Establishing a new habit is hard, but it can be done, and at the same time, lead to more happiness. I'm proof of that.
I just completed Yale's online 10-week course "Science of Well Being" — aka the "happiness" class. I already wrote about it halfway through because it was having such an immediate impact on my daily life.
Now that it's over, did it stick? Am I, in fact, happier?
Well, quantitatively, absolutely. At the beginning and end of the course, you're asked to take two surveys to measure your level of happiness. By both those measures, my happiness improved in a short amount of time.
Dr. Laurie Santos, the Yale professor who came up with the class and also teaches the Coursera version online, has benefitted from the class too. She told me: "My own happiness has improved a whole point on standard happiness measures. I've also brought a lot of the practices (from more social connection to meditation) into my own life."
This is why the class works. It gives you a number of smart, researched, and considered food for thought about positive practices you can implement in your daily life. But so do a lot of articles and posts in your social feeds these days.
So why is this different?
The unique and brilliant parts of this class are in the second half (weeks 7-10), where the coursework leans on you to do the work and implement ways to develop a new and lasting positive habit. Dr. Santos gives you the freedom to pick the area you want to work on. Some people tried to develop new habits around exercise, gratitude, and savoring experiences.
The positive habit I chose: Meditation
I chose meditation, a practice I tried to pick up a couple times in the past few years, but it never stuck. Yet through some newfound willpower, along with the consistency of a daily homework assignment, I built up a 4-week streak (okay, I admit, I missed one day) and learned how to maintain a meditation habit.
Let's be clear, I am no expert meditator — I'm a beginner, for sure — but I see the value now in sticking with it. And I have stuck with it — it's been a week since the class ended and I'm still meditating every day. The class taught me that our brains are wired to wander, so meditation is becoming a way for me to flex a bit of mind control. Plus, look at some of the words I wrote down to describe my mindset post-meditation each day: mellow, calm, quiet, energized, focused, settled, creative.
All that from just sitting quietly and focusing on breathing for 15-20 minutes a day.
That doesn't necessarily mean I'm happier, you may argue. Well, lots of research says the opposite and backs me up here. Meditation can lead to more positive moods, better concentration and also can lead to more feelings of social connection.
Forming a new habit is tough. You have to decide that it's important enough to you and then find the time in your day. It takes discipline, but people make time for the things that are important.
Which way will work for you? Experiment a bit. Taking a class really worked for me. It made me accountable. If you like the sound of that, try out the free Coursera class.
Happiness can be learned.
To review, here are five strategies from the "happiness" class that have been helpful for me, all based on psychological science.
1. Interrupt your consumption
Split up anything that you enjoy a lot — " Game of Thrones," Cheetos, the new Lizzo song. Every single time you interrupt something you're enjoying and then go back to it later, you re-experience it and thus increase your happiness. Sounds weird, but research confirms it.
2. Make every day your last
Dr. Santos says just the act of imagining that life as you know it is about to vanish can greatly boost your appreciation. It puts everything into perspective. The good things in your life start popping to the forefront of your mind, because you are now worried about losing them.
3. Invest in experiences
Turns out your stuff loses "happiness value" almost as soon as you've purchased it. Paying for experiences, however, has multiple benefits for happiness. So traveling to a new place is a much better investment in terms of happiness than buying material things like new headphones.
4. Learn to savor more
Savoring is the act of stepping outside of an experience to review and really appreciate it. The exercise also forces your brain to enjoy an experience for longer. Research shows reliving happy memories can make your positive emotions last up to a month. Also, to really enhance the experience, share it with others.
5. Embrace kindness
Random acts of kindness really do promote your own sense of well-being. It's easy to figure out ways to be kind if you're out in the world each day — help a nun across a busy street (I really did that).
But here's one sure-fire tip — try buying a stranger a coffee. Research shows the money you spend on others makes you happier. And this seems to be true across different cultures and around the world.
Courtesy of Justin Maiman.
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