BY JACK EDWARD NICHOLS
Everyone wants to be happy, but happiness can be an elusive thing. From Aristotle in Ancient Greece, from whose term Eudiamonia, the English term “happiness” is translated, to the psychologists of today, many have pondered about the “key to happiness”. Despite the challenges inherent in such a task – the abstractness and subjectivity of the term being one of the key impediments, especially to the scientific aspect of the field – pioneering researchers specialising in the so called “science of happiness” have identified key commonalities in the mental processes that prevent people from experiencing happiness, known in the field as “mindbugs” along with some simple and practical solutions, known as “happiness hacks” which, if implemented, serve to mitigate these mindbugs. I will evaluate how effective these hacks are in counteracting the effects of mindbugs to lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying life.
Happiness: an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment
The first hack is “gratitude”. Gratidude refers to the cluster of thoughts and behaviours pertaining to a feeling of contentment with the things in an individual’s life that provide happiness, along with a feeling of value attached to those things and an understanding that they might not be present under different circumstances. Emmons and McCullough (2004) found a benefits as compared to a control group arising from the mere act of writing about positive events. Even more powerful is to write a letter of gratitude to a friend or family member (Watkins et al., 2003). However, the practice of gratitude can often be confounded by the intuition’s mindbug. If the person misidentifies what is making them happy, practicing gratitude could cause distress and confusion due to the cognitive dissonance arising from the disparity between anticipated and actual benefit. Research into this potential drawback is lacking, but it is highly feasible that this risk could manifest itself in those practicing this method.
Another happiness hack identified by psychologists is kindness. This refers to actions arising from what is defined in social psychology as “altruism” – behaviour intended to benefit others, without the expectation of reciprocity. Humans being predisposed towards sociality, the mere experience of giving has been found to confer happiness to the giver. For example, Otake et. Al, 2006, found that kinder people experience more frequent and intense positive episodes in life. Lyubormirsky et al (2005) had already found, clarifying the causality of the relationship in Otake’s study, that instructing participants to perform random acts of kindness reported a significant increase in subjective well being. Dunn et. Al, (2008) gave participants money and instructed them to spend it on themselves or others, noting increased happiness in those who spent it on others. This may be in part because the positive reward associated with an act of kindness is not subject to the adaptation, effectively bypassing the effects of the second main mindbug, most likely due to the nature of the positive experience.
Adaptation occurs largely due to the downregulation of dopamine receptors in the brain after a “dopimanergic hit” associated with short-term gratification, which leads to the characteristic peak and trough of the famous “Hedonic Treadmill”. However, the positive experience associated with kindness is linked instead to the brain’s serotonin systems. Siegel and Crockett (2013) Pleasure arising from increased serotonin does not cause the same type of adaptation as dopamine,which is a more intense experience and is linked to addictive behaviour (Koob, 2006) and lower long term satisfaction. Increase in serotonin is also linked to an increase in prosocial behaviour and delay of gratification, initiating a positive feedback loop which in turn increases the effectiveness and likelihood of implementation of the other hacks. Increased prosociality also mitigates the social reference point bias because increased prosocial effect prevents the success of others from being perceived as detrimental to the success of the perceiver.
A third tool in the individual’s arsenal of happiness hacks is “savouring”, which refers to the practice of directing one’s attention towards things that bring happiness. This intensifies the benefit of the thing itself, and perhaps counterintuitively, reduces or eliminates the adaptation effect, leading to a more lasting benefit that is not accompanied by subsequent displeasure, for example, Jose et. Al, (2012), who directed participants to focus on the moment when enjoying a stimulus. Barash et. Al, (2018) used photography of a positive event as a means of gratitude, also found similar benefits. Another potential benefit of savouring, which has not been examined specifically in research, is that it could feasibly facilitate reflection on the thing being savoured, leading to a clearer perception of its benefits or lack thereof, potentially allowing the first mindbug to be unlearned.
Exercise is another important component of a happy lifestyle. Evidence for its role in mental health was collected by Babyak et. Al (2000), who prescribed regular exercise, antidepressants, and a combination of the two to three control groups of people with major depressive disorder. The group with exercise alone showed remarkable benefits, with a recovery rate of near 100%, considerably exceeding the group prescribed both, which led the researchers to theorise that part of the benefit of the exercise came from a feeling of achievement and self-mastery, which was of course hampered by the feeling of having “taken the easy way out”. This implies that one of the key mechanisms by which the benefits of exercise manifest themselves is through improvement in self esteem, effectively counteracting the third mindbug of social reference points. However, it must be said that some of the momentary mood benefits, such as the experience of a warm afterglow, commonly sought after from exercise are subject to adaptation, partly due to the associated dopaminergic reward systems involved, which can lead to exercise addiction (Berczik et. Al, 2012).
Seeking connection with others is another effective solution to the mindbugs discussed here. It is one of the few hacks that has been found to effectively mitigate the intuition mindbug. A successful career, wealth, luxury goods, true love, a perfect body, top grades. Most people overestimate the impact of these things on life happiness. Why? If examined closely, all of these things, bar true love, are experienced individually as opposed to socially. Therein lies the common error in intuition – being social creatures, it is primarily participation in a well-functioning group dynamic that brings long term happiness to individuals. Seeking social connection with others not only increases happiness outright. Eply and Schroeder (2014) found that participants told to strike up conversations on the public transport showed increased scores on the standardised positivity index as compared to the other control groups, even though they would never see those people again. Furthermore, connection to others directs one’s attention to the social setting as an area for the pursuit of happiness, counteracting the first mindbug. This is in part due to the surprisingly social nature of perception and motivation. An individual is deliberately encouraged and directed towards worthwhile activities by other group members, outsourcing the problem of task setting.
Connection with others is increased implementability and effectiveness of the hacks mentioned so far. It is far easier to perform acts of kindness when connected with others, as demonstrated before in the increased benefit of writing a gratitude letter as opposed to solitary expression. Park et. Al (2017) found evidence that people showed an increased happiness boost after performing acts of kindness, specifically when they felt connected to others. Exercise is more beneficial when done socially and is more likely to continue in the long term (Nielsen et. Al, 2014).
Sleep is a key biological necessity, so it is unsurprising that getting enough of it is vital to the experience of happiness. In addition to physical health risks and directly reduced measures of happiness (Dement, Vaughan, 1999), insufficient or inconsistent sleep patterns have also been linked to addictive behaviour due to downregulation of dopamine receptors and borderline personality disorder, which is characterised by excessive focus on oneself image in a social context, especially the perception of others, which is likely to exacerbate the third mindbug. Tamm (2019) provided evidence of this link by demonstrating that people with poor sleep are shunned and avoided by others, constituting a subtle form of ostracism, which has been shown to cause a plethora of mental and physical health risks. In addition, they exhibited trouble regulating emotional responses, which is a characteristic feature of BPD. Simon and Walker (2018) found that the reverse is also true. People with sleep deprivation were found to desire reduced social connection to others, including increased desire for personal space and social separation, both in real life and in a computer simulation, making it unlikely that this could be a result of responding to others’ avoidance of the sleep deprived individual.
Initially developed by the Zen Buddhists, meditation, our final hack, is the ancient practice of clearing one’s mind of clutter, detaching oneself from the emotions of the present and paying attention to what truly matters in life. It has been shown in a plethora of studies to provide a lasting experience of happiness, such as Fredrickson et. Al, (2008), whose results pertained to kindness meditation, which has been linked in other studies to increased oxytocin. Furthermore, this benefit of meditation is not subject to hedonic adaptation. This is presumably due to the nature of the involved neurochemistry: increase in serotonin levels, along with influencing a plethora of other neurotransmitters in the brain (Crissa et. Al, 2013) and even permanent alteration of brain structure.
One might deduce from the brief outline of meditation above that the hack might mitigate the intuition bug through facilitating reflection on what’s truly important. Mindfulness meditation specifically has been shown to yield especially powerful benefits in this area. Somewhat less intuitively, due to its solitary nature, there is also evidence that the regular practice of meditation increases prosociality, even in the absence of ethics-based instructions (Berry, Hoer, Cesko (2020) likely again due to increased serotonin, along with effects which in turn appears to reduce distress caused by comparison of oneself to others. This is linked to the experience of “connection to the rest of the world” that regular meditators report – or even the blurring of the mental distinction between “self” and “rest of world”. Interestingly, a strong dissociation between the two concepts has been linked to narcissistic personality traits, such as excessive distress at being beaten or outperformed in a social setting. However, there is a small line of research that directly opposes this claim. Stefan et. Al (2019) found a negative impact on prosocial behaviour in participants directed to practice mindfulness meditation specifically, theorising that this may result from the disconnection from the emotions of the present that is sought after in mindfulness meditation, leading to lower susceptibility to the needs of others.
To conclude, all seven hacks have been found to have varying positive impacts on happiness in those practicing them. Meditation and seeking connection with others have proven themselves the only two hacks effective in mitigating the intuition mindbug. The adaptation bug successfully avoided most of the hacks except for seeking connection with others. Finally, the problem of social reference points was reduced by gratitude, kindness, connection, meditation and potentially sleep, although sometimes exacerbated by seeking connection with others.
Considering the range of evidence discussed, I would recommend all of these hacks for use in everyday life, as they all show varying degrees of benefit. They are also best used in conjunction, as they often facilitate and enhance the benefits of one another. However, even if implemented effectively, these hacks provide no guarantee of happiness. Although a significant variance in happiness is accounted for by intentional behaviour (40%), even more influential is genetics, accounting for 50% of individual variability in happiness. (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). I must therefore conclude that the hacks, although worthwhile, are only moderately effective. Furthermore, the gratitude and meditation hacks may involve some minor risks, although more research is necessary to verify this.