In Pursuit of Happiness

From the Headmaster's Desk, February 5, 2018

This morning, I wanted to draw your attention to an amusing story that circulated in the press last week.  Yale University, one of the most prestigious Ivy League universities in America, has broken a record this term with a class that has proven to be the most popular class in its 318-year history.

The class is titled, ‘Psychology and the Good Life’.  It is taught by a psychology professor and the focus is considering closely what causes humans to be happy.

The interesting point is that 25% of the student body enrolled in this course this term.  The lectures have been moved to a concert hall to accommodate the nearly 1200 pupils.  It has become such a strain on resources that the university has said it will not teach the course again.

What I find fascinating is that this is one of the most famous universities in the world, full of successful, ambitious, clever people, but they are all desperate to learn more about happiness.  For many young people your age, getting into a good university seems like the goal – happiness itself.  But yet happiness is elusive.  In fact, one study shows that half the undergraduates at Yale have sought mental health care during their time at university.

Professor Santos, who teaches the course, noted that there is one huge misconception about happiness.  And this is that most people believe that our mind is delivering to us accurate information about what we really want.  In other words, what our minds tell us will make us happy right now, is often wrong.  In her words, ‘our minds miswant things.  There are things that we seek out and crave that are just not going to make us happy.  Conversely, there are things that are totally going to make us happy if we engage in those practices, but we don’t have wanting mechanisms to seek them out.’

Okay, enough of an introduction.  What does psychology tell us about what makes us happy?

Professor Santos starts with another misconception: most people think that more money makes them happier.  But the science does not back this up.  Be it more money through a lottery or a high paid job, these people are not correspondingly happier.  It is true that more money makes you happier at lower income levels – so, someone earning a living wage is happier than the average homeless person.  Yet once you reach an average level of income such that you do not have to worry about your next meal, more money does not make you correspondingly more happy.

Everyday happiness and satisfaction is about little things.

First of all, it is about positive emotion.  Of course, our outlook fluctuates depending on external factors and when we are in difficult situations or circumstances, be it that a family member is unwell or it is dark and raining.

However, it is important to be positive.  Psychologists advise us to focus on things that work well in our lives.  We should celebrate, nurture and cherish these things.  Several studies show that, at the end of the day, if you write down three good or happy things that happened to you that day, you sleep better and wake up feeling better about the next day.  Some psychologists recommend keeping a happiness journal to build positive emotion.  Write down what went well in your life, why, what it means to you, and how to make it happen again.

Gratitude is important here, too.  If you are grateful for good things that happen and you thank others when they do good things, then gratefulness spreads.  Apparently this is already happening on Yale’s campus: students are making a bigger effort to thank everyone – from those who serve them food to anyone who holds a door open.  And the good feeling of gratitude permeates the entire community.

Finally, relationships are important.  Positive relationships with friends and family contribute to better physical and mental health.  They also give you a network that not only builds resilience, but gives you a safety net when things go wrong.  Research shows that good relationships with parents are one of the most important indicators of good mental health.  This is true for both young people and adults.  I know parents are not always perfect – they are human, just like all of us, and they make mistakes.  But if you know that, during your life, your relationship with your parents is going to be a major factor in your happiness, then it’s worth doing all we can to keep up our side of the relationship.

There are many other simple things that have been shown to improve happiness.  Getting a good night’s sleep, meditation, exercise, and being outside, particularly when the sun is shining.  And if it is raining and you don’t have time to meditate or exercise, simply doing something kind towards someone else has been shown to improve your own level of happiness.  It’s funny, but true: an act of altruism towards others actually makes you happier.

So, this week, be positive.  Focus on the good things in your life and be grateful for them.  Look after your friends and family, and especially your parents.

And holidays make most people happy, so enjoy half term, when it comes.


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