‘Key to happiness has been revealed – and you can even study it at university’

By Staff 6 Min Read

Miriam Stoppard shares the latest research from Bristol University into how we can train ourselves to feel cheerful and stay that way

Practice is the key to learning most skills, then more practice to keep your hand in. Could we learn to be happy and stay happy with practice? Bristol University, with its unique course The Science of Happiness, should know.

Senior author Professor Bruce Hood advises: “It’s like going to the gym – we can’t expect to do one class and be fit forever. Just as with physical health, we have to continuously work on our mental health, otherwise improvements are temporary.”

The team behind the Bristol course have already noted an improvement in wellbeing simply by teaching students the latest scientific studies on happiness.

This improvement, however, will be short-lived unless the habits learned on the course such as gratitude, exercise, meditation or writing a journal are kept up over the long term.

Bristol University launched the Science of Happiness course, the first of its kind in the UK, back in 2018. Involving no exams, it teaches students the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience about what really makes us happy. Students who took the course reported a 10-15% improvement in wellbeing.

But two years on, only those who continued to practise maintained that improved wellbeing.

Professor Hood stressed the long haul: “This study shows that just doing a course – be that at the gym, a ­meditation retreat or on an evidence-based course like ours – is just the start: you must commit to using what you learn on a regular basis.

“Much of what we teach revolves around the positive psychology interventions that divert your attention away from yourself, by helping others, being with friends, gratitude or meditating.”

He emphasises that getting out of our own heads helps to get us away from negative thoughts which are the root cause of many mental health problems.

The other authors are fellow Bristol academics Catherine Hobbs and Sarah Jelbert, and Yale academic, Laurie R Santos, whose teaching inspired Bristol’s Science of Happiness course. So what works best?

  • Talking to strangers makes us happier. Yes, I’ve found this works.
  • Social media isn’t bad for everyone, but it is if you simply focus on your own reputation.
  • Loneliness impairs our immune system.
  • Optimism increases your life expectancy.
  • Giving gifts to others activates the reward centres in our brain and boosts happiness.
  • Sleep deprivation impacts on how much others like us.
  • Walking in nature stops negative thoughts linked to depression.
  • Being kind correlates with happiness.

Professor Hood has distilled the Science of Happiness course into a new book, which is out now. The Science of Happiness: Seven Lessons for Living Well has a roadmap to better wellbeing. Must get it.

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