Happiness & The Science Behind It: How to Train Your Brain

Happiness has been a human pursuit for as long as we can remember, and positive psychology has taken this concept into the realm of scientific research in hopes of gaining a better understanding of global well-being and meaningful living. 

Whether on a global or an individual level, the pursuit of happiness is one which is gaining traction and scientific recognition. 

There are many definitions of happiness, and we will also explore those in this article. For now, we invite you to think of a time when you were happy. Were you alone? With others? Inside? Outside.

At the end of this article, revisit that memory. You may have new insight as to what made that moment “happy,” as well as tips to train your brain towards more happiness.

 

 

A Definition of Happiness

In general, happiness is understood as the positive emotions we have in regards to the pleasurable activities we take part in through our daily lives.

Pleasure, comfort, gratitude, hope, and inspiration are examples of positive emotions which increase our happiness and move us to flourish. In scientific literature, happiness is referred to as hedonia (Ryan & Deci, 2001), the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions.

In a more broad understanding, human well-being is made up of both Hedonic and Eudaimonic principlesthe literature on which is vast and describes our personal meaning and purpose in life (Ryan et al, 2001).

Research on happiness over the years has found that there are some contributing correlational factors which affect our happiness. These include (Ryan, 2001):

1) Personality Type

2) Positive Emotions versus Negative Emotions

3)Attitude towards Physical Health

4) Social Class and Wealth

5) Attachment and Relatedness

6) Goals and Self-Efficacy

7) Time and Place.

There is also recent research by Assistant Professor of Swansee University Katherine Nelson-Coffey which has proven that performing acts of kindness can have powerful effects on our subjective well-being and overall happiness.

 

Happiness Starts With You: A Study Showing How Acts of Kindness Make us Happier

Feeling stressed after a long day of work? Treat yourself to a bubble bath. Feeling blue? Treat yourself to a decadent dessert. Feeling frustrated after an argument with a friend? Skip your workout and have an extra scoop of ice cream.

The message is clear: If you want to feel happy, you should focus on your own wishes and desires. Yet this is not the advice that many people grew up hearing. Indeed, most of the world’s religions (and grandmothers everywhere) have long suggested that people should focus on others first and themselves second.

Happiness as a Social Emotion.
Prosocial Behavior and Happiness. Image by Pasja1000 on Pixaby.

Psychologists refer to such behavior as prosocial behavior and many recent studies have shown that when people have a prosocial focus, doing kind acts for others, their own happiness increases.

But how does prosocial behavior compare to treating yourself in terms of your happiness? And does treating yourself really make you feel happy?

In a recent study published in the journal Emotion, Katherine Nelson-Coffey and her colleagues presented their research answering these questions.

The Study

Participants were divided into four groups and given new instructions each week for four weeks.

One group was instructed to perform random acts of kindness for themselves (such as going shopping or enjoying a favorite hobby); the second group was instructed to perform acts of kindness for others (such as visiting an elderly relative or helping someone carry groceries); the third group was instructed to perform acts of kindness to improve the world (such as recycling or donating to charity); the fourth group was instructed to keep track of their daily activities.

Each week, the participants reported their activities from the previous week, as well as their experience of positive and negative emotions.

At the beginning, the end, and again two weeks after the four-week period, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their psychological flourishing. As a measure of overall happiness, the questionnaire included questions about psychological, social, and emotional well-being.

The Results

The results of the study were striking. Only participants who engaged in prosocial behavior demonstrated improvements in psychological flourishing.

Participants who practiced prosocial behavior demonstrated increases in positive emotions from one week to the next. In turn, these increases in feelings such as happiness, joy, and enjoyment predicted increases in psychological flourishing at the end of the study. In other words, positive emotions appeared to have been a critical ingredient linking prosocial behavior to increases in flourishing.

But what about the people who treated themselves?

They did not show the same increases in positive emotions or psychological flourishing as those who engaged in acts of kindness. In fact, people who treated themselves did not differ in positive emotions, negative emotions, or psychological flourishing over the course of the study compared to those who merely kept track of their daily activities.

This research does not say that we shouldn’t treat ourselves, show ourselves self-love when we need it, or enjoy our relaxation when we have it. However, the results of this study strongly suggest that we are more likely to reach greater levels of happiness when we exhibit prosocial behavior and show others kindness through our actions.

 

The Global Pursuit of Happiness

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Happiness Evaluation. Image Retrieved by URL.

In world economic circles, Richard Easterlin investigated the relationship between money and well-being. The Easterlin paradox—”money does not buy happiness” (Mohun, 2012)—sparked a new wave of thinking about wealth and well-being.

In 1972, Bhutan chose to pursue a policy of happiness rather than a focus on economic growth tracked via their gross domestic product (GDPP). Subsequently, this little nation has been among the happiest, ranking amongst nations with far superior wealth (Kelly, 2012).

More global organizations and nations are becoming aware and supportive of the importance of happiness in today’s world. This has lead to The United Nations inviting nations to take part in a happiness survey, resulting in the “World Happiness Report,” a basis from which to steer public policy. Learn about the World Happiness Report for 2016.

The United Nations also established World Happiness Day, March 20th, which was the result of efforts of the Bhutan Kingdom and their Gross National Happiness initiative (Helliwell, Layard & Sachs, 2013).

Organizations such as the New Economic Foundation are playing an influential role as an economic think tank which focuses on steering economic policy and development for the betterment of human well-being.

Ruut Veenhoven, a world authority on the scientific study of happiness, was one of the sources of inspiration for the United Nations adopting happiness measures (Ki-Moon, n.d). Veenhoven is a founding member of the World Database of Happiness, which is a comprehensive scientific repository of happiness measures worldwide.

The objective of this organization is to provide a coordinated collection of data, with common interpretation according to a scientifically validated happiness theory, model, and body of research.

 

Measures of Happiness

At this point, you might be wondering: Is it possible to measure happiness? Many psychologists have devoted their careers to answering this question and in short, the answer is yes.

Happiness can be measured by these three factors: the presence of positive emotions, the absence of negative emotions, and life satisfaction (Ryan et al, 2001). It is a uniquely subjective experience, which means that nobody is better at reporting on someone’s happiness than the individuals themselves.

For this reason scales, self-report measures, and questionnaires are the most common formats for measuring happiness. The most recognized examples are the following:

1)The PANAS (Positive Affect and Negative Affect Schedule);

2) The SWLS (Satisfaction With Life Scale);

3) The SHS (Subjective Happiness Scale)

However, there are many instruments available to measure happiness that have proven reliable and valid over time (Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011).

 

Four Qualities of Life (Veenhoven, 2010): A South African Happiness Case Study

Another measurement of happiness was developed by Ruut Veenhoven. He constructed the model of Four Qualities of Life which positions and describes the construct of happiness in various dimensions (Veenhoven, 2010).

Of the four dimensions, satisfaction is our personal subjective measure of happiness as we interpret life as a whole. Veenhoven’s global research into happiness suggests that happiness is possible for many (Veenhoven, 2010). This is an overview of his Four Qualities:

 

  Outer Qualities Inner Qualities
Life Chances Liveability of Environment Life-ability of Individual
Life Results Utility of Life Satisfaction

 

Using Veenhoven’s Four Qualities it is possible to assess the Happiness of any country. In this case study, we will use the example of South Africa.

Liveability of Environment

This dimension includes factors such as law, freedom, schooling, employment, etc. It is a measurement of how well an environment meets what Maslow proposed as our basic needs (safety, security, shelter, food) (Maslow,1943).

In South Africa, there is still a chronic shortage of housing, water supply, and adequate schooling. For some time now, South Africa has been plagued by resultant ‘service delivery riots.’

Corruption shows as a strong negative correlation (-0.69) to happiness in Veenhoven’s (2010) research and sadly South Africa is plagued by a high level of corruption and maladministration.

 

Life-Ability of Individuals

The ability of individuals to deal with life is important; both mental and physical health are identified as important factors, together with social values of solidarity, tolerance, and love (Veenhoven, 2010).

In South Africa, the race divide is widening as it is being used as a political motivator to wield power to the detriment of the average individual. Violent crime, intolerance, and poverty also threaten the presence of love and compassion for each other.

 

Utility of Life

In this dimension, Veenhoven (2010) references a higher order meaning, for example, religious affiliations. The writer would further argue that national patriotism finds a place here.

If we hold strong pride in our nation would that not constitute an input to our life’s meaning? If we felt proud of our nation, would that not play a significant part in our happiness?

Uchida et al. (2013) found that high levels of national disaster negatively impacted a nation’s level of happiness. Recently, South Africa has experienced national tragedies such as the Marikana mine tragedy and the passing of Nelson Mandela.

South Africa has come through a very unsettled and violent history of imperialism and apartheid. In both accounts, a minority population was ‘protected’ and experienced a ‘good life,’ whilst the oppression of the majority fuelled that good life.

The year 1994 was a significant time in history for South Africa, marking the turn of democracy to serve all equally. There is no doubt that a significant stride has been made to correct past imbalances. However, happiness has not been a focal area for progress in this country.

 

Suggestions To Increase Happiness In South Africa

Many of our challenges in South Africa are of a political and administrative nature.

global happiness
Happiness in South Africa: A Proposition. Image from Pixaby.

Happiness is a complex construct which cannot be directly controlled. This helps. Through policy and individual and organizational action, we can endeavor to influence and increase happiness (Veenhoven, 2010).

Here are some examples of how happiness in South Africa could be improved:

  1. The distribution of food packs including positive psychology literature for the homeless which motorists can purchase from major retail stores or garages;
  2. Happy South Africa movies consisting of what is going well with South Africa as a nation and highlighting each of our South African cultures, which could be shown before main features at cinemas or on DVDs;
  3. All major newspapers could give a Happy South Africa news story;
  4. Positive Psychology consultants could give classes or road show teachings of the principles such as gratitude, mindfulness, meaning, and purpose;
  5. The formation of an overarching organization that could provide a consolidated portal to all volunteer and community organizations which are working to make South Africa happier;
  6. The creation of a South African Happiness Community which researches local happiness;
  7. Assistance could be given to communities in designing local projects, to both obtain resources and project manage the initiatives to successful completion;
  8. South Africa could engage and actively take part in the world happiness initiatives which are taking off globally.

 

South Africa is just one example of the many countries in the world that require greater advocacy and action on an individual, organizational, and governmental level. However, happiness is a subjective experience and only once we change the way we perceive the world can we really begin sharing and creating happiness for others.

But is it possible to train yourself to be happier?

The answer is yes!

 

Happiness Comes from Within: Train Your Brain for Happiness

At birth, our genetics provide us with a happiness set point that accounts for about 40% of our happiness. Having enough food, shelter, and safety are 10%.

Then we have 50% that is entirely up to us.

By training our brain through awareness and exercises to think in a happier, more optimistic, and more resilient way, we can effectively train our brains for happiness.

New discoveries in the field of positive psychology show that physical health, psychological well-being, and physiological functioning are all improved by how we learn to “feel good” (Fredrickson B. L. 2000).

What Are The Patterns We Need To “Train Out” of Our Brains?

  1. Perfectionism  Often confused with conscientiousness, which involves appropriate and tangible expectations, perfectionism involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals. It often produces problems for adults, adolescents, and children.
  2. Social comparison – When we compare ourselves to others we often find ourselves lacking. Healthy social comparison is about finding what you admire in others and learning to strive for those qualities. However, the best comparisons we can make are with ourselves. How are you better than you were in the past?
  3. Materialism – Attaching our happiness to external things and material wealth is dangerous, as we can lose our happiness if our material circumstances change (Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. 2010).
  4. Maximizing – Maximizers search for better options even when they are satisfied. This leaves them little time to be present for the good moments in their lives and with very little gratitude (Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. 2002).

 

Misconceptions About Mind Training

Some of the misconceptions about retraining your brain are simply untrue. Here are a few myths that need debunking:

1. We are products of our genetics so we cannot create change in our brains.

Our minds are malleable. Ten years ago we thought brain pathways were set in early childhood. In fact, we now know that there is huge potential for large changes through to your twenties, and neuroplasticity is still changing throughout one’s life.

The myelin sheath that covers your neural pathways gets thicker and stronger the more it is used (think of the plastic protective covering on wires); the more a pathway is used, the stronger the myelin and the faster the neural pathway. Simply put, when you practice feeling grateful, you notice more things to be grateful for.

2. Brain training is brainwashing.

Brainwashing is an involuntary change. If we focus on training our mind to see the glass half full instead of half empty, that is a choice.

3. If we are too happy we run the risk of becoming overly optimistic.

There is no such thing as overly optimistic, and science shows that brain training for positivity includes practices like mindfulness and gratitude. No one has ever overdosed on these habits.

 

How Is The Brain Wired For Happiness?

Can You Train Your Mind for Happiness? - Brain scan

Our brains come already designed for happiness. We have caregiving systems in place for eye contact, touch, and vocalizations to let others know we are trustworthy and secure.

Our brains also regulate chemicals like oxytocin. People who have more oxytocin trust more readily, have increased tendencies towards monogamy, and exhibit more caregiving behavior. These behaviors reduce stress which lowers production of hormones like cortisol and inhibits the cardiovascular response to stress (Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. 2005).

The following TED talk provides an insight into how we can overcome our negative mental patterns:

If happiness has little to do with having too many resources, then it is an inner state that we have the power to cultivate. The above video even offers specific exercises for you to try. Just by doing them, you are actively re-wiring your brain towards calm and happy sensations.

Meanwhile, this TEDtalk gives a better understanding of how to wire your brain to accept the positivity and happiness in your life:

The negativity bias that Dr. Rick Hanson discusses can help us understand how we can activate and “install” positive thinking as part of our core brain chemistry. If you don’t have a moment to watch either of these videos now, make time for it later—they are rich with relevant data and tips.

A Take-Home Message

Happiness is the overall subjective experience of our positive emotions. There are many factors which influence our happiness, and ongoing research continues to uncover what makes us happiest.

This global pursuit of happiness has resulted in measures such as the World Happiness Report, while the World Happiness Database is working to collaborate and consolidate the existing happiness pursuits of different nations.

We are living in a time when the conditions for happiness are known. This can be disheartening at times when we consider examples such as South Africa, where political strife prevent much of the population from experiencing the Four Qualities of Life as presented by Veenhoven.

There is, however, good news in this situation: neuroplasticity.

The human brain is wired for happiness and positive connections with others. It is actually possible to experience and learn happiness despite what has been genetically hardwired. 

In a world where the focus on happiness is growing and the mirror is turning back towards ourselves, the happiness of the world relies on the happiness within each one of us and how we act, share, and voice the importance of happiness for everyone.

What are the steps you are taking to make yourself and others happier? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

 

About The Authors

GaryGary is a positive psychology enthusiast and a member of the British Psychological Society. He has worked extensively in the technology business arena, but his passion and interest is in the field of human sciences.

 

Katherine Nelson-Coffey

Katherine Nelson-Coffey is an assistant professor of Psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South. She earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology in 2008 and her Ph.D. in 2015, where she studied personality and social psychology with Sonja Lyubomirsky.

 

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About the Author

Gary Cuthbert is a positive psychology enthusiast and a member of the British Psychological society. He has worked extensively in the technology business arena, but his passion and interest is in the field of human sciences.

Comments

  1. Ramesh Thota

    I stumbled on your article as I am researching on Happiness to publish my 3rd book. Thanks for sharing!
    A very elaborate and informative article. The “Take home message” is very encouraging. And I vouch for the neuroplasticity of the brain. We can train ourselves to be Happy. Once we change our attitude, it is easy to be Happy.
    I learnt how to be Happy at the age of 23. Few years back I posted an article sharing my findings on Happiness in this Linked-in forum. Please see the link for the same https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/easy-happy-ramesh-thota-pmp-cqa/.
    Appreciate if you can share your views.

    Reply
  2. Darja

    I am sorry, could you rpovide me with the author’s name of this article?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Craig Smith

      Katherine Nelson-Coffey and Gary Cuthbert are the authors 🙂

      Reply
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