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Increasing Happiness: Working Against Your Brain, Part I

Coursera is a great online tool for learning; it offers up a world of learning to people who cannot afford a college education, and it provides ongoing learning opportunities for people who do have college degrees but want to expand their range of personal and professional interests. The information found below is compiled from Yale University’s The Science of Well-Being course, taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, and gives you a taste of the great information found on Coursera. This is part one of a two-part blog series.

Several weeks of Dr. Laurie Santos’s course on well-being emphasize how we have to work against some of our brains’ innate functions to increase our happiness. One such tendency is to feel happiness decrease when we become used to what she calls our reference points – while you probably know that it’s unhealthy to compare yourself to others, it also can cause you grief to have other kinds of standards to fight against. Dr. Santos defines a reference point as a “salient but often irrelevant standard against which subsequent information is compared.” Think about viewing yourself as you currently are against 5 billionaires – and then think about viewing yourself as you are against 5 people living in poverty. Though nothing about you has changed in this scenario, you think differently about yourself and your life situation based on what your reference point currently is. The best way to work against this tendency of your brain is to “reset” your reference points by doing the following:

Re-experience your old reference point.

The first strategy you can take is to intentionally take yourself back to your old reference point and work to mentally re-experience it. For example, go back to when you were excited about something, like receiving notice of your old promotion. Really visualize what happened and how you were feeling at the time to take you out of your current mindset.

Observe something concretely.

When you feel the urge to look at something you don’t have and maybe want, take the time to investigate what this thing is really like and focus on its negative aspects to help make your current reference point more appealing. For instance, if you’ve gotten used to your current salary and are itching for more money, maybe think about higher taxes, the vulnerability to lifestyle creep, and the potential for longer or harder work hours to help you feel more comfortable with where you are now.

Avoid social comparisons.

As important as it is to think about your own personal reference points, it’s just as important to avoid comparing your reference point to someone else’s. It’s hard to know what the Joneses’ life situation is really like. Dr. Santos recommends curbing this impulse by stopping thoughts in their tracks using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques or by actively practicing gratitude for what you do have.

Interrupt your consumption of something.

Studies have shown that interrupting your consumption of something helps you enjoy the item or experience more when you come back to it. This tactic can be used with activities from watching TV (nix the binge-watching!) to working on a creative art project to participating in an outdoor activity to reading a good book. Your reference point gets reset every time you take a break and come back to the experience.

Embrace variety when making choices.

Dr. Santos advises that variety really is the spice of life and uses an example involving ice cream in her lecture – choosing different flavors of ice cream when you go to the ice cream shop helps prevent you getting too used to one flavor. Otherwise, it make lessen the enjoyment of the dish when you just eat vanilla or chocolate every single time instead of adding in the different reference points of strawberry or mango.

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