The Science of Well-Being I

I completed half the course in an onset of curiosity paired with impatience (my most horrifying yet fruitful personality traits), so between doing the accompanying millions of rewirings a day and studying for Theory of Japanese finals, here’s the summary so far:

Week 1

Santos created the course out of concern over rising stress and mental health issues in higher education, tailored towards Yale students, with a focus on productivity and well-being/happiness as the solid foundation on which careers are built.
She likens the “annoying features of the mind” addressed in the course to optical illusions as false realities we perceive although our brains “know better”, which she calls the G.I. Joe Fallacy (huge fan of allegories, metaphors and parables in teaching – mind-images just stick better), and finishes the introduction with us taking the PERMA, Authentic Happiness and VIA Character Strengths surveys.

Week 2

Our minds usually misjudge how bad we will feel if something negative happens in our lives – interestingly enough, we exaggerate the intensity of expected negative emotions more than expected positive emotions – overall however, we recover from both: peaks and lows cannot last because our brain is adaptive and operates from references, not absolutes. This week’s lecture criticized our conscious or subconscious material mindset, with studies presenting how money can only make us happy until we reach a certain level of affluence (also some fun studies about which cars and drinks are mentioned in hip hop). It ends with Sonya Lyubomirsky’s finding that 40% of our hapiness is in our own hands.

Week 3

Focuses around hedonic adaptation and a word coined by Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert, miswanting. The starting point: our tendency to judge ourselves by the reference points of a) our current situation and b) others around us (social comparison) – examples of medal winners, harvard students, watching TV and looking at models, or comparing ourselves to others on social media. The main weaknesses leading to this are, according to Gilbert, a) focalism (forgetting everything else around the good/bad event/thing) and b) immune neglect (we are more resilient than we think).

Week 4

There are different ways to effortfully and intentionally change 40% of our happiness we have within our control: rethink “treatin’ yo’self” by spending on experiences rather than stuff, and re-wire our brains by focusing on the good bits and thwarting hedonic adaptation by savouring, negative visualisation, making the day your last, and gratitude. A fun experiment with chips and chocolate/sardines: how references influence our contentment. Studies on social media and photography reveal that the motivation with which you engage it defines the influence it has on your happiness.

Week 5

How do we reframe our miswants to want right parts of our wants, or want for the right reasons? How do we find out which wants we might be missing?  Here some familiar concepts come in, such as Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, which I’ve already used for design storytelling lectures.
I liked this study, which shows that extrinsic motivators undermine intrinsic motivation, the concept of a growth mindset, and Seligman’s list of strengths which lead to job/life fulfillment (using more than 4 usually makes a job a calling). This is particularly interesting to me with the whole student focus, so I’ll jot it down here (note taken from a course slide) –

  • ubiquitous (widely recognized across cultures)
  • fulfilling (leading to fulfillment, satisfaction)
  • morally valued in most cultures
  • not able to diminish others around you
  • the opposite of a negative trait
  • trait-like (stable individual difference)
  • measurable
  • distinctive (not redundant with other strengths)
  • paragons (some people really have them)
  • prodigies (some people precociously have them)
  • selective absence (some people don’t have them)
  • institutionalized (society values them)

Kindness, social connection, time affluence, mind control (mindfulness, meditation) exercise, sleep. I am concerned that nutrition was left out, and while we’re doing criticizing here, I hated the approach of the social connection bit as well. Am I the only person who doesn’t think random acts of kindness are a good way to hone compassion, or holds the opinion that chatting with a stranger will not make me feel any social connection that is worth a damn?


Although mental health in students is being addressed, the system around them hasn’t really adapted towards this new awareness or changed at all in terms of “treatment” as opposed to promotion of well-being, as G—— noted. Maybe I should take a look at the TU’s local infrastructure for mental health. It could provide a chance for change or valuable insights towards pursuing the community aspect.

How much can we really control and gamify? I found many faults with the book “Reality is Broken” because in my experiecence – and this may be a cultural difference – a real emotional connection cannot be gamified, and to some extent shouldn’t. I’m not sure that chatting up strangers on a subway or doing random acts of kindness, especially if not heartfelt, is the right way to go. Is this because the studies are located in the US?

I am stricken by how many aspects of “good practice” such as gratitude, meditation, taking breaks etc. are a core part of many religions – an interesting side note.

speaking of religion, I also disagree with the approach of science-is-an-absolute generalisations in the course – or in any case, the way certain things are presented as absolutes, such as cosmetic surgery or weight loss as having no impact on overall happiness, which from personal experience I can say does hugely – am I the exception to prove the norm? I think the non-corellation is due to hedonic adaptation, personality type with tendencies towards weight gain/perfection/unhappiness with body image/etc. – but I was slightly unnerved by the way this was presented seemingly uncritically. Even though the rest of the lectures later address these topics (hedonic adaptation, miswanting, poor self-assestment, resilience), I would still have liked short “keep in mind though…”s.

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