Science have been trying to measure happiness for years. In 2014 researchers at UCL Institute of Neurology developed the happiness model, an equation for happiness based upon an individual’s expectations, decisions and past outcomes.
The study investigated the relationship between happiness and reward using over 18,000 people worldwide via their app ‘The Great Brain Experiment’. They found that moment-to-moment happiness reflects not just how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected – though it’s easier for us to be negative than it is to be positive.
For human survival and evolution we developed what’s called in science as a ‘negativity bias’, which means that the brain preferentially looks for, reacts to, stores, and then recalls negative information over positive information. For example, there’s a pretty famous finding in the realm of relationship psychology by John Gottman, at the University of Washington. He found that it takes at least five positive interactions to make up for just one negative one.
So how do we create more happiness moments? Through an attitude of gratitude! In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Two psychologists, Dr Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude.
In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative).
After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
So how do we create more of an attitude of gratitude? The first step is to not to see our experiences as either positive or negative. All kinds of things happen in our daily lives, so by not putting a label on them, they then become an experience that we can choose to create more of, or less of.
The second step is to savour the experience that we want more of in our lives, when we have them. The way to remember something is to make it intense, feel in the body, and make it lasting. These trigger the neurons in our brain to fire, which when repeated on a regular basis helps to create our habits and behaviours. So rather than noticing it and feeling good for a couple of seconds, stay with it, enjoy it, for 10, 20, or 30 seconds, so it really starts developing neural structure.
The final step is to sense and intend that this experience becomes a part of you. In other words, imagine that it’s being woven into the fabric of your body and brain and who you are and want to be in the future.
We are all pursuing happiness whether it is in terms of conventional goals like having a good job, or working for ourselves, a family and money or bigger goals like climbing Everest or swimming the channel. We have to remember that happiness is a journey, not a destination.