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The Science of Happiness: Understanding Our Cognitive Biases

How science can help our wellbeing

The world we live in continues to change before our eyes probably at a pace that has never been seen before in human history.

Which has led to many people to struggling, feeling unhappy and disillusioned. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England with 1 in 6 people reporting experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England (Mind.org).

In this blog I want to discuss the science of happiness and address some of the cognitive biases we have, hopefully offering some practical advice for us all along the way.

What would make you happier?

More money, higher salary, bigger house or the perfect relationship does any of this come to the front of your mind? Well, you’re not alone; these are very common intuitions.

However, these attitudes to wanting more, particularly around material gains could cause you to behave in pretty dumb ways in a misguided attempt to maximise your well-being.

A 2018 study from Purdue University using a much larger data pool than previous studies focusing on the US found that the ideal income point for individuals is $95,000 for life satisfaction and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being. And to prove the point above when people earned more than $105,000, their happiness levels decreased.

There have been similar studies conducted on lottery winners that have reported happiness levels decreasing after their big win for example as they feel ostracised from their old circles.  

Money itself isn’t either inherently good or evil, it is you and your relationship with money that dictates your emotional states.

If our gut is wrong about what makes us happy, what will make us happier?

One thing that is very clear from the research is that the path to happiness is paved with gratitude. Taking time to appreciate all the things that are good in your life will have a long-lasting effect. Developing the habits of seeing the silver linings will also give you a big nudge in the right direction.

Our natural intuition may lead us astray just as it does when it longs for us to reach for the doughnut, for our ancestors it would have made sense for them to gorge on sugar and high carb foods when they discover them because they are few and far between.

Now though with them being readily available this same behaviour compounded over time would have serious health impacts.

A similar phenomenon may be occurring with our social connection (also proven to improve wellbeing), our hunter-gatherer ancestors would naturally spend lots of time with loved ones and get social connection by default. Many of us today live detached lives where most of our connection comes through technology rather than in person, our hardwiring may not have caught up leading us to feel disconnected and instinctively feeling quite lost.

Happiness studies that follow some of the happiest people in society across the world found there are constant themes of giving more to charity and giving more time to others which suggests they are in a positive feedback loop, they are socially connected because they are happy and they are happy because they are socially connected.

It also showed that giving to others had more of an impact than spending on yourself, further emphasising the need to do away with the constant pursuit for personal material gain.

Now obviously the above isn’t without its limitations as it is very difficult to ‘scientifically’ measure happiness, your happiness scale doesn’t show above your head like a Sim character, it's, for this reason, most of the above research is based on self-reports.

How to improve emotional wellbeing

- Low (hopefully no) Media diet
  • Yes that’s all encompassing; news and social media
- Healthy habits
  • Read more
  • Eat and sleep well
  • Exercise plenty
  • Learn as much as you can
- Make sure you take time for yourself and your loved ones
- Give to others
- Take a break away from your phone
- Make sure your goals are aligned with what actually contributes to happiness and wellness

      So what I am trying to say is it's okay to be chasing something and wanting to improve, but just make sure you are chasing the right thing and make sure you enjoy the ride along the way, practising gratitude and having the correct outlook is paramount for this (check out our other blog entries for plenty more here).

      We highly recommend exploring this further with this free course created by the wonderful Laurie Santos… https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being

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