Studying happiness is counter-intuitive. My tendency is to think that the more time I spend on studying how to be happy, the less time I’m spending ‘just being’, which is a happy state, isn’t it? Yet, I was drawn by two respected sources (a Buddhist teacher and the less respected but still liked Very Bad Wizards podcast), to a super popular Coursera class, taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, called simply The Science of Well-Being, and thought, “Why not see what the current wisdom is? Why not give it a try?”
Especially, why not give it a try when everything about our current technological age tells me we have to learn to operate in ways that go beyond the basic intuitions we trust in. I’ve always believed, and certainly everything until now has pointed to this belief as wise, that my own sense of myself is closest to correct, precisely because I do invest in knowing myself, do pay attention to examining my deepest motivations. I’ve made daring, dramatic changes in order to line up more authentically with the resulting realizations.
But — what about operating in a world where ‘data’ may have a better read on my core-motivations and ingrained habits than I do? Data has no motivation to look away from blind spots. What about functioning in a world that, I won’t say weaponizes but definitely capitalizes, on pushing all my high-school level comparative triggers, to get me to look away from what I might best benefit from seeing?
Rather than rant about the effects of social media on our psyches and society we keep having strong and frightening glimpses of, why not try to learn more about what we’re contending with?
What this course offers are upgraded versions of familiar strategies, like gratitude & savoring.
Savoring might be as simple as taking time to write out a pleasurable experience or accomplishment… to go back and notice with better attention (many have been doing a form of this with gratitude journals for many years). It is conjuring something positive twice, stretching it out, lingering it longer (yes that’s an odd way to say that but it means what I mean). 🙂
The key point is bringing the sensation closer/stronger to memory, so that as you come into the next moment/next opportunity, gratitude is the nearest frame at hand.
Doing this intentionally over a few weeks, even though I thought I had a good gratitude game going already, has meant that in most default modes, most modes where I’m switching from one thing to another, I found myself a tiny bit slower to reach for hits of emotion like frustration or judgment.
At first, the practices felt to me like, “Okay, Oprah already taught us all this gratitude stuff in a context of magical thinking, so let’s move on.” But there is a very strong foundation, rooted in acceptance of the reality of human ‘hedonic adaptation’, rather than crediting happiness to the powers of self and will, so I have been doing it all anew, with an open mind. It is far too easy to become cynical with what is familiar.
Really, understanding this concept of Hedonic Adaptation, is already worth taking the course. It basically means that what we think will make us happy, is not what actually makes us happy. Scientists have found various ways to test this idea and have come up with pretty useful tools to thwart or delay the tendency to follow our outdated intuitions on this, like active savoring and gratitude journals, like increasing variety and interrupting consumption, like switching reference points.
I come from a background of nurturing greater awareness-in-general, or awareness-for-its-own-sake, as a kind of panacea. I’ve figured out by going through myriad painful experiences that experiences are weightier than things, for instance, but it was still really interesting to consider the studied reason behind that: that things more often stick around long enough for us to grow tired of them. At least this has been true for me to now.
The tide of prevailing patterns and marketing is just too strong to resist without accepting and addressing that we’re operating with biases and ingrained adaptations. So these are simply ‘core’ exercises that support well-being in times such as ours, if we DO them.
My daughter had some issues with migraines recently, and other disturbing symptoms, so we’ve been going from appointment to appointment, doctor to doctor, and test to test, to get a sense of what might be going on. In the process, we’ve been learning A LOT about how people have to live now when it comes to basic things like sitting and standing, not always looking forward.
We may ‘know’ that “sitting is the new smoking” when it comes to health, that posture is crucial, that interrupting the flow of productivity to check on well-being is actually not optional, but it can still take something disruptive to make us actually DO THINGS (like savoring, gratitude) to change our ways.