Concluding the Science of Well Being Course

To Our Harrison Family,

Today we take a break from the COVID-19 numbers and protocol reminders and circle back to The Science of Well-Being course from Yale Professor, Laurie Santos. This will be an overview of the course in its entirety and my final entry pertaining to it. I know a few of you engaged in the course directly and others have read my insight and commentary in these updates. Regardless of your interest or capability to fully engage in the course, I believe there are several helpful tips that anyone can benefit from sprinkled throughout. 

But let’s start at the beginning. Dr. Santos designed the course to enable people to address their lack of happiness. She broke down the reasons or triggers that cause us to fall short of our desired level of happiness on a clinical level. Then she illustrated, through documented research and studies, things we can do to impact how we feel. The conclusion being that we can control our own happiness level to a great extent. 

How happy are you right now?

The course began where you might expect. Step 1 was to determine your current level of happiness. To get your baseline state of happiness, you can answer this questionnaire known as the Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment Profiler, or PERMA Profiler. There are 23 questions and once you submit your responses, you will receive scores ranging from 0-10 for each pillar, along with scores for Overall Well-Being, Health, and Negative Emotions. It only takes a few minutes to complete.

Know your strengths

Step 2 is to understand what your personal Character Strengths are. Studies have shown that all of us possess the same 24 character strengths, but in different degrees. Being more loving isn’t better than having more humility or being a better leader.

We all have differing degrees of each trait, which is why we are all unique. But wouldn’t you like to know which traits are your biggest strengths? The course uses the VIA Institute on Character test to do this. The test contains 120 questions and takes about 30 minutes to complete. There are no right/wrong or better/worse answers. The key is to be authentic, so that you can derive the most from the experience. After taking the test, you will get the ranking of your 24 strengths. Print out the “free” list (without the detailed Report for a fee) to keep track of your top 4 strengths for future reference.

Regardless of your interest in this course, everyone should take this VIA Institute character assessment. You’ll be fascinated with your list.

Your mind plays tricks on you

Once you’ve established your baseline happiness level and your personal character strengths, you’re ready to learn how our brains are wired to trick us into never achieving true happiness. Dr. Santos identified 4 Annoying Features of the Mind, as she called them. Through clinical studies, she makes the case that our strongest intuitions are often wrong, and our mind uses “reference points” (or comparisons) to gauge our happiness. How can anyone be happy in today’s age of social media with instantaneous access to celebrity lifestyles as a comparison to ours? 

She also reminds us that human beings are incredibly resilient, and we get used to anything, without realizing it. These Annoying Features are the foundation for us improperly identifying what will make us happy in the first place. The whole introduction segment of the course was fascinating and really causes you to see the issue. We often begin by setting the wrong happiness goals.

Tools of the trade

In the next phase of The Science of Well-Being course, Dr. Santos provides tools to overcome these mental obstacles; basically, to recondition your mind to NOT fall victim to the Annoying Features. She provides exercises to reset your reference points and to learn to savor the moment more. A major take-away, for me, was that gratitude (being grateful) is an intentional act. It doesn’t just happen.

Once we are able to empty our mind of the baggage (through these exercises), Dr. Santos teaches us about the “Stuff” that will really make us happy. I’ll use the example of getting a good job as a happiness focal point. It’s not that wanting a good job is a flawed path to happiness. It’s what our definition of a good job is that messes us up. Most people choose a job or career path based on money. We don’t think to align that job or career path with our unique qualities or strengths. 

You’ll recall the course begins with an evaluation of your individual character strengths. If you completed that evaluation, you ended up with a report ranking your 24 character traits. The top 6-8 are known as your Signature Strengths. Therefore, the best “happiness” definition of a good job would be one that engaged those strengths. If Creativity, Kindness and Social Intelligence were among your Signature Strengths, then the most fulfilling job for you engages those traits. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But most of us don’t seek to align our character strengths with a job when choosing it. Vice versa, we adjust everything we do to the job.

In Conclusion

The course concludes by identifying that socialization is a major key to happiness. Even if every instinct tells you that you are happier being alone, that’s just your mind fooling you. Everything in life is better when you experience it with someone else. And by the way, all these conclusions are backed up by clinical studies, including one that proves we value our time more than money, or things we can buy with it. 

As you might imagine, there is no magic pill to being happy. The Science of Well-Being course clarifies “why” we may not reach our desired happiness level, but only we can do something about it. And that takes a bit of work and a commitment to “rewiring” our brains by using some of the tools Dr. Santos provides in the course. You can enroll anytime and go completely at your own pace.

In the end, for me, The Science of Well-Being course confirmed many clichés, including “somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed today”. We all get out of bed the same way, and likely, from the same side every day, so that doesn’t matter. It’s what we do when our feet hit the floor that counts. More importantly, it’s what we “think” that dictates happiness that day and every day.

Last cliché: “Don’t wait for the storm to pass, learn to dance in the rain.” Harrison Strong!

Together for Harrison Township,
Lou Manzo
Your Mayor