From the Desk of the Mayor
Harrison Township, New Jersey
June 18, 2020
THE SCIENCE OF WELL-BEING
It’s been a couple weeks since our last discussion about our Yale course, The Science of Well-Being, so let’s recap what we’ve learned so far. We began with the revelation that the main reason we fall short of achieving high levels of happiness is clinical. We also learned that we have some control over that. Dr. Laurie Santos illustrates in the course, through data compiled in multiple studies, that some of our strongest natural intuitions are wrong. Meaning how our brain formulates our expectations is flawed. This leads to something called “miswanting”, which translates into seeking things that our intuition tells us will make us happy, when they won’t.
Dr. Santos terms these flaws the Annoying Features of the Mind and we also learn that we use bad Reference Points for our happiness. That means that we use comparisons that make us feel bad. Remember the Olympic Medal Stand example or watching too much Kardashian/Housewives TV?
In the last entry, we were given tools to address these mechanical flaws to adjust how our mind operates. We learned we could overcome the miswanting tendency by having Gratitude and Savoring the moment. These are intentional acts that we can incorporate into our daily routine and the course identifies these acts, calling them Rewirements. Part of that process is resetting our Reference Points. We must consciously eliminate the bad comparisons, avoid the “grass is greener” pothole and recondition our brain function a bit. Using tools like Concretely Re-Experience, Interrupting Consumption and Increasing Our Variety can achieve this. They’re all detailed in the last entry.
STUFF THAT REALLY MAKES US HAPPY
Apparently, it’s not as easy as Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Up to this point, the course has identified the clinical problem, which is that our mind works against us in attaining happiness. And so far, the course has also given us tools to help with those mechanical issues. The next step is to understand what truly makes human beings happy. If it’s not a Good Job, Money, Awesome Stuff, True Love or the Perfect Body, what is it?
Well, it’s not that wanting a Good Job, for example, is a flawed path to happiness. It’s what our definition of a Good Job is, that messes us up. This is where things begin to tie together in the course. You’ll recall that we started this venture with a Character Strength test. If you completed that evaluation, you ended up with a Report ranking your 24 character traits. The top 6-8 are known as your Signature Strengths. Therefore, the best “happiness” definition of a Good Job would be one that engaged those strengths. If Creativity, Kindness and Social Intelligence were among your Signature Strengths, then the most fulfilling job for you would engage those traits.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? But most of us don’t seek to align our character strengths with a job when choosing it. Vice Versa, we adjust everything we do to the job. Also, it’s important to understand that we naturally avoid certain things (because our intuition tells us we won’t like it, or we’ll fail) that would actually make us happy. Studies prove this.
Social Connections are at the top of the list. It is proven that people with more social ties and interactions are happier. They also are less vulnerable to dying a premature death, more likely to survive a fatal illness and have lower stress levels.
Plain and simple: Being socially active and making more friends is healthier.
THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR
The course references several studies to validate this and here are a couple examples: A simple controlled study of giving a chocolate bar to people as they enter a room thinking they are part of a study for the chocolate product. Half are directed into a room by themselves and half enter the room with another person also eating a chocolate bar. In an evaluation form asking about how much they enjoyed the chocolate bar, the pairings had markedly higher scores versus the solo chocolate bar consumer.
Another study asked people entering the subway to participate in a test. One group was asked to do what they normally do on the subway, a second group was required to speak and engage with strangers on their ride and the third group was required to sit in total solitude. Each had also completed a Happiness Questionnaire prior to starting their assignment. The solitude group had the highest happiness expectation scores, prior to their subway ride. Afterward, that group had the lowest actual happiness scores in evaluating the experience and the group forced to interact had the highest.
Conclusion: Everything is better when you do it with someone else, even if your intuition tells you that you prefer otherwise.
TIME IS (BETTER THAN) MONEY
It is common for busier and more financially successful people to have less free time in their schedule. We see this all around us; maybe this is us? A study done to evaluate happiness levels of individuals based on what their priorities has interesting results. It shows that about 70% of the subjects valued money over time, as you might expect. But in evaluating their happiness levels, the smaller group that prioritized time over money had significantly higher happiness scores.
The old adage seems true: Money can’t buy happiness.
YOUR MIND IS CONTROLLED
When was the last time you joked about a friend or family member being scatterbrained, all over the place or just not able to focus? We’ve all probably done that. Let me hit you with some truth: All human beings have wandering minds. A 2010 study shows that the average human’s mind is wandering 46.9% of the time. Meaning, almost half the time, we are not focusing on what we should be and our minds are thinking about something in the past or future. Whew! I feel better because I thought I was the only one.
Once again, there is a clinical reason for this, and it has to do with regions of the brain responsible for different functions and the manner in which they are triggered. The study shows that different parts of our brain are firing based on stimuli and the split second we are not engaged, it’s function shifts to something called the Default Network. That’s an area of the brain that enables thoughts about the past, future or what other people are thinking.
This means that every time we stop doing a task at hand, we immediately leave (mentally) the here and now and our mind is thinking about a past or future event and sometimes about what other people are potentially thinking. This all occurs in the same region of the brain and it’s the reason we cannot stay focused and our mind tends to wander….about half the time!
CONTROL YOUR MIND
The good news is that we can have an effect the Default Network’s pull. The best way to do that is through meditation. Basic meditation is a practice in turning your attention to a single thing, like your breath. I am no expert on this, but the studies that the course references are very clear. People who meditate regularly have less time spent in the Default Network region of the brain while meditating versus those who do not meditate.
More importantly, it’s proven that meditators Default Network pull is less even when they are not meditating. They have more connectivity to other regions of their brain than their non-meditating counterparts also. Incredibly, meditators also have more gray matter in their brain, which is linked to intelligence levels. Wow! Basically, this is saying that you can limit the amount of time your mind naturally wanders by meditating. It also appears to make you smarter. And yes, the cherry on top is that people who meditate regularly are happier!
Next week’s session talks about putting some of these strategies into practice, which is the hard part because it takes a commitment. After reading the facts about meditating, are you up for trying or starting with a yoga class? Let’s see how Harrison Strong you are.
Together for Harrison Township,