I completed my master's degree in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, which is the scientific study of psychological well-being, happiness and human flourishing. While things like practicing gratitude and performing random acts of kindness were more obvious paths to happiness, there were some very surprising things I learned that transformed the way I thought and lived my life. Here are a few that were most surprising...
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1. Striving for Happiness Can Make You Less Happy
Yes you read that right. There is a tremendous amount of research that demonstrates the importance of happiness and its association with so many positive outcomes that I was surprised to discover the counterintuitive research conducted by Iris Mauss at the University of California Berkeley, who claims that happiness may not be beneficial in every context.
Mauss has discovered that as people strive for happiness, they set higher expectations for happiness. When their expectations are not met, they find themselves disappointed. Also, the harder one tries to experience happiness, the more difficult it is to actually feel happy. We feel this tremendous amount of pressure to be happy all the time that we often hear people apologizing for their unhappy moods. For heaven's sake, if your dog dies, it's okay to be sad.
I think sometimes people are confused about what happiness is, thinking that it is always about fun and experiencing positive emotions. Researchers have found that people who focus not just on positive emotions, but also on engagement and meaning in life have a much richer experience of happiness. Don't get me wrong, I still practice happiness habits every day to maintain my psychological health; I just found my life was a lot richer when I accepted life's ups and downs and the emotions that came along with that.
2. The Paradox of Choice
I always thought that having more choices when making any decision would make me happier, but according to psychologist Barry Schwartz, endless choice can actually lead to lower levels of happiness. Here's how it works: the more choices you have, the more you have to give up. Having some choice is good, but when you have too many choices, having to forego many attractive features of things not chosen causes regret. We can liken this to buyer's remorse.
Schwartz's suggestion is to employ a tactic called "satisficing/" Before you purchase, be clear about the features and options you require, make your choice based on those requirements and then stop searching. If you are prone to what Schwartz refers to as "maximizing"; exhaustively exploring every single option and feature before making any decision, satisficing can be liberating. What I have found is that when I need to make a major and significant decision I take the time to maximize. For everything else, satisficing is fine with me and I'm happier for it.
3. We Are Bad at Predicting What Will Make us Happy
For this, I turn to Dan Gilbert's TED Talk titled "The Surprising Science of Happiness." In this talk, Gilbert describes how humans are bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. I thought that a bigger salary, a bigger house and a nicer car would make me lastingly happier, but what I didn't know about was the concept of hedonic adaptation.
Research has shown that human beings are highly adaptable to both bad and good changes in their lives. After a period of adaptation, we typically revert back to our previous happiness range. This is not true for all life events, as some are more life changing than others, but true for most situations. So we find ourselves working hard for more and more things without realizing that we are really just on a hedonic treadmill.
4. Other People Matter More Than I Thought
When I think about my happiest moments I think about time spent with family and friends but I didn't think that social relationships were that central to our survival, especially for some personality types. Science has proven the opposite. Neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger designed an experiment where participants played a computer game called Cyberball while having their brains scanned by an fMRI machine.
The Cyberball game begins with all three avatars happily tossing the ball to each other but soon, the study participant is excluded from the game. As soon as the participant is excluded, the fMRI shows activity in the same region in the brain that physical pain might cause. In other words, social exclusion is experienced as physical pain in the most primal part of our brains.
Researchers refer to this as "social pain" and hypothesize that it had an evolutionary function. In ancient times the key to our survival as human beings meant being part of a tribe or social group and we relied on the efforts of the group to survive. Researchers now believe that this survival signal is embedded in more ancient parts of our brains where threats to one's social connections are processed at a basic level as a severe threat to one's safety. You may think you can do it alone, but your brain will think otherwise.
5. Exercise Improves Psychological Health
Of course we're taught from an early age that exercise is an important contributor to our physical health but research now shows that physical exercise is also important to our psychological health. Whenever I mention this to people, they often refer to the boost of endorphins after exercise, but there is way more at work here.
According to Dr. John Ratey in his ground-breaking book, Spark, exercise produces the feel-good bio-chemical serotonin. Daily physical activity actually increases the amount of serotonin in our brain improving mood and protecting us from depression. In one study with clinically depressed people, the group that was prescribed daily exercise in fact showed greater reductions in depressive symptoms than the group that was prescribed anti-depressants. Exercise also reduces the stress hormone cortisol which allows us to manage better in stressful times. The good news is that any physical activity counts - so just get moving every day.
Stay tuned for my next blog post because believe it or not there are more surprising discoveries!