LG and Discovery Education want to help you discover your happy. Through a series of guest blog posts, we’ll cover topics from the science behind happiness to how to make the most of the Discover Your Happy resources. This month, guest blogger Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., science director of the Greater Good Science Center, shares the key truths about happiness that are most meaningful to learners.
Dr. Simon-Thomas is also featured in the Discover Your Happy Virtual Field Trip, which takes students on a journey to understand how happiness is a learnable skill that can be achieved through the Six Sustainable Happiness Skills.
By Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., Greater Good Science Center
When I speak about happiness science to audiences in business, health care, academia, government, and other sectors around the world, everyone wants to know how to use scientific research to guide their inalienably endowed right to pursue happiness. While the field can’t provide all the answers, I’ve drawn upon feedback to distill the three realizations about happiness that tend to be the most moving, motivating, and surprising to people.
1. Most of us get happiness wrong
Happiness is not a new idea, nor does the average person struggle with explaining what it means. Knowing what happiness is, however, does not make the average person good at pursuing it.
The first mistake that people make is equating happiness, the overarching quality of life, with the temporary enjoyment we feel in response to something pleasurable. Why is this a problem? Well, if happiness is equivalent to momentary enjoyment, then the logical conclusion is that happiness will emerge from stringing together a perpetual sequence of enjoyable moments. Wrong.
When it comes to feelings and happiness, the trick, it seems, is: 1) to readily experience pleasure at the right times and capitalize on those feelings so they last; 2) to acknowledge and express feelings that arise under more difficult circumstances, like anger, sadness, and fear, as they signal important information about what to do next; and then 3) to practice resilience so we can recover from these states gracefully and learn from them.
2. Mindfulness is key
Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen rapidly expanding scientific inquiry into mindfulness, defined both as a deliberate exercise (meditation) or a more general manner that involves attending to the present moment with kindness, gentleness, and compassion.
From a happiness standpoint, mindfulness can be considered both a launching pad and a catalyst. As a launching pad, mindfulness offers people a technique for noticing their existing habits of thinking and feeling, and exploring whether any of their beliefs, biases, or habits might be getting in the way of happiness.
As scientist Matt Killingsworth reported in Science, findings gathered from the Track Your Happiness iPhone app suggest that people enjoy what they are doing more if they are focused on what they are doing, right when they are doing it. From waiting in line to watching movies, if we’re paying attention to this instead of thinking about something else, we tend to be enjoying it more.
3. Cultivating happiness takes work
Like learning to play the ukulele, boosting our overall happiness level is not something we can do in one sitting. The most promising way to ratchet up happiness is to invest in social relationships—strengthen our connections, hone habits of kindness, and do work that contributes to something greater than ourselves.
Like physical therapy after an injury, it takes commitment to strengthen and reclaim the function of our core “pro-social” demeanor—to learn skills around trust, reconciliation, and teamwork. To do this, most of us need to unravel some of our existing habits and be vulnerable. Like stripping out the crumbling foundation of a building and rebuilding it to last, the pursuit of happiness is a deliberate and sometimes-fragile process that requires continued effort.
Whenever I teach the science of happiness, I try to leave people with something they can do right after they walk out of the room. Often the simplest, most accessible message is gratitude. Feeling grateful fosters a more accurate understanding of happiness, strengthening our social connections and motivating us to engage and give back to others. We acknowledge what is good and attribute the source of that goodness to others, and this can help anyone avoid the common pitfalls of pursuing happiness.
How can we get better at expressing gratitude? Try this: when thanking someone, 1) say what they did that you are thankful for, 2) acknowledge the effort it took for them to do this, and 3) describe how it was good for you.
Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, where she oversees the GGSC’s fellowship program, is a co-instructor of its Science of Happiness online course, and helps run its Expanding Gratitude project.
Coming up next month: How to Make the Most of the Discover Your Happy Virtual Field Trip, by Dacia Jones, Science and STEM Educator. Sign up for updates to be notified of the release of our next Discover Your Happy blog post.