The secret to happiness

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

If you know anyone who works in Mental Health then you probably know that as a society we are very good at categorising mental disorders. Indeed, the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-V to insiders) lists about 300 such disorders. More to the point, the sector keeps finding new disorders each time it updates the Manual. All of which demonstrates that the social sciences have a long history of dealing with illness and deviance. In contrast, they have only recently turned their attention to the causes of human happiness. While there is currently no Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Wellbeing, there is a growing body of evidence about what really works for the pursuit of happiness. All of which is good news if you’re looking to start 2016 with a more optimistic or rosy outlook.

Of course, given that research is a venerable business, few social scientists use a term as slippery as ‘happiness’. Instead, the much more scholarly term ‘subjective well-being’ is preferred.

An important insight from this research is that this pursuit can be a productive one. That is, rather than believing that your personality is fixed (and that your level of happiness is written into your genes), psychologists are clear that the brain has much more ‘plasticity’ than originally thought. This ‘plasticity’ describes the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections across your life. And this reorganisation within the brain means you can teach yourself to be more optimistic and joyful. It turns out you really can teach an old dog new treats.

The research is also clear about the best ways to approach this teaching, and it is just as clear about what you shouldn’t do. While it may seem like a despatch from the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious, what this research shows is that most self-help books aren’t worth the paper they’re fabricated on. For instance, there is no evidence that writing down your goals makes it any likelier that you will achieve them; and that both visualisation (where you imagine yourself achieving the goal you want) and affirmation (where you mentally rehearse that success by talking about it in the present tense) are more likely to diminish your performance than improve it.

That goal-setting, visualisation, and affirmation are so commonly promoted as ways to self-improvement (despite science showing their ineffectiveness) illustrates an important point. As Anthony Grayling put it, “hope is a cheaply purchased and endlessly renewable commodity”. In this fertile ground it is perhaps no surprise that an industry full of what The New Atlantis once called “blather, hokum, and trumpery” flourishes. And what an industry: in the USA self-help is a $10bn a year business, and self-help books are so popular that they have their own best-seller list in the New York Times. Against this background, one can only hope that the guidance from the social sciences find a willing audience.

The key to this guidance is that if you want to change something in your life, you need to rely on more than your own force of will to succeed. In contrast to the mainstream emphasis on inspiration and motivation to act, the social sciences point to the need to structure our environments in order shape the behaviour we want. This idea – that it’s easier to act our way into a new way of thinking than it is to think our way into a new way of acting – can’t be said often enough.

This makes sense when you recognise that ‘inspiration’ and ‘motivation’ are really about looking for ways to make you feel you want to change. As the painter Chuck Close said “inspiration is for amateurs… just show up and get to work. You sign onto a process and see where it takes you”.

A simple example is using a food diary to record everything you eat if you’re trying to cut down on carbs or sugar. Another is putting your running diary on the fridge and ticking off each day you’ve run. Both are simple tools that will help you learn the habit of persistence through externalisation. Use the tools long enough and the neuroplasticity in your brain will take care of the rest.

At the same time, social scientists note that it’s important to prepare yourself for those days when you don’t go running (or can’t suppress your sugar craving). This is because those failures will affect you disproportionately more than all the days you succeed. For this we can thank what psychologists call the ‘negativity bias’. This describes how our brains pay much more attention to bad news than good, and to failure than success. One way to arrest this bias is to label your fears and thoughts as they occur. Seeing them as part of a pattern will enable you to experience these negative thoughts without necessarily attending to them. After all, as Churchill almost said, the real key to success is the ability to go from “failure to failure without losing enthusiasm".

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