The Science of Wellbeing
by Naj D’Silva, Assistant Head
In the midst of lockdown I stumbled across what arguably turned out to be the most useful nineteen hours of a challenging Covid fuelled few months. Laurie Santos is a Professor of Psychology at Yale University who in Spring 2018 taught a class called ‘Psychology and the good life’. She delivered this in response to concerning levels of student depression, anxiety and stress. It became the most popular class in Yale’s history. Yale was founded in 1701. It is now called ‘The Science of Wellbeing’ and has been made available via Coursera with the aim of increasing happiness whilst backing up everything with robust academic evidence alongside guest lecturers.
Key Takeaway points:
People are generally very poor at predicting what will make them happy and often focus on ineffective strategies, including working towards accumulation of material possessions (e.g. new watch/car etc) rather than what actually makes them happy (social connection/time affluence/gratitude etc).
Social connection is a crucial factor for happiness. Childhood experiences influence the ability to form and sustain relationships and social connections, but negative cycles may be broken. Time invested in nurturing positive healthy social connections is never a waste, in our local communities as well as with family/friends.
It can often feel as though society is driven by money and the accumulation of wealth. However, money typically makes people happier only up to a point (Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman suggests the cut-off is around £60k per year). People generally revert to a base level of happiness, a process referred to as ‘hedonic adaptation’. A new tangible possession e.g a new car will only make us ‘happy’ for a short time but then it just becomes ‘a car’ and we start looking at newer, more expensive models in an ineffective attempt to ‘make us happy’.
Within the scientific community, there is significant support for the ‘set point theory’, which suggests that happiness levels are to a large extent genetically predetermined. I realised that as humans happiness is not a ‘default setting’. We have to work hard at being happy, often through being mindful e.g. of the news we choose to consume, how we choose to spend our leisure time (i.e scrolling through social media versus exercise/calling an old friend).
Random acts of kindness significantly improve our own happiness and this does not have to involve spending a lot of money e.g buying a friend/colleague/stranger a cup of coffee. Using our ‘character strengths’ in our personal and professional life works in a similar way e.g. kindness, creativity, humour...
Accessing The Science of Wellbeing course from the comfort of my livingroom was an example of an arguably elite Ivy league institution taking a small step to breaking down one of many barriers to make higher education more accessible to all and one which we are now offering to our staff at Holmewood as part of our CPD calendar. My next step is to explore options for a similar course for our Upper School students to help build emotional resilience as we prepare them for life after Holmewood.