What Makes Us Happy? Bristol University to Explore Science of Happiness

Professor Bruce Hood has launched an innovative ‘Science of Happiness’ course at the University of Bristol. He reveals the surprising psychological secrets of human fulfilment.

By Mark Bailey
Published 21 Oct 2018, 22:36 BST
Photo by Bradley Hook from Pexels

Everyone can achieve happiness through simple but powerful changes to their daily habits and reflections, according to Professor Bruce Hood, a psychology professor at the University of Bristol. Hood is leading the first Science of Happiness course at a UK university – a ten-week programme which aims to equip Bristol’s students with practical, research-based strategies for enhanced wellbeing. The project is already attracting wider interest in the UK, where data suggests young people are unhappier than ever and one in four people suffer from mental health problems.

“Around 40% of students arriving at university have already suffered mental health problems,” reveals Hood. “Throughout school they are fed a menu of high marks, performance and league tables. This culture of competitiveness is stress-inducing. We are not suggesting you don’t strive for success but it should not be at the cost of mental wellbeing. That message has been lost.”

The scheme was inspired by Professor Laurie Santos’s ‘Psychology and the Good Life’ course at Yale University, which became the most popular in the American institution’s 317-year history, attracting a quarter of the student body. “I think college students know that the current culture at universities is unhealthy,” she explains. “They don't like feeling so depressed and overwhelmed and they want do something to change their culture.” Her popular lessons are now available as an online course, which covers everything from the positive power of social connections to the rewarding pursuit of ‘time affluence.’

"Clinicians who had been focusing on why people get depressed began to ask: what makes people happy?” says Professor Bruce Hood.

What makes people happy?

“This all began with a movement called ‘positive psychology’ which started 30-40 years ago when a number of clinicians who had been focusing on why people get depressed began to ask: what makes people happy?” explains Hood. “The interesting thing now coming out of behavioural genetics is whether something as complex as happiness can be explained by genes. Research by Dr Claire Haworth suggests genes play a role but are not deterministic. You can overcome your ‘destiny’ if you engage with strategies which have been shown to improve happiness.”

Some of these scientifically-proven strategies - or “happiness hacks” – include completing random acts of kindness and writing gratitude letters. “The students keep track with a diary and aim for three acts of kindness every day, but not all for the same person,” reveals Hood. “These interventions cultivate a positive framework of mind but you need to do them repeatedly so they become second nature to experience better wellbeing. My own research examines altruism as a way to be happier. Children are not spontaneously nice to each other. They have to be taught it and rewarded for it, but over time they internalise this positive feedback which becomes self-reinforcing. As adults any acts of kindness create those residual feelings of happiness we learned as children.”

Professor Laurie Santos's 'Psychology and the Good Life' course started in Battel Chapel at Yale, but proved so popular it was simulcast into other classrooms across the university's campus.
Photograph by Michael Marsland

These easily actionable techniques are similar to the strategies recommended at Yale. “A simple daily routine that we know increases our wellbeing is taking time for gratitude,” explains Santos. “Studies show that simply writing down three new things you're grateful for each day can improve our wellbeing over time.”

Maintaining a strong social circle is also vital. “Research shows that very happy people tend to differ from unhappy folks in that they spend more time with other people and take more time for the people they care about. Research by Nick Epley and his colleagues at Chicago Business School shows that simply making a social connection with a stranger can make us feel happier.”

Learn to savour the good times

People also need to learn how to ‘savour’ good times. “The practice of ‘savouring’ positive moments uses the same principle as meditation,” explains Hood. “By focusing on positive things, and excluding all the noise out there, you turn your attention inwards. That’s why if you go to a museum and actively engage by taking photos you enjoy it more. Setting aside time for dinner or a play and focusing your attention really enhances the enjoyment.”

The importance of prioritising experiences over possessions is a time-worn adage, but this also has scientific validity. The psychological process known as ‘hedonic adaptation’, in which good feelings flatten off over time, occurs more quickly in response to physical possessions than to experiences.

“Research suggests we readily habituate to physical things, whereas experiences – because they are similar to memories – can be revised and updated so they continue to appear through rose-tinted glasses,” reveals Hood. “Your car can always be compared to a better car, but a personal experience can’t be compared to anyone else’s.”

Setbacks make us happier in the long term

Despite this positive quest for happiness, science also concludes that only by experiencing setbacks can you build the resilience on which long-term happiness (and success) depends.

“I remind students that overcoming a failure is a really good thing to have on your CV because if you have never failed, you remain untested,” he explains. The secret is to rewire your response to failure. “If something bad happens, consider it objectively and rationally and learn to counter any negative framing with positive responses. If you do that repeatedly over time, you will automatically become a more positive person.”

To find out more about the ingredients of happiness, read National Geographic's insight in 'These are the world's happiest places'.



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