The Science of Wellbeing

I just finished the Yale Coursera class The Science of Wellbeing. It left me with a lot of food for thought.  The class is well documented. It’s thorough and convincing and most of the contents will not surprise you. What can you do to be a happier person? Sleep. Exercise. Be grateful for the things in your life. Engage with people in ways large and small. Be kind to others. Meditate.

Without getting into the neuroscience to convince you, joy comes from 3 places — health (sleep and exercise), focus (concentrated engagement with tasks or topics) and social connections both large and small. Casual pleasantries and warm not-creepy eye contact with the people on the train can be as temporarily uplifting as time spent with our intimates. Meditation can be useful for all three of these things as it helps us regulate stress, develop our directed attention so that we focus on what matters to us and (in the context of loving kindness meditation) can foster our care for others. Even if you don’t practice loving kindness meditation, simply being able to be present and focused in the moment when engaged with others also promotes social connection.

And me telling you all of this? Statistically, scientifically, I am shouting into the void. The nudges to internalize all of these things are small daily prioritizations. The process for changing your life is unsurprisingly devoid of magic pills. You do the work, you practice the discipline, you put one foot in front of the other because all of the work shifts your mindset. And what is the work? The first work is finding small ways to be kind to someone else. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee. Bring healthy food to the office break room. Think about people who are not you. Make eye contact with the people on the metro and just acknowledge they’re alive. Do one thing every day for a week. Look back on how you felt about it. Do it again. Finding time for sleep, for exercise, for meditation is hard. Start small. Ten minutes of meditation a day can make a difference. So can 20 minutes of exercise — even if you don’t break a sweat.

Look with skepticism on what your hindbrain tells you will make you happy when it’s solitude or things. Fun fact: Chocolate actually tastes better shared. Even if it’s shared by a stranger and you can’t see them eating it. Really. Experiences beat stuff in the dollars-to-buy-happiness competition Every. Time. Need I say especially shared experiences?

As I sat through the material, I was anticipating how you work the nudge — how you actually make yourself do the nice thing once a day, the 10 minutes of meditation, the finding time to exercise. The answer is making specific concrete measurable goals and then practicing a foolish sounding abbreviation called WOOP. Spend some time daily thinking about the Wished for thing, the Outcomes, the Obstacles and then working on a Plan. If that sounds unsatisfying, it’s because again, it’s more work and the thing I can’t give any of you is the full 6 weeks worth of lecture to provide the faith that these things all work. In the end, there’s an act of faith and bothering to try. If you look at the science, trust the work done by others, you pretty much have to put one foot in front of the other and see what comes.

I think I’m done rambling. The class was good (and just a reminder — FREE). I don’t expect any of you to take it, but I highly recommend it anyway.

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