Applied Psychology

What is the Science Behind Wellbeing?

Oct 10, 2023 | By Jenna van Schoor

What does it take to be happy? In positive psychology, we can find a lot of research about how our minds work and the effectiveness of implementing constructive behaviour changes. Thanks to many different books and studies, we know more about how to live a fulfilling life. 

However, while we might think we know what will fulfil us, the research shows we often misjudge how much attaining specific goals will affect our wellbeing. Thankfully, research psychologists have taken steps to understand our mind’s limiting factors. This research is based on surveys and long-term studies of people’s emotional states and overall life satisfaction. 

Yale University in the USA has run a top-rated online course called the Science of Wellbeing for many years, which unpacks the data behind what it takes to be truly happy. In this post, we’ll unpack some takeaways from the data and the steps you can take to live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Why we’re not as happy as we think we should be

Money and marriage don’t make us happy in the long term. Our social conditioning might make us believe these are essential for happiness, but according to the data, we’re not good at predicting future emotional states. This is known as affective forecasting. 

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want provides some interesting statistics. While we have varying predispositions towards happiness based on our genetics, these only make up 50%. Remarkably, life circumstances make up only 10%. This is enlightening, considering how much we worry about certain things happening. 

Our actions and thoughts make up the remaining 40% of our ability to be happy. This means we can control a large percentage of our wellbeing, which is empowering! However, this also means getting to grips with our minds and how they often deliver factually incorrect information.

Cognitive bias or “annoying features of the mind”

The Science of Wellbeing course facilitator, Laurie Santos, talks about how we aren’t as happy as we think we should be because of various cognitive biases or “annoying features of the mind”. These include the following:

  1. Our strongest intuitions are often misleading. This means we often misjudge how much achieving a specific goal or going through a negative experience will affect us.
  2. We judge ourselves against relative reference points. These are often irrelevant. While some kinds of social comparison can be helpful, constantly comparing yourself to others on social media isn’t helping to build your self-esteem.
  3. Our minds are programmed to get used to things, known as hedonic adaptation. Unfortunately, this means that even when we get the things we want, they don’t make us happy for that long (or as long as we think they will).
  4. We also don’t know that our minds are programmed to get used to things, so we often mispredict how we’ll feel in the future and underestimate our ability to adapt and cope.

What does make us happy?

Now that we’ve seen how our minds can play tricks on us and how our perceptions of future feelings can be inaccurate, how do we improve our wellbeing?

The trick is to rewire our brains and feel what makes us happy. Some of the first steps to achieving true wellbeing are savouring and gratitude. Savouring means genuinely appreciating an experience while it is happening. This can be anything from taking time to really enjoy a warm shower or a cup of tea. 

Gratitude has also been shown to help us feel happier. For example, you can improve your subjective wellbeing by listing five things you’re grateful for daily. 

Other ways to increase wellbeing include showing kindness and building social connections. People with strong social relationships and networks are much happier than those without. However, even chatting with strangers and performing random acts of kindness can positively impact your happiness. 

Other ways to improve your wellbeing include exercising, sleeping well, meditation, and changing your mindset.

Learn more about social wellbeing with SACAP Global

In a world of social media, it can be difficult not to compare ourselves to others and feel inadequate. However, empowering ourselves with knowledge about human behaviour and building our self-esteem can give us the tools to live happier and more fulfilling lives. 

If you want to learn more about what drives human behaviour, you might be interested in signing up for our micro-credential Factors Influencing Human Behaviour. This course dives deeper into positive psychology and how to enhance your wellbeing.

To expand your knowledge about cognitive distortions and how these can affect your self-concept, we recommend signing up for one of our most recently launched micro-credentials: Building Positive Self-Esteem. This course expands on ways to reframe your experiences and provides practical tools for taking action and shaping your life for the better.

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