Both Harvard and USC offer courses on the Science of Happiness. What is it that these stellar schools know that the rest of us need to learn?
Happiness is not only important, it can be taught and nurtured just like math, reading or English.
We all are aware that our moods can influence our ability to focus and learn but new research by social psychologists and neuroscientists such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, Sheldon, Schkade, Dickerhoof and Davidson suggests that not only can happiness influence how we learn but happiness itself can also be learned.
This field of study loosely called Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is one of the most exciting new fields in Social Psychology for educators, students and parents. Governments too are starting to pay attention to SEL because scientific research suggests that happier people are more productive and greater productivity directly influences GDP, the economy and the future of our nation.
Cultivating happiness is not a subject this is reserved for the privileged students at Harvard and USC. In fact according to Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research nearly half of a person’s general happiness in created through intentional actions. “Intentional” is the operative word because it reveals that each and every one of us has the ability to learn how to improve our happiness and in turn our ability to learn and succeed.
Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness, published in 2008 is much more than a fluffy New Age self-help book. Originally from Russia and with a degree from Stanford in Social Psychology, Lyubomirsky bases her research on several hundred scientific studies demonstrating the benefits of happiness. Ongoing research by Lyubomirsky and others suggest that happiness can be cultivated and improved. In essence learning how to be happy can in turn increase our innate abilities to learn and succeed. The research suggests that learning to be happy is like learning anything else-it takes hard work, perseverance and dedication. The daily cultivation of happiness through behavior strategies (practice) can dramatically increase a person’s level of happiness.
The types of practice that show the best results according to the scientific studies include:
1. Setting aside time every day to express feelings of gratitude for things we have and cherish and making a point of savoring our positive experiences.
Most cultures on earth have embraced this daily practice. The verbal expression of gratitude for the wonderful things and people in our lives has been proven to actually make people happier over time.
Savoring a good cup of coffee or a meaningful talk with a friend is another way to increase happiness. Intentionally noticing these small things and taking a few moments to acknowledge and be thankful for them daily actually increases happiness.
2. Routinely practicing acts of kindness.
When we are kind to others we are giving of ourselves. When we are kind people are appreciative. It turns out that this fundamental human interaction is one of the best ways to cultivate happiness.
3. Setting, pursuing and completing life goals in a step-by-step manner.
Setting goals and accomplishing them makes everyone feel better. What is interesting is that doing this is a directed organized, step-by-step manner means not only that the goals will be more likely to be attained, the process itself actually increases our feelings of happiness and contentment regardless of the outcome.
4. Avoiding the hedonic treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill is an area that social psychologists are currently studying intently. The scientists are looking at why people increasingly become deadened to stimuli that once gave them feelings of contentment and happiness. When this happens more is required to re-create similar feelings of happiness creating a vicious cycle of never getting enough. The hedonistic treadmill is thought to be the basis for many life-long problems including depression, over-eating, drug addiction and insatiable consumerism. The researchers believe that slowing down the process of the hedonic treadmill is done through intentional pursuits that require effort. They are currently working on strategies to avoid this numbing process to increase happiness.
According to the researchers the best way to learn to be happy is to practice cultivating happiness every day.
The research suggests that happiness increases our ability to learn so over time both learning and happiness should become easier and easier!
Lisa Pluth, PhD, is a researcher and writer for Our Campus Market the leading supplier of dorm room essentials in the United States.