Human World

Can we use science to make ourselves happier?

Use science: Image of woman wearing a hoodie and smiling against a light blue background.
Can we use science to make ourselves happier? Image via Unsplash

By Sarah Jelbert, University of Bristol and Bruce Hood, University of Bristol

Can we use science to make ourselves happier?

When you deliver a university course that makes students happier, everybody wants to know what the secret is. What are your tips? What are your top ten recommendations? These are the most asked questions, as if there is some quick, surefire path to happiness.

The problem is that there are no life-transforming discoveries, because most of what works has already been talked about. Social connection, mindfulness, gratitude letters, acts of kindness, going for a walk in nature, sleep hygiene, limiting social media use. These are some of the 80 or so psychological interventions which have been shown to work to improve our wellbeing (to a lesser or greater extent).

Please help EarthSky keep going! Our annual crowd-funder is going on now. PLEASE DONATE today to continue enjoying updates on your cosmos and world.

But if we already know so much about what works, then why are we still fielding requests for top happiness tips?

The data tells us that students and young people today are increasingly unhappy. National surveys find wellbeing is lowest among the young in the U.K. and the U.S. compared to other age groups.

It was for this reason we began teaching the science of happiness course at the University of Bristol in 2019, to counter some worrying downward trends. During the course, we teach lessons from positive psychology and create opportunities for students to put these lessons into practice.

Learning the science of happiness

We award credit based on engagement – an important component of not only education, but also getting the most out of life – rather than graded assessments. It would be ironic to talk about the problems of performance anxiety and student perfectionism only to then give our students a graded exam.

Course credit without examination? That must be a breeze, you might say. However, for many students, turning up on time to over 80% of lectures and tutorials, completing journal entries on a weekly basis and submitting a final group project turned out to be more of a challenge than they predicted.

Around 5% of students fail to meet the course demands each year and have to complete a reassessment in the summer. Creating consistent positive habits in the face of all of life’s other demands is not a trivial request.

Nevertheless, the science of happiness course is extraordinarily popular. It also appears to be effective. Every year we find increases of around 10 to 15% on measures of students’ mental wellbeing at the end of the course, compared to a waiting-list control group.

Life after the course

However, we recently published the findings from a study that followed up with students one to two years after they had taken the science of happiness course, before they graduated. When we looked at the overall trends, students’ initially elevated scores of happiness had largely returned to their original levels.

We were not dejected, though. One of the mechanisms we teach on the course is hedonic adaptation: we get used to both good and bad things. Humans have a brain wired to pay extra attention to problems. So it comes as no surprise that the initial wellbeing boost we created in the course disappeared as students returned to focusing on life’s hassles.

However, we observed that not all students followed this pattern. Approximately half the cohort reported that they continued to regularly practice some of the things they had learned many months or years after completing the course. Those included such things as gratitude or mindfulness.

Although the students who no longer practiced the activities returned to their happiness baselines, on average, those who did keep up with at least some of the recommended activities showed no such drop. They maintained their elevated levels of wellbeing up to two years later.

Use science for mental and physical health

In many ways, mental health is no different from physical health. Few people expect to see long-lasting muscle gains after one trip to the gym. For the most part, we are begrudgingly aware that there are no shortcuts if you want to remain fit and healthy. You have to stick with the program.

The same applies to our happiness. Unless we keep working at it, the improvements are temporary. Indeed, if we did have to focus on just one top tip it might be to learn how to harness lessons from psychology to build the better habits we need for lasting change. For example, aiming for small incremental changes rather than an unsustainable overhaul of your whole life.

Little boy runs through the sprinklers in the front yard, the sun shines through the water and on the grass, turning the background golden.
Image via Unsplash.

Focusing on others

One thing we question is whether the self-care industry may be sending out the wrong message by telling people happiness is all about making yourself feel better. One of us – Bruce Hood – writes in his new book that becoming a happier person in the long term is less to do with focusing on ourselves, and much more to do with focusing on others.

Self-care may bring some short-term benefits, but enriching the lives of others can offer wellbeing effects that are less susceptible to adaptation over time.

Ultimately, whatever methods or activities we choose to improve our wellbeing, we would do well to remember that happiness is always a work in progress.

Sarah Jelbert, Lecturer in Psychology, University of Bristol, and Bruce Hood, Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bottom line: Mental wellness is much like physical fitness. If you want to see any consistent, positive change in your happiness level, you have to continue to “work out” by keeping up good happiness habits.

Read more: How astronauts to Mars can manage stress on the long journey

Read more: David Rand: Happiness and sadness are contagious

April 2, 2024
Human World

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 

EarthSky Voices

View All