Mental Habits of Happiness: Week 7 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 7, Mental Habits of Happiness.

Intro to week 7 (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

This week, we’ll be learning about some of the mental habits that promote and detract from happiness. In particular, we’ll look at how to cultivate self-compassion, flow, and optimism while warding off perfectionism, materialism, and frazzle. We’ll also look at how setting the right goals can make us happier.

Toxic thoughts vs. training the mind for happiness

The fundamentals of training the mind for happiness (Dacher Keltner)

While a happy mind has positive patterns of thought, negative patterns are implicated in conditions like depression and anxiety. Toxic patterns of thought include:

  • Perfectionism, where we strive for perfection and almost always find ourselves lacking. Being praised in childhood for intrinsic traits (like intelligence) rather than changeable traits (like effort) can promote perfectionism.
  • Social comparison. Comparing ourself to those who are better off than us leads to lower self-perception, while comparing ourself to those who are worse off than us makes us look down on them.
  • Materialism. In fact, research has shown that buying experiences gives us much more of a happiness boost than buying things.
  • “Maximizing” rather than “satisficing.” Maximizers try to make the optimal choice (a form of perfectionism), while satisficers pick the first available choice that fits their criteria. Maximizers tend to feel more regret over decisions, and be less optimistic, more depressed, and less satisfied with life and with any success they do achieve.

In contrast, cultivating an optimistic pattern of thinking – where we believe the future will be socially desirable, good, and pleasurable – is good for our health and happiness. Optimistic people have higher subjective well-being, positive emotions, and vagal tone. In one study, optimistic young men were found to be healthier 35 years later. This is true as long as we don’t go to the extremes into wishful thinking or recklessness.

“Are you a maximizer?” by Christine Carter

Satisficing may seem to generate sub-optimal outcomes, but in fact it frees up our decision-making power for the more important choices. To become a satisficer, define your criteria for any given choice and stop looking when those criteria are met.

The next step is to focus on the positives of our choice, which our brains are wired to do. Studies by Daniel Gilbert have shown that we like our choices even more after we’ve made them – but only if we perceive them as set, unchangeable. In one case, participants ranked paintings and got to take home their third or fourth choice; 15 days later, the third had gone up in their estimation and the fourth had gone down. In another, participants who got to pick between two photographs were happier if they didn’t have a few days to change their mind.

“How to trick your brain for happiness” by Rick Hanson

We know that meditation shapes the brain, thickening areas like the insula and prefrontal cortex (areas used to observe our inner state and control attention, respectively). Routine meditators also retain more brain cells, while the rest of us lose 4% of ours as we age. These are all examples of how the mind can affect the brain, strengthening and connecting brain areas and releasing different chemicals. We also know that changes in the physical brain can affect our thoughts, emotions, and memory.

So how do we exploit this two-way pathway? We can change our minds by changing our brains by changing our minds. By scanning the world for little positive moments and savoring them, like a jewel or a warm light entering us, we can kick off changes in the brain that will make us happier not just today but down the road as well.

Misconceptions about training the mind (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

We might be skeptical of these mind-training techniques because we believe they don’t work, or because the outcome seems undesirable. Isn’t the point of life to change and improve, rather than just accept things the way they are and naively believe the future will be better? In fact, mindfulness and the other techniques discussed help put us in better touch with reality so we can see things clearly and act from there. And thanks to neuroplasticity, science has shown that we are able to change.

Self-compassion: A path to resilience and happiness

Why we need self-compassion

Self-compassion, a concept pioneered by Kristin Neff, means changing our inner dialogue from critical to supportive, understanding, and caring.

Self-compassion goes against many countervailing trends in our history, culture, and religion. For example, ancient philosophies of virtue-based happiness and religious conceptions of martyrdom and sin preach the benefits of painful effort. Ideas like natural selection, behaviorism, and the primacy of competition lead us to think that only the best do (and should) survive, and the weak or the wrong should be punished. We have Freud on one side telling us we’re selfish and destructive, and the self-esteem movement on the other telling us to see ourselves as better than average. In short, a kind and accepting view of the self – flaws and all – doesn’t fit in here.

Kristin Neff: The three components of self-compassion

The three components of self-compassion, identified by Neff, are:

  • Self-kindness, the desire to comfort and soothe ourselves, and alleviate our suffering.
  • Common humanity, the ability to see our problems as something that every human experiences.
  • Mindfulness, the ability to notice and sit with our suffering.

“Why self-compassion trumps self-esteem” by Kristin Neff

Self-esteem and self-compassion might seem like opposites, but they actually go hand in hand. Self-compassionate people tend to have higher self-esteem, and both correlate with less anxiety and depression and more happiness, optimism, and positive emotion.

But the differences between the two are telling. As Neff explains it, the pursuit of self-esteem is the desire to be special or above average – and since half of us aren’t, we tend to get inflated egos and look down on other people. We may refuse to see our weaknesses and be at risk for narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice, or discrimination.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, starts with accepting ourselves despite our flaws. We feel less fearful, negative, and isolated because making mistakes is okay – everyone does it. For example, self-compassionate people are less likely to feel humiliated and incompetent when imagining a big mistake, and less anxious when admitting a weakness in a job interview.

Somewhat surprisingly, self-compassionate people actually take more responsibility for their actions. In one study, self-compassionate people who got neutral feedback about their speaking skills were more likely to attribute it to their personality (instead of, say, a mean observer) than people with high self-esteem. Mistakes and criticism don’t threaten them as much as they do for people who have to perform well all the time.

Finally, the self-worth of self-compassionate people varies less over time. Self-compassionate people engage in less social comparison, and they also have less of a compulsion to be right or get petty revenge.

Kristin Neff: Overcoming objections to self-compassion

Self-compassion might seem misguided: should we really just do whatever we want and then pardon ourselves, never holding ourselves to higher standards?

As we’ve seen above, self-compassionate people actually take more responsibility and admit their faults. Self-compassion includes the desire for long-term well-being, so self-compassionate people won’t spend all their lives relaxing because it takes too much effort to do anything. And self-compassionate people won’t wallow in self-pity because mindfulness gives them some distance from their feelings and common humanity gives them some perspective.

Perhaps the most challenging objection to self-compassion is the idea that we need an admonishing voice in our heads to spur us toward success. And we do – just not the self-critical voice that we’re all so used to hearing. Self-criticism scares us into believing that failure is unacceptable, and self-critical people tend to be more depressed, less confident, and afraid of failure. In contrast, a self-compassionate voice would motivate us with the desire for health and well-being – and we’d be more likely to listen.

The benefits linked to self-compassion (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Many studies have shown associations between self-compassion and different positive traits and circumstances, although they haven’t proven that self-compassion causes them. Combatting the negatives, self-compassion is associated with less anxiety, depression, rumination, perfectionism, and fear of failure. Self-compassionate people cope better with stressors and are more willing to acknowledge negative emotions.

On the positive side, self-compassionate people tend to be more wise, emotionally intelligent, curious and exploratory, optimistic, and happy. They tend to take more personal initiative and have better relationships, perhaps because they are more empathic, altruistic, and forgiving.

As for health, self-compassion is linked to better diet and exercise, less smoking, and seeking medical treatment when necessary. Tests of self-compassionate people showed less cortisol and greater heart-rate variability.

One study of self-compassion did show causation by training participants in it and observing how they changed from start to finish. Those who did the training indeed became more self-compassionate, as well as more mindful, socially connected, and satisfied with life. They were less depressed, anxious, stressed, and avoidant, suggesting that self-compassion is the cause of many positive outcomes.

Happiness practice #7: Self-compassionate letter

One of this week’s happiness practices is the self-compassionate letter, where you write a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. Describe how it makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down.

This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.

Finding “flow”

Introduction to flow

Flow is an intrinsically rewarding state of mind that comes when we’re intensely engaged in an activity. With our hyper-focus, we can lose track of time and forget completely about ourselves and the environment around us. In flow, we tend to be more creative and productive and (afterward) feel exhilarated and satisfied.

For flow to occur, we need to have a clear goal and our skills need to match the challenge in front of us. We also need an environment where we can fully concentrate, and immediate feedback on whether we’re moving in the right direction.

Daniel Goleman: Focus, flow, and frazzle

Depending on the skills we have and the challenge we’re confronted with, we may be in a state of boredom, flow, or “frazzle.” In flow, we actually have moderate stress. Boredom is a state of low stress, where we try to focus but cannot. In frazzle, we’re stressed but performing poorly because we’re distracted by negative emotions.

“Can schools help students find flow?” by Jill Suttie

Unfortunately, today’s schools aren’t particularly conducive to engagement or flow. Students are obsessed with grades rather than learning, and everyone is forced to go at the same pace and change classes every hour. The low pay for teachers isn’t enough to attract the best talent, who would be better at engaging student attention. And in fact, almost 50% of students are bored every day at school (2009).

While being motivated by grades puts students at risk for cheating, depression, and drug abuse, the internal motivation of flow would have extraordinary benefits. Several studies have found that flow in a course makes students more likely to sign up for another course in that field or even major in it, and flow is also correlated with good grades.

To encourage more flow at school, we need to spark students’ internal motivation. For example, students tend to be more engaged when taking tests or working individually or in groups – active activities – rather than passively listening to lectures or watching videos. Students are more motivated to learn when they feel in control and challenged to do something that’s relevant to real life, with a supportive teacher standing by.

The Montessori method is one example of bringing more flow into the classroom. Students pick their own tasks and go at their own pace, and grade levels are intermixed. A study of Montessori found that students have less distraction and more positive emotion, energy, internal motivation, and flow.

“What Mel Brooks can teach us about group flow” by R. Keith Sawyer

While flow often happens when we’re alone, it can also make groups more creative and productive. Many of the conditions for group flow require a balance of structure and freedom to allow for the group to perform at its best.

For example, goals have to be focused but open for some interpretation. Group members should feel in control and autonomous, but flexible and responsive to the other members’ contributions.

In addition, it’s best if group members are familiar with each other so they have tacit knowledge about each other. When group members communicate, they should listen closely and participate equally. Rather than contradicting each other, groups should set their egos aside and follow the best ideas.

The ideal environment for group flow is somewhat separate, where the group has its own space and identity. And the potential for failure – like a band performing live, for example – adds the right amount of challenge and motivation to ignite flow.

How goal-setting can foster happiness

How goals can foster happiness

Goals give us a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose in life. But not all goals make us happy – we’re happier if we pursue “intrinsic” goals that are inherently valuable. These goals involve basic psychological needs around autonomy, competence, and connection to others. In contrast, extrinsic goals (like fame) are instrumental, pursued in order to get something else (like approval from others).

Beyond that, goals that also benefit the well-being of other people will give us a happiness boost. They’re called “non-zero” goals (as opposed to “zero-sum”).

Christine Carter: Mental habits that contribute to “the overwhelm”

Carter describes something called “the overwhelm,” the feeling that we don’t have enough time to get everything done in life. According to statistics, 2/3 of people feel like they don’t have enough time to finish their work, and 94% of working parents have felt overwhelmed “to the point of incapacitation.”

Carter identifies three modern habits that are to blame for “the overwhelm”:

  • The expectation that we can be productive all the time. Instead, we should recognize that our bodies go through ultradian cycles of energy and our willpower muscles eventually get depleted. To avoid burnout, we should work in small bursts (60-90 minutes) with breaks in between and try to reduce the number of little decisions we make every day.
  • Our commitment to multitasking. What we think is multitasking is actually task-switching, and it can increase the effort or time required for a task by 25%. In other words: stop multitasking!
  • Our digital addiction. Our constant access to email means we could work all the time, so we never have blocks of true relaxation. The solution is to set up times and areas where we don’t use our technology, and to strategically respond to messages instead of reactively replying immediately at all hours of the day.

Happiness practice #8: Best possible self

This week’s second happiness practice is the Best Possible Self exercise developed by Laura King. Take 15 minutes to write about a future life where everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings.

Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things.

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!


Read more Science of Happiness summaries!