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How to Practice Happiness: Learnings from Stanford Summer School
Nov 29 2019

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to take the Exploring Happiness course at Stanford University and thought of sharing my learnings and reflections, as happiness is a topic that isn’t openly taught or discussed. For decades, the topic of happiness was frowned upon and dismissed in the academic world, with little to no presence among our regular education. Today, happiness courses are being taught in more and more schools such as Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, and Stanford, and gaining popularity among students. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about happiness. Hopefully, this article can provide some answers regarding the topic and provide you with tools to better understand and explore happiness.

What is Happiness?

Happiness is the state of being happy — which is not the same as pleasure. It is more of a constant state of mind rather than a specific emotion. It’s a subjective experience composed of a mix of emotions including joy, gladness, satisfaction, and well-being. Interestingly, unhappy and happy people usually have a hard time tolerating each other – the former usually perceived as being “insufferable” and the latter perceived as being “naive, and not facing reality”. There is no right and wrong, both types of people are just wired differently.

“Most people don’t make the decision to be happy because they don’t know that happiness can be a choice and can be practiced”

It’s not until recently that modern society allows more and more of us to explore the world of creativity, morality, and happiness, which are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Previous generations have known war, famine, diseases and high child mortality, and were generally conditioned to focus on survival, spending the majority of their time and energy on trying to meet physiological and safety needs. The daily struggles and coping allowed few the luxury to think about happiness. With technological advancement, things are now different and we can observe a shift in the values and priorities between the previous and new generations: the former with a stronger focus on career and financial stability and the latter with a preference for life satisfaction and purpose. This difference is even more emphasized in developing countries, such as China, in which older generations’ survival and scarcity mindset still strongly persists, while the new generation of young Chinese was born into a more comfortable and abundant environment, and would think more about their own happiness.

Today, while resources are more abundant and previous life-threatening dangers are almost gone, the feeling of scarcity and the tendency to focus on negativity still remain in our genes. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – resources were naturally scarce and the scarcity mindset has been a large contributor to our survival, pushing us to constantly gather, and screen for potential dangers. In order to ensure our survival, we are wired to be looking out for signs of threats (predators, tribal conflicts, traps, etc.). This is the reason why news reportings are mostly negative and can be addictive – they tap directly into our primal operating system and catch our attention. However, focusing on negative events can have a major drawback – it can lower our level of happiness.

“Happy people tend to focus more on happy things and unhappy people tend to focus on unhappy things.”

There is a part of your brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) that brings whatever you are focusing on, positive or negative, to the forefront of your awareness. If you are dealing with adversity and its potential negative outcomes, your brain is going to be pulling data from your environment to support that belief system, to the point that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why focusing on negative news can bias your understanding of the world, and make you feel as if the world is a place filled with dangers and miseries. On the flip side, if you focus on positive things, then you are more likely to pick up more good and happy things in your environment. This is why practicing gratitude can be a life-changing exercise.

“Control your self talk = control your own happiness”

Additionally, happiness has more to do with your own decision than actual life events. It is very much internal and it’s about the way you interpret things and your self-talk. One of the most powerful examples is the survival of Viktor and a few others in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl). What allowed them to survive harsh conditions and environments, is the fact that they have crafted stories that they could live with. The key point to understand is that stories are not objective truth about you, and you can always reframe them at any point in time. Therefore, controlling your self-talk can have a huge impact on your own happiness.

Interestingly, among the people that the professor has worked with over the years, regardless of their level of wealth and success, most of them regret two things towards later in their life: 1) not spending enough time with friends, family, and loved ones, and 2) not allowing themselves to have more fun because they followed rules too much. Knowing this, what are some ways you could live differently? Minimizing future regrets is also a way of increasing happiness. Personally, I have scheduled more time for my loved ones and for doing things that I truly enjoy. 

And lastly, the most common unhappy memory that people have, no matter the social status, typically comes from previous intimate relationships (breakups, ex-lovers, divorce, etc.). The level of pain we feel towards past events often carries over throughout our whole life, causing us a lot of unhappiness every time we revisit them. The key to moving away from these negative memories is to practice forgiveness and release the grudges.

“Can I allow myself to feel happy now? What about my goals?”

Some refrain themselves from pursuing happiness because they might feel that being happy could prevent them from achieving something important in their life. The latter is something that I was personally a bit struggling with as I have always seen grinding and enduring pain as parts of delaying gratification, which can ultimately reward me with greater success. Some might argue that focusing your life on happiness will incentivize you to work less hard and take a back seat. I believe that this is a misconception. Being happy and working hard to achieve something big are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that being happy would further help fuel your productivity, growth, and creativity as you are more likely to feel more motivated, less drained and take on more risks – happier people do more things and less happy people do less, blame more and are more likely to be in a living in a coping than thriving state.

“Happiness and delayed gratification aren’t conflicting. It’s enjoying what you have now and enjoy the journey to get something you don’t have. Not either/or, but both.”

The frame to think about this is that all your goals should go underneath the happiness umbrella. Instead of thinking that “I’ll be happy when I reach/get/achieve xxxxx”, you should strive to be happy now and your goals should fall underneath the happiness umbrella. For instance, if one of your goals is to become a doctor, then studying for medical school should go underneath the happiness umbrella, and you should enjoy and be happy in the process, instead of setting up the condition “I’ll be happy when I become a doctor”. While we will certainly face challenges in order to achieve our goals, enjoyment can be drawn from the process/engagement itself, instead of putting happiness on the outcome. Doing the hard work itself and being part of the journey to achieve your goal should give you a sense of happiness. Be happy with what you have now and be happy on your journey to attain something new.

Tools and practices

The equation is pretty simple: If you are happy most days of the week then you have a happy week. If you are happy most weeks in a month, then you have a happy month. This logic then leads to a happy year if you are happy most of your months, then a happy life if most of the years are happy. It’s possible to practice and rewire your brain to make happiness a default state. We will go over some tools and practices that can help you increase your level of happiness.

Audit your happiness:

Happy people know who they are, what they want and focus on what nourishes them. Most people don’t know what makes them happy, so here’s what you can do:

Exercises to boost happiness:

Happiness in relationships:

Overcoming negative emotions and adversity:

Cultural Limitations:

Reducing negativity:

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