Studying happiness seems 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 Very Bad Wizards podcast), to a popular Coursera class, taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, called simply The Science of Well-Being, and thought, “Why not give it a try?”
Everything about our technological age tells me we have to learn to operate in ways that go beyond basic intuitions we trust in. Certainly everything until now has pointed to a belief that my own sense of myself is closest to correct, precisely because I do invest in knowing myself, do pay attention to examining deepest motivations. I’ve made daring, dramatic changes so as to line up 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 I’m contending with?
The course offers upgraded versions of familiar strategies such as 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. 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 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 transitions modes where I’m switching from one thing to another, I have found myself a tiny bit slower to reach for quick hits of emotion like frustration or judgment.
At first, the practices felt to me like magical thinking, but there is a very strong foundation, rooted in acceptance of human ‘hedonic adaptation’, rather than crediting happiness to the powers of self and will. 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 increasing variety and interrupting consumption, and 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 that experiences are weightier than things, for instance, but it was still interesting to consider the studied reason behind that: that things more often stick around long enough for us to grow tired of them.
My daughter has issues with migraines recently, so we’ve been going from appointment to appointment and test to test, to get a sense of what might be going on. In the process we’ve learned 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.