Your brain could be lying to you about what makes you happy.
That was the message from three Yale University professors who spoke at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos. They explained the neuroscience behind why the pursuit of happiness for many is falling short.
“There might be a problem with our minds”, said Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University. “Simply put, we’re seeking out the wrong kinds of stuff.”
Understanding the science behind how our brains process happiness is increasingly important in a world in which many are anxious, depressed and lonely. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019, as complex structural changes impact people’s work, relationships and lives, mental health problems now affect an estimated 700 million people worldwide.
What can you do to rewire your brain for joy? Here are five lessons from neuroscience.
1. Stop focusing on money
Many wrongly assume that money is the answer to happiness, Santos said. Studies have found that money can only make you happier up to a point.
A study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that emotional well-being in the US increased as salary increased, but it levelled off after the person achieved an annual income of $75,000.
2. Consider the morality of money
How the brain perceives money also depends on whether it was earned morally, said Molly Crockett, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale.
Crockett conducted a study in which she asked participants to provide mild electronic shocks to either themselves or strangers in exchange for various amounts of cash. The study found that on average, people required about twice as much money to shock a stranger than to shock themselves.
Crockett then changed the study, telling participants that the money gained by administering shocks went to a good cause. Comparing the two studies, she found that most people would rather personally profit from their own pain than from a stranger’s pain, but when the money went to charity, people were more willing to shock another person.
“The value of money depends not just on its moral consequences”, Crockett explained. “It also might depend on the stories we can tell about our choices.”
3. Help others
Doing nice things for others, such as giving to charity or volunteering, can also improve happiness.
One study by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton gave participants either $5 or $20 and the choice to spend it on themselves or others. Many predicted they would feel better if they spent the money on themselves but reported feeling better when they spent it on others.
4. Form social connections
Another factor that can boost happiness is our perception of social connection. Even very short interactions with strangers can improve our moods.
A 2014 study by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder divided people on a commuter train into two groups: those who would ride in solitude and those who would spend the train talking to others. Most people predicted that the solitude condition would make them happier, but the results showed the opposite.
“We mistakenly seek solitude when being social would make us happier”, Santos said.
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5. Practice mindfulness
Multi-tasking is making you unhappy, said Hedy Kober, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Yale University. Your mind wanders about 50% of the time, making you distracted and stressed, she said.
Studies have found practicing mindfulness - even short periods of meditation - can improve concentration and health.
“Mindfulness training changes your brain", she says. "It changes your emotional experience, and it changes your body in a way that makes you more resilient to stress and disease.”