A skeptical journalist sets out to discover the keys to a happy life — and finds herself changed in the process.
I’ve always been suspicious of cheerful people. People who smile unprovoked, people who insist upon silver linings. People who resemble Weebles, wobbling without ever falling down.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve moved through life holding my breath as if bracing for bad news — and two bouts with cancer haven’t helped. But recently, as I surveyed a roomful of grumpy older relatives at a family gathering, I experienced an epiphany not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge’s when he recognized his Ghost of Christmas Future: Just because I didn’t inherit a happy-go-lucky personality doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be happier. Surely there’s still time to change.
I’m a science journalist, so to investigate, I headed straight to the academy. As I pored over the happiness research, I discovered rigorous studies demonstrating, among other things, that happiness is not solely determined by income, health, or genetics. Grumpi-ness is not my destiny.
Encouraged, I enrolled in an eight-week online course called The Science of Happiness, offered through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. More than 400,000 people have participated in the program since its inception in 2014, so clearly I’m not alone in my quest to become a happier human.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, the center’s science director and a cocreator of the course, attributes its popularity to our dawning realization that we’re seeking happiness in all the wrong places.
The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, she notes, yet ranks 13th in terms of happiness — powerful evidence that material wealth does not create sustained joy. Nor is happiness simply an absence of sadness, anger, or anxiety.
“The key to sustained happiness,” Simon-Thomas says, “is to connect to others, to be kind, and to tap into a sense of belonging.”
The interdisciplinary program features weekly evidence-based lectures and readings by psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, and others, plus happiness homework. The following three assignments worked especially well for me.
Savor Life’s Joys
The Assignment: List three positive things that happened today, then reflect on what caused them.
My Initial Response: I was tempted to shrug this off as just another gratitude-journal exercise, until I realized that the key is to reflect on why the positive thing made me happy.
The Science: Research shows that strong social connections are linked to health benefits, lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Likewise, people who are socially isolated suffer from more inflammatory disorders and immune-system dysfunctions.
Aha! Moment: The items most likely to pop up for me were phone calls with my sisters or time spent with friends, so I consciously began building time into my days to nurture treasured connections. I decided to start each day by sending a card to someone I love. (Greeting cards are among my favorite things in the world; your connection may look different — an email, a text, or even a bear hug.) Each step of the process — choosing a card, writing a note, affixing a stamp — helped me acknowledge and appreciate the importance of these relationships.
Build Your Kindness Muscle
The Assignment: Perform five random acts of kindness every day.
My Initial Response: Five daily acts of kindness felt like a lofty goal for someone who works at home, so I chose to do my acts in the place where I often feel the least happy and kind: behind the wheel of my car. (I’ve picked up some bad habits since moving to Boston a few years ago — most notably, honking.)
The Science: Numerous studies have found that being kind to others boosts your own happiness — a positive-feedback loop that makes you more likely to be kind again.
Additionally, research suggests that one of the biggest barriers to kindness is busyness. In a landmark Princeton University study, researchers recruited seminary students to give a talk about either seminary jobs or the Good Samaritan. On their way to giving their talks, participants encountered a person slumped over in an alleyway. If the students had plenty of time, more than 60 percent of them stopped to help. But of those who were running late, only 10 percent bothered to stop.
Aha! Moment: I realized I honk more when I’m rushed, so my acts of kindness started with giving myself more time to get where I was going. I began leaving 10 minutes early, which was like adding a “kindness buffer.” Every time I slowed down and waved a driver into the lane in front of me or stopped for a pedestrian, I felt a pleasant surge of emotion. Again and again, I arrived at my destination feeling peaceful and connected instead of frazzled and cranky.
The Assignment: Write yourself a letter expressing compassion for an aspect of yourself you don’t like.
My Initial Response: Resistance. I’d been upping my acts of kindness and nurturing my feelings of connection with others. This just felt like navel gazing. But, by this point in the course (week 7), I was more open to the exercises. Also, I’d fallen behind in watching the videos, and my self-critic was in high gear. So I decided to write a letter to my inner procrastinator.
The Science: Research indicates that procrastinators have lower levels of self-compassion and higher levels of stress. Identifying with our self-critic cuts us off from our underlying feelings of insecurity and vulnerability and isolates us, says Kristin Neff, PhD, a professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas, Austin, and a pioneer in self-compassion research.
“Often we are so lost in the role of self-critic,” she says, “that we don’t stop to realize this is really hurting, and in some ways it feels more comfortable to stay critical.”
Aha! Moment: As I wrote the letter, my body softened and my breath deepened. Writing helped me see how much I wanted to be the A student — and how perfectionism sets me up to fail. A wave of self-compassion washed over me when I realized I’m no different than everyone else. Life is demanding and we’re all doing our best.
After eight weeks, I wasn’t humming Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” but I did feel a measurable uptick in my baseline mood. I am more aware now of what brings me joy (connecting with loved ones) and what corrodes joy (giving my self-critic the microphone). And now — for the first time in my life — when my Weeble starts to wobble, I trust that I won’t fall down.