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Increasing Happiness: Working Against Your Brain, Part II

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 two of a two-part blog series.

In part one of this blog series, you learned that in order to be happy, we sometimes have to work against our brain’s typical functioning. I previously wrote that we have reference points in our minds that we get used to that can be reset with a little work to help increase our happiness and wellbeing. In this blog post, you learn that hedonic adaptation is another way that your brain works against your happiness. Hedonic adaptation is the idea that no matter what we experience, our happiness levels always return to a basic set level of happiness unique to each person.

Dr. Santos cites research done by Sonja Lyubomirsky that determines our happiness level is 50% determined by genetics, 10% determined by our current circumstances, and 40% determined by our own influence. Multiple studies have demonstrated this concept: lottery winners tend to return to their level of happiness pre-winnings after a short time of increased happiness, and people who become physically disabled in accidents tend to have a dip in happiness after the accident followed by a return up to their pre-accident level of happiness. Dr. Santos outlines four ways to work against the hedonic adaptation we all experience:


Savoring means stepping outside an experience to review it and appreciate it and is closely related to mindfulness. Savoring helps you focus your attention on something and can be enhanced by doing things like sharing an experience with somebody else, talking to somebody else about what you experienced, showing physical expressions of your feelings, etc. For example, in part one of this blog series, I wrote about resetting your reference points by embracing variety with an ice cream example. Savoring means that once you have chosen your new ice cream flavor, you really take the time to realize how you’re eating your ice cream, what the temperature is, what the texture is like, how it feels, etc. Even better is eating ice cream with a friend and discussing your treat with them!

Negative visualization

Negative visualization is imagining what would have been – you consciously play what would have happened if things didn’t go the way they actually have. Dr. Santos’s example is the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart; his character uses negative visualization to realize what good things would not have happened if he hadn’t been born. A great study on romantic relationships illustrates this concept: couples were told to either write about how they first met and got together, or couples were instructed to write about how they might have never met their partner and what life would have looked like. After doing so, the happiness levels were higher for the couples who wrote about how they might have never met their partner.

Make this day your “last”

Making this day your last does not refer to literally believing you are going to die the next day; in this context, it means mentally thinking about specific events, situations, or things as if they have an expiration date and attempting to place yourself in that expiration date. For example, if you’re a college student, you can think about your college graduation. If you’re a senior, thinking about how many hours of class you have left can inspire different feelings than thinking you have a whole year of school left – the perception of time changes your happiness levels. Essentially, when you think about losing something, you think about the good things associated with it.


By now, we all probably know what gratitude is (thankfulness) and that it is good for us. However, you may not understand just how good it is for you. Writing down things you’re thankful for has a huge impact on your wellbeing. To get as much happiness as you can out of gratitude, go one step further and write to someone about how thankful you are for them and deliver this letter to them in person – the bump in happiness from this can last up to an entire month.

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