The Science of Happiness.

This past Saturday I had the lucky opportunity to attend “The Science of Happiness: Surprising new insights into human nature”, a lecture by professor Catherine Sanderson of Amherst College.  I was excited to go and equally excited I didn’t have to pay the hefty $150 ticket price.   I think lots of us could benefit from the talk yet not a lot of us have $150 to spend on a 3 hour lecture.

For three hours, about 75 of us sat in a large hall in downtown Dallas enthralled by professor Sanderson.  She has a great sense of reality and came through with making the audience laugh more than a few times.  As I eagerly took notes, she was kind enough to offer us her presentation via an email, but that didn’t stop me from jotting things down.  It pays to take notes though, because a good speaker only uses the slides for cues and most of their impactful information is relayed over the engaging spoken word.  Professor Sanderson utilized several scientific studies throughout her presentation as well as intertwined her own reality of being married with three kids.  I do wish I had her works cited so I could read some of the studies myself but there were so many it was great to have them all summed up into one easy to understand talk.

So let me share with you some little tidbits from the talk that I found enlightening and may interest you.  I want to share the info I learned yet also leave in tact all of Professor Sanderson’s work she did on her presentation.  She is a really great speaker and my words here will never be equal to seeing her give the presentation in real life.

Things that you would think make you happy but don’t:
1. Money – yes we have all heard this before but it’s nice to have science back that up.  I don’t need to be rich to be happy.  On the other hand, if I am below the poverty level, money does make me happy – shoot it feeds me!
2. Education – that’s right! the more education you have the more pressure to succeed.  This hit home for me, as when pursuing my masters degree and nearing the end of my thesis work I was always asked, “where will you do your phd or what will you study for your phd?!”
3. Climate – this one is interesting because if you know me at all you have heard me say, “I need to move to the equator!” I like to think that warm weather all the time would make me happy but science says we adapt to whatever the climate is.
4. Great Life Events – if I could just do this, I would be happy.  Turns out if I could just meet this milestone makes us happy for a second, and then we’re acclimated yet again.
5. Children – I found this funny.  Being at a point in my life where I need to figure out if kids are on the coming horizon or not, the data basically says, kids will drive you crazy on a day to day basis.  Nothing we really didn’t know but good to be blunt about it.  And to you parents out there, yes, overall parents say kids make them happy but when scientifically asked on a day to day moment and asked to report their happiness, parents report not being happy.

So what does make us happy?

  • FOOD! As I sit here typing this post and gorging on chocolate I already know that fatty, high sugar foods make us happy.  Completely not on my Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) diet, science tells me I have to eat this chocolate to be happy!  Ok, that’s just a complete exaggeration to make myself feel better about popping this chocolate into my mouth.
  • The other one on the makes us happy list I was happy to see, Nature!  This isn’t just going on a ten mile hike, it can be viewing pictures of nature or having a window with access to a park, trees or water.  The one study Professor Sanderson mentioned that sticks out to me is a study of people that underwent the same surgery.  Half were on a wing of the hospital that overlooked a parking lot and half overlooking a park.  The half overlooking the park recovered faster and needed less pain meds.  CRAZY!  (and yes, I wish I knew the scientific paper so I could cite it instead of telling the story I heard, but for what it is, it’s still impressive).
  • The others: Behaviors (exercising, shopping, sex), Age, Personality, Relationships, Gender, Religion (religious or spiritual people are happier despite what religion).

Although happiness does have a genetic component and some people have an easier time being happy than others, it is great to know that you can increase happiness in your own life no matter what.  Professor Sanderson used so many good quotes in her talk it’s hard to pull out just a few to mention but this one by the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert sums up the power of effort to make yourself happy:

“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.” by Elizabeth Gilbert

At the end of the presentation Professor Sanderson left us with ten strategies to increase happiness in your own life.  The four that I have already repeated in everyday life or just thought more about are: 1.  Spend money on the right things!  Yes to experiences and No to belongings.  2. Change your mindset – everything is not a tragedy.  3. Figure out your strengths and find a way to use them. 4. Perform 5 random acts of kindness a day.

I know this sounds crazy and fits right in with the eternal optimist Professor Sanderson describes, but I feel like I was meant to attend this talk.  Life puts you on a path and lately I made the vow to say yes to opportunities such as this rather than no.  Yes opens your mind and can open doors.  I was happy engaging in the presentation and I am happy to write about it.

I’ll take the science and my enthusiasm to continue to say Yes to things I want to do and have the confidence and heart to say No to things that are not on my path.  I’m taking control of my life and building my path.  Although there were many events leading up to this talk for me, it was ultimately this talk that pushed me toward this feeling.  Yes and No together can be powerful.

Say Yes but say No sometimes. 🙂

I almost forgot the best stat I took away from the entire talk.  People that experience failure are ultimately happier in the end!  So when you are down, pick yourself up because you finally had that experience to begin your path to the sky.  You have to get knocked down to pick yourself up even higher.

Lastly, I want to leave you with a few of the other Great quotes Professor Sanderson used in her talk.  I love them, wrote them down and have started a file entitled “quotes” for those moments I need some inspiration.

“Are you bored with life? Then throw yourself into some work you believe in with all your heart, live for it, die for it, and you will find happiness that you had thought could never be yours.” by Dale Carnegie

“Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants.”  by Benjamin Franklin

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” by Teddy Roosevelt

Smile – even when you aren’t happy, it will make you happy.

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