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For happiness to last, people need to practice certain habits, research says. Anastasia Vorobeva/Stocksy
  • Tools for promoting one’s sense of well-being can deliver a long lasting benefit if one continues to use them, according to a new study.
  • Years after learning about such “science hacks” at the University of Bristol, roughly half of students continued to feel happier.
  • The school’s “Science of Happiness” course helps students to see problems in a less self-centered context that tends to make difficulties seem less monumental and worrying.

It seems the simplest of tasks: Be happy. It is not a directive to be hedonistic or shallow. Rather, it is about living our years on Earth wisely, calmly, and at best, joyfully. Yet, many people have trouble reaching the feeling or sustaining it in the face of life’s complications.

A new study from the University of Bristol, in the U.K., discusses outcomes from their “Science of Happiness” program that has been endeavoring since 2018 to help students achieve a sense of well-being.

The study finds that personal happiness can be achieved through evidence-informed habits. The effect can be long lasting as well if one continues to practice what they have learned.

Other educational institutions have similar curricula, but this study is the first to track the long-term success of such practices

The study questioned 228 undergraduates who had taken one of the university’s positive psychology courses a year or two earlier. The students reported a 10% to 15% improvement in their well-being immediately after taking the course.

However, the researchers found that 51% of the group — 115 students — had maintained their positive attitude by continuing to practice during the following years tools they had been taught in class.

The study is published in the journal Higher Education.

Dr. Bruce Hood, senior author of the study, and author of “The Science of Happiness: Seven Lessons for Living Well,” listed what he called “happiness hacks” taught in the “Science of Happiness” coursework:

  • Performing acts of kindness,
  • Increasing social connections, including initiating conversations with people you don’t know,
  • Savoring one’s experiences,
  • Deliberately drawing our attention to the positive events and aspects of one’s day,
  • Practicing feeling grateful, and endeavoring to thank people they have never sufficiently thanked as they would have liked to,
  • Being physically active,
  • Exploring mindfulness and other meditation techniques.

“The course content involves information on misconceptions about happiness and understanding our cognitive biases. The intention was that by the end of the course, students have a well-rounded understanding of various factors that can contribute toward their own well-being, rather than a ‘to-do’ list of activities,” Dr. Hood told Medical News Today.

Some students continued to practice happiness every day, while others did so periodically, “to avoid it feeling too repetitive,” said Dr. Hood.

The hacks have largely to do with shifting one’s perspective, said Dr. Hood.

“They alter the sense of self from one that is overly egocentric, focusing and ruminating on our problems and position in life, to one that is more allocentric — as part of a connected, interrelated network of others and the world at large,” he explained.

He said making this shift puts our problems into perspective, making them seem less overwhelming. Second, “we enjoy the benefits of support and connection with others.”

“My book is not a self-help book for those who want to indulge in self-care — which has gone too far in my opinion,” said Dr. Hood, “but rather a self-destruct book!”

Neurobiologist Dr. Tobias Esch, who was not involved in the study, and has researched the neurological aspects of happiness, agreed: “I strongly believe that happiness, in general, is neither private nor egoistic, or solely hedonic.”

Dr. Esch described some of what occurs in the brain when a feeling of happiness rises: “The brain’s reward system kicks in. Reward and motivation go up, as does happiness/well-being. Also: Stress reduction!

“Many positive psychology activities, including psychedelics, which I briefly cover in my book, appear to dampen down the activity of the default mode network,” said Dr. Hood. The default mode network is circuitry in the brain that constructs images of ourselves and others.

The default circuit “becomes overly active when we are not task-focused and is associated with negative rumination,” added Dr. Hood.

The school’s course materials claimed that being in nature shuts down the default node circuit.

“Happiness is a biological necessity. It is hardware and software, and has been conserved in evolution through millions (!) of years, as even simple organisms have it, ie, possess the biological principle/apparatus,” said Dr. Esch.

He suggested that if it only served the single individual and not entire species, it is unlikely it would have been conserved through eons of evolution.

Dr. Esch has written that there are three types of happiness neurobiologically, each of which is a transitional experience through several feelings:

  • wanting, approaching, and pleasure
  • avoiding, departing, and relief
  • non-wanting, staying, and satisfaction.

Dr. Hood said that his next set of studies will investigate why these students did not maintain their sense of well-being, beyond the obvious cessation of happiness practice.

There are multiple factors at play, noted Dr. Esch. He said that 30% to 40% of one’s tendency to be happy has to do with their genes and “brain hardware.” At a maximum, he felt, just 5% to 10% of being happy or not was related to external events or influences.

Meanwhile, 50% to 60% of maintaining a feeling of well-being comes from internal work: perspective-taking, and, learning, according to Dr. Esch.

“[Happiness] is a decision,” he said.