The Science of Well-Being and The Meaning Of Life (Wk 1)

Disclaimer: I am taking a course called The Science of well being at Yale University – the most popular class in the university’s 300-year history. The course, quite literally, changes the way you think about happiness through scientific research put into practical methods. In my attempt to digest the content better and practically apply it, I share what I learn from the well-renowned Professor of psychology, Dr.Laurie Santos, here every week. I go beyond the class and do my own reading and research to bring you a hopefully informative post every week.

I did a review of the book Man’s Search For Meaning -a book I often reference in this article as well- which you can read here.

The happiness lab podcast is also the brainchild of Dr.Laurie Santos, a podcast that has been downloaded over 8.5 million times since its inception in September 2019. 

A quick run down of what to expect:

  • Misconceptions about happiness
  • why our expectations are so bad
  • what really increases happiness
  • strategies to reset our expectations
  • putting strategies into practice

Here is an interesting fact: doctors prescribe anti-depressants four hundred times now than they did just twenty years ago. According to the World Happiness Report, which is released annually on the International Day of Happiness (20th March), there’s a happiness gap that only seems to expand with time. There has been an upsurge of negative feelings e.g. anxiety, sadness, worry, depression, that has risen by 27 percent from 2010 – 2018 alone, America being the worst hit. According to WHO, close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year with suicide being the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.

So why then is there so much gloominess in the world? Why is it that the ‘quantity’ of life is rapidly increasing yet our quality of life seems to do the opposite? The disconnect is not in the number of things we own but in how each person feels, about those things and also about themselves. We as human beings are unfortunately and unavoidably influenced by our surroundings and that is why it seems like a worthwhile venture to mend how we perceive the things that happen to and around us. Perception is key when it comes to mental health which largely affects our well-being.

“About 50 percent of happiness is genetically determined, so some people are born Tigers, and some people are born Eeyores,” says Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project. This might sound like bad news because one might go, “well, if it is already pre-determined, what am I fighting so hard for?” If you have no control over one fifty, then the other fifty is yours for the taking, all excuses aside. Take this happiness thing like a coin. One side of the coin says ‘good luck’ i.e. genetics, while the other one says ‘try me’.

Related: How To Survive A Pandemic and How Marcus Aurelius Can Help

Victor Frankl, author of Man’s search for meaning, a book that has sold more than 12 million print copies says;

Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue, and it only does so as the greater unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of ones surrender to to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success.

Victor Frankl

Is he right and is it that simple?

Related: 10 Most Recommended Autobiographies of all time

If statistics show that people are becoming more unhappy than they have ever been and more unhappy than they were before, it becomes quite frightening because what does that say about where humanity is headed? What sort of civilization are we aiming for if we are internally distraught and afflicted with plagued psyches? Are we really going to teach our children the same values that have cost us our happiness and still hope that, somehow, they evolve into better versions than us? We cannot pass down a broken mantle and demand that it work as good as new one. I’m asking not as a criticizer or a knowledgeable human but a person in need of the answers to these questions just as much as the rest of the world.

However, some countries, mostly Scandinavian and Nordic countries seem to have figured out, at least partially, an essential ingredient to this crumbling happiness cake that the rest of the world seems to miss. We’ll find out why in the next blog post.

World’s Happiest Cities according to the 2020 world happiness report

  1. Helsinki, Finland
  2. Aarhus, Denmark
  3. Wellington, New Zealand
  4. Zurich, Switzerland
  5. Copenhagen, Denmark
  6. Bergen, Norway
  7. Oslo, Norway
  8. Tel Aviv, Israel
  9. Stockholm, Sweden
  10. Brisbane, Australia

World’s Unhappiest Cities

  1. Kabul, Afghanistan
  2. Sanaa, Yemen
  3. Gaza, Palestine
  4. Port-a-Prince, Haiti
  5. Juba, South Sudan
  6. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
  7. Delhi, India
  8. Maseru, Lesotho
  9. Bangui, Central African Republic
  10. Cairo, Egypt

We have read about people’s psychological afflictions in books like An Unquiet Mind: a memoir of moods and madness and The Incurable Romantic and Other Tales of Madness and Desire, and can clearly see the importance of excavating our own happiness for a meaningful and fulfilled life. But what does that look like? No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny…no one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. Honest to God, I shudder every time I read or remember the quote below:

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.

Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how but if your why is undefined, or improperly done so, then your how is disoriented and life itself becomes a void driven by meaninglessness and unhappiness. Existential crisis anyone? This course will help me and you dig into the why and then experiment with our individual truth. essentially, the science of well-being and the meaning of life inter-are.

Related: The Dust and Silver Lining Of Coronavirus

Mental health plays a major role in people’s ability to maintain good physical health which in turn affects one’s general well-being. At the time of writing this, we are still neckdeep inside the COVID-19 nightmare and Dr.Santos hosted a Facebook Live Q&A that talked about how we can manage the many emotions we are currently enveloped in. In the talk (which you can watch by clicking the link above), she touched on the following points:

  • Reducing tension in a relationship while sheltering in place (1:11)
  • Consuming news without increasing anxiety (3:24)
  • Supporting healthcare workers and helping them prioritize self-care (5:19)
  • Remaining positive when living alone (8:51)
  • Staying focused and productive at work (10:36)
  • Finding your next career or job if you’ve been laid off (12:47)
  • Helping children who are struggling without their usual routine or friends (15:00)
  • Creating positive experiences while in lockdown (18:26)
  • Sleeping better, despite increased anxiety and stress (20:48)
  • Coping if loved ones test positive for COVID-19 (23:57)
  • Spreading kindness or making social connections while isolated (26:32)

I’m set on looking into the works of pioneering scientists like Martin SeligmanEd DienerBarbara FredricksonSonja LyubomirskyMihaly CsikszentmihalyiDaniel GilbertRobert Emmons, as did the professor, on positive psychology studies. In social psychology and behavior change, work by scholars such as Liz DunnMike NortonNick EpleyGabriele Oettingen, and others also proved to be beneficial upon Dr.Santos’s recommendation.

Below is the first podcast of The Happiness Lab which you can listen to.

See you next week on the next class.

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