stockholm syndrome – come to enjoy it and even fall in love with the process of learning. I now realize that for the initiated, learning would never cease to occur, be in a formal academic setting or otherwise.

Thus I find myself these days pursuing academic programs, and MOOCs to my intense relish. Everyone has their own way of learning, their own bag of tricks when it comes to analyzing and understanding concepts, memorizing facts, or preparing for exams. I like to think that, given my moderate success, I did and do at least a few things right. But as I learnt recently from the Learning How to Learn MOOC from Coursera, I could’ve done/could do way better, with techniques and strategies backed by scientific research.

First things first, there is no free lunch. No pains, no gains. Learning by its own nature requires certain effort. It isn’t automatic. In order to learn something new, we need to undergo the process of first understanding it and then to deliberately practice it for retention. Any number of tips and strategies do not absolve one from the effort required. Instead, they are meant to guide you along the right path, steering you away from ineffective ways of studying and illusions of competence.

One major issue I face, like many, is procrastination. But an interesting thing I noticed is that I don’t do it with every subject or topic. It happens only with those which make me uneasy and uncomfortable. Just the reason why one should spend more time on them in order to master them but alas, that never happens. So, the trick is to focus on the “process”, rather than the “product”. Say, “product” here is an assignment or a paper, which always puts you off. Instead of thinking about finishing it, just focus on the “process” – working on it for some time.

The Pomodoro technique [1] enables you to work on a task with intense focus – without any distractions – for 25 minutes. You should follow up this period of intense focus with a break/reward. Given that 25 minutes is a reasonably comfortable stretch of time that anyone can focus, it is highly effective. Shutting yourself from all kinds of distractions – phone, noise, Internet etc., is the main catalyst. Equally important is taking a mental break at the end of this brief period, where the brain shifts to diffuse mode. It is scientifically proven that one can learn in a sustainable way only by leveraging both modes of thinking – focused and diffuse [2]. While focused mode is where the brain concentrates on something that you are learning, traversing a familiar nicely paved path of neural connections, diffuse mode is where the brain wanders around  looking at big picture perspective trying to make new connections. So, don’t regret those long walks or those little episodes of day dreaming. 😛

Despite their popularity, some study habits are anything but illusions of competence. Any amount of re-reading doesn’t help you much. Only when you apply the concepts to solve different problems, on your own, can you be able to say that you’ve mastered the material. This is what you call “deliberate practice” [3], which doesn’t seem appealing sometimes, and that’s ok. That’s how it should be. But, I’m sorry, that’s the only way to learn stuff. You can’t look at the solutions and decide that you know how to do it. The struggle you go through, the discomfort you feel when you are learning something new is inherent to the learning process.

Highlighting is another such habit that fools you into thinking that the material has sunk into your brain [4]. I highlight, but only for the purpose that when I peruse the material again, my eye is drawn to the most important points right away. I find it helpful to make analytical notes in the margins as I read – making connections to different ideas, providing context, asking questions etc.

Note-taking and concept mapping are two other study habits that aren’t really effective by themselves. I do a lot of note-taking. It helps me in slowing down while I’m absorbing new material.  It helps me to provide a visual imagery when I’m trying to recall certain stuff from my notes. But that’s it. It does not , by itself, result in learning. Note-taking, at best, is an aid. Nothing can replace the actual deliberate practice of working on the application of concepts to different sorts of problems. [5]

Spaced repetition [6], also known as distributed practice, is what enables you to assimilate and retain what you’ve learned in long term. It is necessary that you repeat and practice stuff periodically in order to push it into long-term memory. You can’t study something once and expect to recall it anytime in future. When I think back, I can certainly see this in my experience. Those ideas that I’ve spent time on  repetitively over the years are the ones I don’t have to fumble about anytime. Also, when you have multiple subjects/topics to study, it serves you well to interleave them [7]. Interleaved practice involves working on multiple skills in parallel instead of working on them sequentially. This enables the brain to be more alert and hence helps is better retention. It greatly helps when you try to apply concepts from one area to another. This technique, called “transfer”, enables you to gain mastery.

“You are what you practice”. What we do and think literally shapes our brain. It is called neuroplasticity [8]. By making conscious effort, we can change the way our brains are structured. We can learn new things, no matter whether we are naturally gifted or not. Research shows that being in an enriched environment (with creative people around) and exercising allows the brain to grow new neurons and remain healthy.

Even though the insights I provide here are just the tip of the iceberg, they are valuable nevertheless. I hope they prove to be helpful to you as they do to me.

Happy learning!


[1] Mind Tools, “The Pomodoro Technique® Staying Focused Throughout the Day,”

[2] Immordino-Yang, M. H., J. A. Christodoulou, and V. Singh. “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 4 (2012): 352-64.

[3]Pachman, M., Sweller, J., & Kalyuga, S. (2013). Levels of knowledge and deliberate practice. Journal of experimental psychology, 19(2), 108-119.

[4]Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

[5] Karpicke, J. D., and J. R. Blunt. “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.” Science 331, no. 6018 (Feb 11 2011): 772-5.

[6]Logan, Jessica M., Alan D. Castel, Sara Haber, and Emily J. Viehman. “Metacognition and the Spacing Effect: The Role of Repetition, Feedback, and Instruction on Judgments of Learning for Massed and Spaced Rehearsal.” Metacognition and Learning 7, no. 3 (2012): 175-95.

[7] Birnbaum, M. S., Kornell, N., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Memory & cognition, 41(3), 392-402.

[8] DeFelipe, Javier. “Brain Plasticity and Mental Processes: Cajal Again.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, no. 10 (2006): 811-17.

Learning challenges

15 01 2015

Learning to Learn on Coursera is an amazing opportunity to enhance one’s skill at this all-encompassing capability, called Learning. In a different course I took several month earlier, I got a glimpse of the most powerful strategies that help us learn effectively. (I blogged about it here.) This course is offered by University of San Diego and co-taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley (who authored the bestseller – A Mind for Numbers, on which this course content is based on)  and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski (a pioneer in Computational Neurobiology). I’m only one week into the course and I already love the animated videos and the enthusiasm of Dr. Oakley. The 10 Rules of Good and Bad Studying provides a small taste (as claimed on Barbara’s website) of what you can find in the book and thereby the course.

The first assignment involves writing a reflective narrative about one’s learning situation/goal and how one plans to address it based on the many insights provided by existing research. Find a version of my submission below:

Current learning situation and goal

I’m a software engineer currently learning skills to be a data analyst/scientist. Mostly, I’m relying on MOOCs for the purpose. I have some relevant background in my under-graduation and graduation and am keen on gaining right aptitude for the role. I realized that I have two major learning challenges in the process. One is getting my head around Statistical Concepts and the other is gaining some ability in storytelling, most essential for creating compelling analytical products. The other technical part, I’m sure I’ll get it eventually.

Learning aim

As I’m not a part of any formal academic program, my goal would be complete the relevant courses online and be able to create a few decent data products on my own. Six months from now, I would like to see myself as fairly confident with regard to Statistics and Storytelling (from analytics perspective).

Biggest mental challenges

While I work on the material, quizzes, and assignments, I don’t persevere when I hit a stumbling block. Also, I don’t really practice on a regular basis. While I don’t have a procrastination problem, I feel that I don’t get the most out of my study efforts. I also realize that I’m not timing my study well. I panic when I do nothing and try to cram as many things as possible into my schedule, leaving me little time for relaxation and/or reflection. I feel stressed out most of the times.

After my first few, not so encouraging, encounters with the topics, I am frustrated that the secrets of Statistics allude me, that I’m not able to master them. My storytelling attempts too were lame, at best. I think I kind of developed a mental block about them and do not approach them without considerable apprehension. I have always thought myself as an analytical person and one good at Math. It puzzles me that I couldn’t get Statistics right, that I’m not able to fathom its depth. I keep waiting for that mesmerizing teacher, who can unravel the complexity of Statistics and give me a key to understanding its essence. But of course, there is little chance for this miracle to happen. And I’m painfully aware that this unrealistic optimism is adversely affecting my learning efforts. I give up too early.   And the opposite applies to ‘Storytelling’. I believe I’m naturally bad at this, and don’t envision a dramatic improvement. So, I don’t try enough. Again I realize though that this notion of mine is self-defeating.

Existing research and learning techniques

Understanding how our brain functions with respect to learning offers insights into how to approach it more effectively. There has been a lot of research on both how learning happens and what techniques are better than others. An extensive study on effective learning techniques by Dunlosky et al. reveals that practice testing, distributed practice, interleaved practice, self-explanation, and elaborative interrogation techniques have moderate to high utility. Surprisingly, as per the research findings, the more popular techniques of re-reading, summarizing, highlighting, and mnemonic usage are actually very ineffective. This blogpost by neurobonkers summarizes the lengthy monograph of the researchers quite well.

Research also points out that in order to assimilate new material we need to alternate between the two modes – Focused and Diffuse. Diffuse mode is when the default area network of the brain kicks in. And as Yang et al. points out, “rest is not idleness”. The importance of sleep in learning cannot be overemphasized. Sleep consolidates the fresh memories into long-term memories (Pierre Maquet).

Work by Carol S. Dweck  is perhaps the single most influential research on Mindset and Learning. By learning about neuroplasticity and believing in the ability of the brain to learn anything, despite the notion of natural talent, boosts “learning”. ( Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement. Prepared for the Carnegie Corporation of New York-Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education math and science grades. )

How will I apply

With the above insights, I would like to tweak my learning approach by indulging in distributed practice, self-explanation, and practice testing. I will practice more. I now realize the need to follow up intense focus periods with relaxation. One important takeaway for me is “leveraging sleep for learning”. I intend to study with focus before sleep and will to dream about it, so that I can assimilate new concepts better. I also commit myself to be more open and persevering towards the whole process.

The science of everyday thinking

16 09 2014

A few months ago, I took this amazing course from edX called ‘The Science of Everyday Thinking” offered by Queensland University, Australia. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and found it very fulfilling. Too bad I didn’t think of narrating my experiences on this blog back then. It would have been a very rich and rewarding endeavor. Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to reminisce about the wonderful journey it was and try to put forth some of the interesting and useful facts and findings in a short series of posts.

The best thing I liked about the course, besides the content and the interviews with renowned researchers, is the way in which the instruction is delivered. It is delivered in the form of a conversation between the two instructors against varied backdrops. This novel approach created a sense of informality and increased the dosage of fun element in the learning.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the course is the module on “Learning”. Each one of us has his or her own way of learning. Different things work for different people, or so we think. But research indicates that a handful of powerful strategies help in learning, universally. Scientists say that it is always more beneficial to practice these strategies instead of wasting time and effort in less fruitful methods. The strategies include:

  • Retrieval practice
  • Using flash cards
  • Distributing the practice over a few weeks instead of cramming the night before the test
  • Spacing effect –  spacing the learning is good for retention
  • Mix up examples from different chapters and try to figure out which is which
  • Transfer: take knowledge acquired in one context and apply it to another
  • Testing yourself.
  • Stop and think: can you summarize?

Researchers remind us that learning is a difficult process and that there is no easy way to do it right. That is, unless you go through the uncomfortable-ness of testing yourself, summarizing, coming up with new examples etc., real learning doesn’t happen. You won’t learn much just by more highlighting, re-reading or writing.

Part 1 of Science of Everyday Thinking Series.

Moments of joy

25 04 2010

What makes your day? It varies for everyone and for different days. It can be your baby’s smile or a compliment from your spouse, job well done at work or pleasant weather or call from a friend etc. You feel happy and elated in those moments and carry that good feeling throughout the day. I call them – “moments of joy”.

The other day, I experienced such moments of joy when I learned a few new things. I was reading a few articles on “Analytics” and “Advanced Analytics”. One thing led to the other and I found myself learning a lot more, thanks to Wikipedia and Google. I learned about the existence of a programming language called “R” and also about a career called “Actuary”. All this in just 10 minutes. For a moment, I felt so grateful to the Internet and especially Google and reflected on how techonology has made the process of acquiring knowledge easier.

Another thing that struck me was that I actually enjoyed learning. Memories came back to me from my childhood when I used to lament in despair that the end of schooling/education seemed too distant. There were always assignments, examinations and progress reports year after year and the inevitability of undergoing all that for another 10-15 years seemed cruel to me. I used to imagine myself sighing in relief at the end of all that ordeal but the reality turned out to be different. I never thought it’s possible that one can choose to study when it’s no longer mandatory and here I’m taking course after course and with great plans to study further to quench my knowledge thirst. Ha!


11 12 2009

As a part of the course I’m attending these days, I’ve been reading lots of stuff – many of the concepts new to me. Today, while I was filling out the evaluation forms for the course, I was posed the question: How much you’ve learned from this course? This got me to think over all the extensive reading and work I’ve done during the course and a fact really surprised me.

I couldn’t recollect all that I’ve read and understood. For example, I’ve read about Sparklines in Data Visualization a few weeks ago, but I was not able to define it or recollect the exact concept today. All that I remember is the long article I’ve read on it (I even remember getting awed by it and nodding in understanding while going through it), bits and pieces of the graphs drawn by the instructor on the whiteboard. That’s all. While I probed my mind further, a few other such topics surfaced. So, I really couldn’t say that I learned all that stuff. All I know at this point is where to find the information whenever I want to refer to it.

Actually, this is not a new thing. Many times before during graduation or post-graduation, I faced the same problem. I read a lot (most of the times just enough for the exams), write the exams, and pass out. If I try to recollect some stuff or answer some random question by someone thereafter, I usually have a hard time doing it.

Of course, this doesn’t happen for everything. There will always be some stuff you never forget. May be that’s what your interest area is. Also, in almost all the cases, that will be the stuff which you’ve gone through multiple times. So, here repetition is the key. Obviously, you read or work on something more and repetitively only if it’s your special interest/focus area. And of course there is concentration, which again depends on your interest in the subject. Sometimes you know about your affinity, sometimes you don’t. Some topics just appeal to you more.

I used to be frustrated when I fail to reckon something I’ve read (and understood) earlier. I used to wonder what’s the use of reading when I can’t remember and apply it at some point later in time. Also I had serious doubts about my method of study and learning.

But only recently have I realized that something really sinks into one’s mind for later retrieval only by repetition – reading more and more about it and most importantly apply it to some interesting problems or relate it some aspect of life and learn from experience. And it goes without saying that given the limited time/life we have we can only master some of the stuff (the degree and the scope vary with the individual capabilities, of course). So, hoping to remember everything you ever read forever makes a unreasonable expectation from oneself. With this insight, I guess I’ll be able to feel less frustrated and less stress and enjoy my learning more in future.