How can we apply the ‘science of happiness’ to our personal and work lives?

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It was uplighting to see that Nudgefest, the world’s leading festival of behavioural science and creativity, was able to go ahead via Zoom this year. The festival saw some of the globe’s leading behavioural scientists and other thinkers speak on topics ranging from the science of happiness to the psychology of persuasive presentations.

One of the talks that really caught our attention was psychologist Dr Laurie Santos’ 20-minutes presentation on how to become happier. Laurie, of Yale University, is an expert on human cognition and teaches the university’s most popular ever online & offline course, The Science of Wellbeing, available currently for free via learning platform Coursera. In her talk, she condensed her course into its very key points. These insights, as informed by science, can help us to become better employees, employers and people in general. They are also useful at an institutional level.

Laurie’s main points (or better put, our attempt at summarising her great presentation):

1. Our brains lie to us about what will make us happy

As Laurie explains, we humans have very strong intuitions about what is going to make us feel better. A lot of them are false. Earning a salary above $75,000 (£60,000) has been proven not to increase our wellbeing. Despite that, most of us still yearn to earn.

2. Our brains get used to things

Here lies another problem. Our brains are sometimes being honest – for instance: brain tells us a new sports car will make us happy, we buy it, elation ensues. This elation, however, does not last. Over time, our brain adapts to what we’ve got; it gets used to it. The car, for example, becomes simply a mode by which we get to work and that initial happiness is lost.

Unless we actively train our brains to work against this ‘hedonic adaptation’, it will follow us through all life experiences from purchases and jobs to interpersonal relationships such as marriage.

3. We don’t realise that our brains get used to things

Unless you’re informed on the science, most of us have no idea any of this is happening inside our brains! Hence, happiness becomes a lifelong aspiration that is never realised.

4. We don’t think in absolutes but in standards

On this same note, our brains are not necessarily giving us the full picture. It’s, therefore, most likely that you are setting yourself unrealistic, untruthful standards of happiness. This is particularly true in the social media age. We look at an influencer’s colourful Instagram feed, for instance, and presume our lives are dull in comparison.

5. Knowing all this won’t make us any happier

In American cartoon GI Joe, the carton’s protagonist ends the programme with the famous phrase: ‘Knowing is half the battle’. Laurie reminds us that this is not accurate when it comes to behavioural change. We can intellectually ‘know’ something (e.g. how scientists tell us about becoming happier) yet be unable to put these findings into practice.

The secret to becoming happier

It is necessary to ‘rewire’ our brains through consistent, repetitive change behaviours over time.

In order to do that, we must understand what science tells us does, in fact, make us happier, including:

  • Engaging in more social interaction, including why not, with people we don’t know (that barista, for example, serving our coffee every morning we still don’t know by name!)
  • Using our money to buy experiences, not things as their “happiness” effect lasts longer
  • ‘Giving back’ (doing nice things for others creates a domino effect of wellbeing).

Applying these happiness principals to our lives

Laurie gives a range of practical tips, including:

  • Keeping a gratitude journal and writing in it daily,
  • Writing a letter to loved ones or acquaintances expressing your gratitude for them and delivering it to them in person,
  • Being more social (even smiling at a stranger),
  • Simply being mindful that your brain is lying to you
  • Mindfulness and meditation

Applying these happiness principals to the workplace

It’s pretty frightening to imagine how often business decisions are based on these incorrect assumptions!

How can we apply Laurie’s findings in the workplace?

  • Encouraging social interaction amongst teams and colleagues. In COVID times, that could mean weekly group Zoom catchups on a Friday afternoon or even “virtual” watercooler discussions with a new colleague, for example.
  • Expressing gratitude to colleagues through positive feedback, mentoring schemes, perks & a wellbeing programme,
  • Evaluating your own biases and those held at an institutional level,
  • Ensuring that an understanding of the basics of human behaviour is key when it comes to decision making affecting us, those we work with and those we serve.

If you weren’t able to catch any of the talks live, we’d highly recommend checking out the Ogilvy Consulting’s YouTube page, as there is loads of great stuff there that you can take into both your work and personal lives.