Since 2014, I have been co-instructing the Greater Good Science Center’s free massive open online course called GG101x: The Science of Happiness. To our humbling surprise, upwards of 450,000 people from all over the world have enrolled since we began. It consistently ranks amongst the top ten courses on edX.

I also speak about happiness science to audiences in business, health care, academia, government, and other sectors around the world. Everyone wants to know how to use scientific research to guide their inalienably endowed right to pursue happiness: their own, and that of the communities they live and work in. While neither the field as a whole nor our course can provide all the answers, I’ve drawn upon feedback from students, GG101x discussion boards, Q&As during my talks, and more to distill the three realizations about happiness that tend to be the most moving, motivating, and surprising to people.

1. Most of us get happiness wrong

Emiliana Simon-Thomas

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Happiness is not a new idea, nor does the average person struggle with explaining what it means. Even in the research, a standard measure of happiness presumes that people have an intuitive sense of it and can accurately and reliably place themselves on a scale from “Not a very happy person” to “A very happy person.” Knowing what happiness is, however, does not make the average person good at pursuing it.

The first mistake that people make is equating happiness, the overarching quality of life, with the temporary enjoyment we feel in response to something pleasurable. Why is this a problem? Well, if happiness is equivalent to momentary enjoyment, then the logical conclusion is that happiness will emerge from stringing together a perpetual sequence of enjoyable moments. As one of my long-ago college classmates counseled a friend, “All that matters in life is sex and money.” Wrong. Happiness will not arise from striving to accumulate increasingly pleasurable and luxurious things, or striving to constantly feel and convey bubbly cheer and enthusiasm (to “be positive”).

University of North Carolina professor Barbara Fredrickson’s research does suggest that positive emotional experiences contribute importantly to overall happiness. But people who put all their effort and resources into maximizing pleasure often do so at the expense of socializing or helping others, and end up less happy. Similarly, trying to feel good all the time, according to work by Professors Iris Mauss and June Gruber, actually gets in the way of happiness.

When it comes to feelings and happiness, the trick, it seems, is: 1) to readily experience pleasure at the right times—e.g., to laugh when the joke is funny, savor the delicious food, bask in the warmth of affection, and capitalize on those feelings so they last; 2) to acknowledge and express feelings that arise under more difficult circumstances, like anger, sadness, and fear, as they signal important information about what to do next; and then 3) to practice resilience so we can recover from these states gracefully and learn from them. 

2. Mindfulness is key

Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen rapidly expanding scientific inquiry into mindfulness, defined both as a deliberate exercise (meditation) or a more general manner that involves attending to the present moment with kindness, gentleness, and compassion. Basically, wherever researchers look, mindfulness (if not taken to extremes or applied to extreme circumstances) is beneficial.

From a happiness standpoint, mindfulness can be considered both a launching pad and a catalyst. As a launching pad, mindfulness offers people a technique for noticing their existing habits of thinking and feeling, and exploring whether any of their beliefs, biases, or habits might be getting in the way of happiness. For example, do you reflexively, though perhaps inexplicably, hate apologizing? Given evidence that apologies reduce chronic stress and increase happiness and productivity in apologizers and recipients, could mindfulness enable you to explore that aversion, and perhaps tinker with it?

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Some of the most compelling evidence that suggests mindfulness might be a catalyst to happiness comes from the Track Your Happiness iPhone app, which pings thousands of people all over the world to share their activities and feelings throughout the day. As founder and scientist Matt Killingsworth reported in Science, their findings suggest that people enjoy what they are doing more if they are focused on what they are doing, right when they are doing it. From waiting in line to watching movies, if we’re paying attention to this instead of thinking about something else, we tend to be enjoying it more. In a similar vein, other studies report that mindfulness increases enjoyment of chocolate and sex.

3. Cultivating happiness takes work

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Like learning to play the ukulele, boosting our overall happiness level is not something we can do in one sitting. Throughout the Science of Happiness course, we emphasize the recurring finding that, all things considered, the most promising way to ratchet up happiness is to invest in social relationships—strengthen our connections, hone habits of kindness, and do work that contributes to something greater than ourselves.

Regrettably, particularly in the United States, social norms don’t favor these objectives. Human capacities that drive caretaking, goodwill, and serving the greater good are less valued and thus have less and less influence on our day-to-day experiences. Instead, the environments that we spend most of our time in, like schools and workplaces, focus more on independence, self-determination, and peer competition. Cultural norms like these hone our expertise in self-focus; we get really good at maximizing self-interest and being suspicious of anything that threatens our wealth or reputation.

Like physical therapy after an injury, it takes commitment to strengthen and reclaim the function of our core “pro-social” demeanor—to learn skills around trust, reconciliation, and teamwork. To do this, most of us need to unravel some of our existing habits and be vulnerable. Holding grudges, for example, can feel righteous and core to who we are and where we stand. Forgiveness, on the other hand, lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health, and fuels social ease and connection. But it’s hard to let go. Like stripping out the crumbling foundation of a building and rebuilding it to last, the pursuit of happiness is a deliberate and sometimes-fragile process that requires continued effort.

Whenever I teach the science of happiness, I try to leave people with something they can do right after they walk out of the room. Often the simplest, most accessible message is gratitude. Feeling grateful fosters a more accurate understanding of happiness, strengthening our social connections and motivating us to engage and give back to others. Gratitude is often a theme of mindfulness practices, and is squarely focused on the role that others play in our own life’s goodness. Reflecting upon and expressing gratitude is an exercise in capitalizing on enjoyment, building trust, and softening self-focus; we acknowledge what is good and attribute the source of that goodness to others, and this can help anyone avoid the common pitfalls of pursuing happiness. 

How can we get better at expressing gratitude? Try this: when thanking someone, 1) say what they did that you are thankful for, 2) acknowledge the effort it took for them to do this, and 3) describe how it was good for you. Thank you, reader, for taking the time to read this article; I know you could be doing many other interesting things with your time, and, for me, knowing that people are engaging with the ideas I aim to share brings purpose and meaning to my work.

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