Everything You Think You Know About Happiness is Wrong (Probably)

Everything You Think You Know About Happiness is Wrong (Probably)


Just over three months ago, a group of us embarked on a journey to discover what makes people truly happy, and how we can use that information to improve our daily lives. This Sunday, we’ll reveal what we learned from the online Yale course, The Science of Well-Being, and give you some ideas you can incorporate into your daily routines.


Let me set the stage for you: it was three months ago – which sounds like not that long but feels like forever ago. The pandemic had just been declared and schools were being “temporarily” shut down. Everywhere around us was uncertainty about the future, our health, our jobs, and our economy.

It was in the midst of all this that I stumbled across an ad in my daily news update about an online course, offered by Yale, called “The Science of Well-Being”. I’ve been interested in the psychology of happiness for a few years, so I quickly signed up for the free 10-week course. Then, just as quickly, I remembered that self-accountability is not one of my strong suits, so I sent a note out to the church asking if anyone was interested in joining me.

And so it was, that a group of nine of us embarked on a journey to discover the “secret of happiness” – or at least a version of that secret as distilled by a multitude of scientists and curated by Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman College at Yale.

And today, I’m going to share some of our discoveries with you – but first, I should offer a few disclaimers:

First: as I’ve mentioned, this was a 10-week course – well actually it was 6 weeks of learning with 4 weeks of “lab work” – but still, even condensing 6 weeks down to 15 minutes today is hardly possible. So I’m going to do my best to give you a 30,000 foot overview and give you some things you can incorporate into your daily routine, but I’m also hoping to just whet your appetite just enough to leave you wanting more…

Second, as indicated by the name of the course, we didn’t learn the super-fluffy-emotional-new-age-approach to happiness. The course was grounded in behavioral and cognitive science – but, for all of us without PhDs in psychology, it did a very good job of making it easy to understand and relate to our everyday lives – and I’ll attempt to do the same. Just a word of warning that what’s about to come is going to be more of an “educational” presentation instead of philosophical or theological sermons we usually get on Sundays…

What is happiness?

So where do we begin? Let’s start with the idea of “happiness”. If I could grant you one wish for whatever you want, what would you ask for – and be honest and don’t say “world peace” just because you think I’ll give you extra points for your altruism.

Assuming you are like most people and you would wish for things that would make you “happy”, some of the most common answers we’d expect to get are things like a Good Job, or lots of Money, or a Huge House, or True Love, or the Perfect Body. Unfortunately, if you were to interview people that have those things, you wouldn’t really find they’re any happier than people that don’t have them – in fact, in many cases they’re probably more unhappy.

So why is it that the things we immediately gravitate towards end up not fulfilling our wish for happiness? Well, there are some things our brains are constantly doing to get things wrong. In the course, Dr. Santos refers to them as the four “annoying features of our minds.”

Four Annoying Features of Our Minds

First, our brains sometimes have a hard time interpreting the information it’s receiving which makes our strongest intuitions often misleading. For instance, in this optical illusion, your brain is telling you that the table on the left is longer than the table on the right. Even when I rotate the tabletop and show you that both tables are the same size, your brain continues to shout “NO – the table on the left is longer!”. So even though our brain swears it’s right about something, it’s not always the case.

Second, we tend to judge ourselves and our circumstances by relative reference points that usually end up making us feel worse than we should. A great visual example of this is this photo from the Olympics.

When you look at the smiles on these winners’ faces, you can see a very different story between the second and third-place winners. The second-place winner looks mildly satisfied to be on the medal stand whereas the third-place winner looks ecstatic. That difference in emotion can be explained by the reference points they’re judging their successes against: the second-place winner is thinking, “man, if I’d only kicked it in a bit sooner at the end, I’d be in first place,” whereas the third-place winner is thinking “phew, I barely made it to the medal stand. Hooray for me!” In this example, the second-place winner is comparing himself to the gold medal winner – who he lost to – instead of to the third-place winner that he beat. The bronze medal winner on the other hand, is comparing himself to all the other people he beat in order to make it on the stand. Objectively, the second-place winner should be happy with his accomplishment, but his brain has set his point of reference to the gold-medal spot, so he feels like he lost.

Another annoying feature of our minds is a fancy term called “hedonic adaptation” – or simply put, getting used to things. Our brains think that nice big house or fancy new car will make us happy – and for a brief while we are happier – but eventually we get used to it and our baseline has adjusted so we get bored with what we have. As social psychologist Daniel Gilbert said, “Part of us believes that the new car is better because it lasts longer. But in fact, that’s the worst thing about the new car. It will stay around to disappoint you…”

The final annoying thing our minds do is not realizing we get used to things, so we mis-predict how certain outcomes are going to affect us. We think something is going to change our life completely – it’s the end of the world. But when you look back on those highs and lows, you find that things stabilized and weren’t as good or bad as you thought they would be when you were in the middle of things. An example given in the class was people that have been diagnosed with HIV. When first hearing of their diagnosis, they feel like it’s the end of life as they know it and they can’t imagine how they’ll make it – but if you check back with them a few months later, things aren’t as bad as they thought it would be. At the time of diagnosis, all they could think about was that one thing, “I’m HIV positive,” but in reality, their HIV status didn’t occupy every waking minute of their days; they still hung out with their friends, watched good movies, and ate good food. They’re still HIV positive, but other things in their life serve as a counterbalance to their diagnosis. But when that good or bad thing initially happens, the immediate impact on our happiness is out of whack compared to how things are going to end up.

So now you know: our minds are always doing some things that get in the way of our personal happiness. But just knowing these four annoying features isn’t enough. One of the first things presented in the course was the “GI Joe Fallacy”. If you remember the GI Joe cartoon from the 80s, each episode ended with a cheesy Public Service Announcement like “Don’t give strangers your address” or “Don’t pet strange dogs.” Every PSA ended with a screen that said “Knowing is half the battle.” But as we saw with the first annoying feature of our mind, knowing is less than half the battle. We may know that the two tables are the same size, but our brains still get it wrong.

The same is true for our brain’s thoughts on happiness. We know we shouldn’t judge ourselves against the Victoria Secrets models or the Hemsworth brothers… we know we get used to things and that whatever it is that we’re experiencing isn’t really “the end of the world.” Intellectually we may know all of that, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still feel bad about ourselves when we look in the mirror or we keep buying the newest iPhone because we think it’ll make us happy.

Appreciating What We Have

So if knowing isn’t half the battle, what can we do to find happiness in our lives? Is it even possible or are we destined to be tricked by our brains every step of the way? Well there is a way, but the path to happiness isn’t an easy one. Instead of just letting the good times roll, happiness take intentional, effortful actions every day. So what can we do to start moving in the right direction? One path is learning to appreciate what you have. There are three ways you can retrain yourself to do this:

The first is to rethink the things we think are “awesome.” If the wish I granted you was for material things like money, a bigger house, or a new car – think again. Due to hedonic adaptation, we get used to those things so we just end up chasing newer and bigger things. Instead, studies show that investing in experiences makes people happier. Going on a cruis or a backpacking trip or a day at Six Flags are short term so we don’t have time to get board with them. We also get a boost of happiness later on when we remember or tell others about the experience.

Second is thwarting that hedonic adaptation so we don’t get bored with what we have. There are a few ways you can do this. You can savor things – like your ice cream sundae or sitting on your back patio on a summer morning – so you can really enjoy them. You can also take a moment to imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t have your car or your house, and you can practice gratitude to remind yourself to be grateful for what you have. All three of those are ways you can keep yourself from becoming bored.

Another thing we can do is reset our reference points. We can remember how things used to be: before we had our current salary or our current house. Or if we don’t have something in our past to compare against, we can compare our current situation against someone else’s – although you should avoid these comparisons to the things you see your friends posting on Facebook. Most people have their “real life” – complete with crappy hair days – which is different than the version of their life they post online.

And if you do find yourself comparing yourself to others, there is a technique where you mentally pause and tell your mind to stop and recognize what you’re doing.

Similarly, another way you can reset your reference points is to interrupt your consumption. For instance, you may think that you hate commercials, but one surprising study showed that people enjoyed their TV show more when it was interrupted by commercials. It’s not that they enjoyed the commercials – those were still annoying – but every time the commercials ended and the show began again, their enjoyment jumped up, even more so than the people who watched the show uninterrupted!

You can build on that by adding variety to your life as well. You may love chocolate ice cream, but if you eat it every time you go to Baskin Robins, you’ll eventually get bored. If you mix it up and get some Jamocha Almond Fudge or Rocky Road every once in a while, the chocolate ice cream will be all that much better when you order it once again.

Wanting the Right Things

Those were three ways we can find happiness with the things and situations we already find ourselves in. Another path we can take towards happiness involves retraining ourselves to want the right things. When we look at the list of things our brains think it will take to make us happy – things like a good job or a big salary – the brain isn’t completely wrong, but it’s focusing on the wrong parts.

Take your happiness or satisfaction with your job, as an example. Most people judge their job by their position or salary, but as we’ve seen, our brains aren’t good at objective reference points so those won’t really make us happy. Someone will almost always out-rank you or make more than you, which will keep you from being happy with your job. Instead, we should focus on whether we feel challenged and whether we experience that sense of “flow” when you get so wrapped up in what you’re doing that time just melts away. No matter the position or salary, people that report experiencing that sense of flow in their job or daily lives feel happier than those that don’t.

Another thing we should be seeking out are opportunities for kindness. Yes, it’s as easy as that. Being kind to others gives us a boost of the chemicals that make us feel happy. Whether it’s someone you know or a complete stranger and a random act of kindness, it doesn’t matter. Kind acts will make you happier.

Another is social connections. Being around others will make you happier – even if you think you’re an introvert and are afraid to talk to strangers. Giving a smile, a wave, or a short conversation as you pass by them on the street is enough to give a little shot of happiness.

Next is time affluence – prioritizing time to do the things we want to do over the money we make. I can identify with this one. In the last three months of staying at home, I’ve been much happier because my evenings and weekends are no longer filled with running around to meetings or appointments. Suddenly I have all this extra time to do the things I wanted to do with my family but never had enough time to do!

The fifth thing that can make us happier is mind control. Not like being able to control your children to get them to do their chores – this is control over our own thoughts and silencing that constant inner voice. One way of doing this is by incorporating a practice of meditation in your daily life so you can learn to focus on one thing at a time and bend like the willow in a hurricane instead of snapping like an oak.

The last two things are the healthy practices of sleep and exercise. Numerous studies have shown that a lack of either contributes to mental decline – something most of us know and accept as the truth, yet we don’t take the steps necessary to get what our bodies need.


Phew, so there you go. That was about 12 hours of video lectures condensed down to about twelve minutes, and as I said in the beginning, that was just a very high-level version of what the course went into. There were so many fascinating and surprising studies that I wanted to include today, along with some additional techniques like WOOP-ing a goal and ways to help strengthen newly forming habits, but I didn’t want to keep you here until two o’clock.

So before everyone starts to leave because their brains are full, here are the elevator pitch highlights for you in just a couple of slides.

Our brains have four annoying features that mess us up on our quest for happiness:

  • It thinks it knows what it’s doing but it’s frequently wrong.
  • We judge ourselves on relative reference points instead of objective goals.
  • We get used to (or get bored with) things
  • We aren’t good at predicting how something will affect us in the long-run.

Even though we may know those four things, the path to happiness starts with intentional, effortful activities:

  • Invest in experiences rather than material things
  • Don’t let yourself become bored with your things or your life
  • Reset your reference points so you can appreciate what you have (instead of being sad about what you don’t)

Keeping in mind that knowledge is less than half the battle, the 10-week course didn’t only focus on the science of well-being. Each week, we were challenged to try to re-wire our brains by focusing on a specific “rewirement” that has been shown to positively influence people’s happiness. Even if you forget most of what I spoke about today, I challenge you to consider incorporating one (or all) of these into your daily routine to see what kind of impact it can have on your life:

  1. Take some time to savor things as you experience them
  2. Be grateful – whether to a particular person or just to life in general
  3. Be kind to someone, whether it’s letting them go first at a four-way stop or paying-it-forward in the Starbucks drive-thru
  4. Connect with someone – either a friend or family member or even a stranger in line at Jewel. Just a friendly wave and a smile can do wonders.
  5. Practice meditation. We’ve found a few apps – both free and paid – that teach the basics of meditation and offer daily practice to help you quiet your mind.
  6. Use your skills and strengths so you can experience that state of “flow”.
  7. Exercise
  8. And get your 7 1/2 hours of sleep.

Finally, if you find this topic to be interesting, I recommend taking the class for yourself. If you do take the class, reach out to others to see if they’d be interested in taking it with you. While the course does have online discussion boards, sharing it with friends and holding each other accountable made the class so much more valuable for the nine of us – so much so that we plan to continue meeting to check in with each other on our requirements and finding other classes we can take together. If you need help figuring out the details, I’m happy to help get you started.

Too often we think of happiness as a permanent state of being – like your height or shoe size. But happiness isn’t something you just naturally come by, it ebbs and flows throughout each day and throughout our lives. It’s something we have to walk towards, and it’s not always easy because our brains keep getting in the way, but ultimately, through intentional efforts, we can learn to be happy. May it be so for each of us.


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