We all want to be happy, but what is happiness; is it a skill we can learn, and what does neuroscience have to say about it?
What do you want in life? To be happy?
That’s what most of us want -but what is happiness and how do we get it?
The dictionary definition of happiness is
“feeling or showing pleasure or contentment”
But surely there’s more to happiness than a fleeting feeling.
Whilst happiness is relative as it means different things to different people depending on circumstance and interest, it would seem there are two distinct types of happiness.
There’s things that make us feel happy, the experiences of things we love doing and we want more of.
This is hedonia – pleasure and fun. It’s transitory, in the moment – it happens, it makes us feel happy, and then it’s gone and the moment’s passed.
Then there’s a more fundamental type of happiness. The sort of happiness which ideally underlies or underpins our lives.
It’s a state of being that comes with being content with yourself without relying on other people or external props.
This is wellbeing or ‘eudaimonia’ which captures the idea of living a meaningful life as first described by Aristotle.
This sort of happiness is more enduring.
When we were thinking about the characteristics of brilliant living, we kept coming back to ideas about happiness because the characteristics of brilliant living equally apply to wellbeing and happiness. This is what we came up with for starters:
Is there a scientific basis for understanding what makes you happy?
There’s been a lot of scientific interest over the past 10 years into what’s going on in our brains when we experience emotions such as happiness.
Developments in neuroimaging have greatly assisted this, as scientists can monitor reactions in the brain in real time.
Richard J. Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler in an article on The Neuroscience of Happiness highlight four constituents or elements of happiness and wellbeing.
Happiness and wellbeing levels are higher when people are better able to sustain positive emotion; recover more quickly from negative experiences; engage in empathic and altruistic acts; and express high levels of mindfulness.
Results of a study by Killingsworth and Gilbert where 2000 people recorded on a phone app how frequently their minds wandered and how happy or unhappy they felt at that moment, showed their minds wandered 47% of the time and they experienced significantly more unhappiness than when they were focussed on an activity – almost any activity!
Mindfulness meditation training results in a decrease in what is activated in our brains during mind wandering.
One of the most significant findings of the neuroscientifc evidence is these 4 constituents of wellbeing all exhibit plasticity. Which is a huge finding because it means with training and practice we can develop and transform these behaviours and ways of being.
“…data are available that indicate that some of these training regimes, even those as short as two weeks, can induce measurable changes in the brain. These findings highlight the view that happiness and well-being are best regarded as skills that can be enhanced through training.” Richard J. Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler, The Neuroscience of Happiness
Now that is significant for all of us. We can actually increase our happiness by learning how to grow it effectively and enhance it through training. It ultimately means happiness is a skill we can train for, practice and get more of.
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