I think it is probably fair to assume that most of you reading this consider happiness not only to be something that would be nice to have but something you really ought to have. Something that is within your power to bring about – yes, I can be happy, I deserve to be happy, and: I will be happy. And yes, I am one of you.
Looking back my attitude towards happiness is probably best described by the saying “man forges his own destiny” (or in German “Jeder ist seines Glückes Schmied”). Not wanting to be hindered by any external circumstances I felt and still feel quite confident that I am capable to change my life for the better. That I was not born either unhappy, miserable or with bad genes but that I can always make my way out of the dark. Somehow. Sooner or later. I found that this credo (until recently it was mostly unconscious, hidden in me) is in line with ‘modern articles of faith’ one comes across nowadays on hipster bags or sheets posted to rest rooms’ walls: This is your life! If you don’t like your job, then quit! Live your dream, now! But please wash your hands first.
However, these mottos and callings being so present everywhere (I cannot recall any of these mottos being written to a rest room’s wall back in my schooldays, can you?) have their dark side too. They can trap me in a permanent ‘happiness optimisation circle’: constantly striving for intensive moments (be aware!), for close relationships (be social!), for a vocation (do what you love!) and then being disappointed about myself when failing to do so. Or even worse, smoothing out hurdles to improve my very own happiness and forgetting others in this equation. And hell yes, evaluating my actual balance on my ‘happiness account’ can be very stressful. My conviction that it is me (and only me) being responsible for my happiness is liberating and empowering. And a real pain in the ass at the same time.
So, having said all this it won’t surprise you that my attention was immediately drawn to an online course with the title “The Science of Happiness” featured in the edX newsletter I received in August this year. The questions addressed in this eight-week course really caught my happiness-seeking eye: Why does happiness matter? Why should we really care about this? And the one-million-dollar question to me: Does pursuing happiness work? Is it even possible to increase one’s happiness?
Researchers from the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of Berkeley (USA) have designed a rich multimedia experience featuring videos, readings, self-tests and research-tested happiness practices – all for free. I had never heard of ‘happiness’ as a field of research in Psychology and right in the introductory video I learnt why: Because it is a relatively new field of study. A field calling itself ‘Positive Psychology’. This term, originally coined by the US-American psychologist Abraham Maslow, was chosen by Martin Seligman in 1998 as a theme for his presidency of the American Psychological Association. The Greater Good Science Center was founded three years later, in 2001 (it was originally called the Center for the Development of Peace & Well-Being – wow, they would have had me with that already).
Firstly, I was quite astonished to learn that this ‘mind shift’ in Psychology (and what actually became a movement within the field) only took place recently, just about two decades ago. Turning the questions around, not focussing on the problems, diseases and deviations but focussing on the positive, beautiful feelings and human states of mind and to find out how to attain and sustain them – it seems almost beyond belief that this hadn’t been done before in academic research.
“Just think about this: fifteen years ago we had hundreds of studies of anger, but we had no studies of gratitude. […] We knew a lot about what makes couples divorce but we didn’t know as much about what makes couples happy.”
Dacher Keltner, Director of Greater Good Science Center
Secondly, I found it striking that this mind shift in Psychology coincides with the publication of some milestone books that have influenced not only the idea of the TheDive but also the motivation of many others creating next generation businesses. For example, the New Work movement accelerated with Frithjof Bergman’s book “New Work, New Culture” which was published in 2004. And in the same year the book “Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organisations and Society” by Peter M. Senge, Otto Scharmer and colleagues gave new impetus to the field of transformational change of organisations. I don’t know whether there has actually been an exchange between these protagonists or if this ’new‘ integral perspective of looking at humans‘ needs and potentials was a comprehensive phenomenon across different disciplines. All I know is that its power is still sensible and the research on happiness just at the very beginning.
Okay, so how can I put an eight-week long course into a short blog article? I love numbers and structures and everybody enjoys shortcuts, so I decided to compress my personal insights from the course into three handy bullet points, even though risking to produce needlepoint phrases (I claim copyright should I catch anybody putting it up to a rest rooms’ wall!).
So buckle up, here we go.
1. Happiness is a cocktail. Not a shot.
Yes, you can even look closer but you won’t find the term ‚happiness‘ on this map of the brain. Nope, there is (unfortunately or not?) no ‚happiness button‘ in us and the simple reason is: happiness is always a mixture of feelings. Mankind has created this term as a shortcut to express a feeling that itself is very complex and manifold. This notion bares the chance to change our inner concept of happiness. Instead of asking ourselves the big question „Am I happy?“ and opening doors to the little devil inside us saying „Hm, well honey…“, it might be easier to break this question down. Alternative questions like „For what am I grateful?“, „What am I passionate about?“, „Do I feel connected?“ give food for thought and open space to new ways of dealing with our inner longing.
2. Happiness cannot be planned.
This notion might seem self-evident, still I learnt that people do plan happiness all the time (or the opposite like Snoopy does, see above) . „Only three weeks to go AND THEN I will go on holidays, AND THEN I will relax, AND THEN I will be happy“. Decisions and actions in life (and even weekdays it seems) are associated with either raising or lowering the personal happiness. But I have learnt from several studies presented in the course that we are actually not really great judges of what’s going to make us happy. What happens is generally on average, people think that really good events are going to make them happy and keep them happy for a very long time and that really bad events are going to crush them and crush them for the unforeseeable future. Research shows that both is not necessarily the case. We can book a holiday to paradise and still feel miserable there. A romantic relationship can go to pieces and we can recover much quicker than we expected. The truth is: on the one hand our psychological immune system enables us to recover from heartbreaking events much more quickly than we anticipate that they will. On the other hand, we won’t be happier from assumed positive, thrilling events because we get used to them and just want more. Let’s face it, obviously we are not capable of thinking about happiness in a very realistic way.
The only solution is: Don’t plan happiness. Don’t project sadness. Don’t envisage boredom. Everything can happen every day.
3. Happiness cannot be forced – but trained.
Okay, the bad news first: Research from the field of behavioral genetics shows that happiness is heritable. Our basic happiness level is indeed part of our personality. Approximately 50 per cent (I told you I love numbers, but this one maybe not that much) of our happiness is genetically determined. Yeah, I know, quite a downer so late in the article. But be careful, this does not mean that it is futile to try to change our happiness levels. In fact, research shows that happiness can be trained. We are able to significantly raise our basic happiness level. It takes time and efforts as all changes of our personality do, but it is possible. And during the course I did some wonderful practices, amongst others I was introduced to keeping a ‚gratitude journal‘. This meant simply to reflect once or twice a week on the things I came across I was grateful for, no matter if it was a big or small thing, human or made from chocolate. Researchers have tried out many different practices for kindness, compassion and so on and compiled a ‚best of‘ in the ‚Greater Good in Action‘ database – all practices approved that they can really make a difference to your happiness level.
But, and here comes the tricky part, one should not overdo it. A famous study by Sonja Lyubormisky shows that it is possible to lose the positive effects of a gratitude journal when doing it too often and getting bored of that routine. Thus, happiness can be trained when the mind is open and curious, not when it is desperate or overambitious.
So, yes I am afraid the bottom line to me of this ‚happiness course‘ is: Life is about so much more than being happy. It is not about avoiding the black and greyish colours but to use all colours, the whole colour palette, to live life to the fullest.
Your sheet for New Year’s resolutions is still blank? Why not enroll in the next „The Science of Happiness“ edX course? It starts on January, 3rd 2017!