How your brain can trick you

I’ve followed Dr Laurie Santos and her work with The Happiness Lab for a while and recently I was fascinated listening to her talk about how our brain can get things so wrong. When it comes to our happiness, we can often think about this in ways which really don’t help us. So whilst we all want to live calmer, happier and healthier lives, why can we end up getting it so wrong?

sell out

Laurie started a course on happiness at Yale University and ended up with over a thousand students signing up for the first session. Across the student body there was a real thirst to find out how to become more fulfilled in their daily lives and learn how to deal more effectively with stress, anxiety and depression.

happy in and happy with

Looking for short bursts or hits of happiness is definitely one to be wary of – she explains it’s the difference between making yourself happy in your life versus making yourself happy with your life. This can play out like an optical illusion which means we systematically go after ways of making ourselves happy which don’t really work. Here are some of the common misconceptions about happiness that Laurie says we should look out for…

If only I could win the lottery…

Money does not bring any more happiness once our basic needs are met. More wants more and however much we earn, our minds are always comparing what we get with what other people get and the data shows us we have a tricky tendency of always picking comparisons that will make us feel bad. Generally speaking and according to the data, Laurie says that rich people tend to be relatively unhappy because they are often chasing what’s next rather than appreciating what they do have.

When I have the handbag or the car, I’ll feel better

We can get so caught up in attaching how we feel to what we have materially. Commercialisation and clever marketing strategies are also extremely effective at having us buy into brand stories that the answer to all of our problems in life will be fixed by purchasing their product. The data categorically proves this is not the case – we get a short term hit of happiness which very quickly dissipates making no material difference in how happy and fulfilled we feel in and with our lives.

I’d rather just chill out

How often have you had plans to go out and meet up with friends and thought that you can’t be bothered – you’d rather stay in and chill out in front of the TV. People predict that chill out time alone is going to make them feel happier due to our brains alerting us to the fear that social connection might bring us down. The data actually proves the opposite. Laurie explains that if we can get over what she calls the ‘start up cost’ around connecting with others and not opt for the many ways we are now seduced into spending time effectively on our own, real life social connection is fundamental for our happiness and is one of the reasons, even the most introverted of us have found covid restrictions so difficult.

Happiness is a destination

Happiness, just like wellbeing is a practice. Laurie describes happiness as a leaky tyre. All of the small moments contribute to increasing the air in the tyre and bringing us joy and it will go up and down each day depending on how we see things. The more mindful we can be about seeking out joy in small steps, even during the most difficult times, the more our tyre will stay inflated for greater calm and contentment both in and with our lives.

You can find out more about Laurie and her work on The Happiness Lab podcast