Could our obsession with social media, and need to capture the perfect photo for Instagram, be affecting our ability to be happy? Dr Tim Bono thinks it might – fortunately he has assembled the perfect science-based solutions to being that little bit happier, every day, in his new book ‘When Likes Are Not Enough’. We read it to find out how you can live a happier life…
Social Media Malaise There have been lots of studies into social media and happiness, but until recently there has always been a chicken and egg question: does logging onto to social media make people unhappy, or are unhappy people more likely to check their phones? According to a recent study by the Universities of Michigan and Leuven in Belgium, Facebook does have a casual influence on wellbeing. ‘The more we use it the worse we feel,’ says Dr Bono.
Happiness depends on what you have, divided by what you want
Why might this be? When we land a dream job or achieve a long-term goal we often feel an initial rush of satisfaction. But as psychologists know, this wears off – we get used to it, basically. For Dr Bono, happiness depends on what you have, divided by what you want. If the ‘want’ side of the formula gets out of balance then you have a problem, which is worsened when you compare your life to others, through a social media feed.
A 2010 study by the University of Warwick showed that it wasn’t someone’s income that determined their life satisfaction but the rank of that income compared to their neighbours. Now multiply that effect by everyone you follow on Instagram… But it’s not all a disaster – Dr Bono says that behavioural genetics research shows 40% of our happiness comes from intentional acts. So, what can we do to actively live happier lives?
Trick Your Brain Happy The first thing to know about happiness is that it’s closely linked to what your body is doing. Dr Bono describes a simple experiment where volunteers are asked to hold a pencil in their mouth using their lips, or their teeth. It turns out that it’s impossible to do the first thing without frowning and the second thing without smiling, but the volunteers didn’t know that – and those who were smiling found Far Side cartoons much funnier.
‘Because happiness activates the facial muscles that lead us to smile, the brain cells that govern both happiness and our smile muscles, fire at the same time. The simple act of smiling is enough to trigger the emotional experience of happiness,’ says Dr Bono. So, take a smile into your everyday life and you’ll automatically be happier.
Be Present Even When It Sucks We’re all used to reading that being mindful during exercise or activities is good for our mental health. But did you know that a Harvard study discovered if your mind is fully present during whatever you are doing, you’re more likely to be happy – even if it’s something unpleasant, like being stuck in traffic? ‘No matter what we are doing, we’re better off paying full attention to it – engaging our senses and bringing awareness to what it looks like, sounds like and feels like – instead of surrendering to the distractions luring our minds away,’ says Dr Bono.
Notifications Are A Siren Call Of course, it’s hard to keep distractions at bay when your phone is pinging every few minutes. Dr Bono points to a recent Gallop poll showing 73% of people aged 18-29 checked their phones a least a few times an hour and 22% check every few minutes. Another study says 76% of us reply to work emails within one hour, and one-third within 15 minutes. Unfortunately, this destroys the kind of deep attention that we need to do things mindfully.
Psychologists at the University of British Columbia compared two groups, one was told to check their emails as often as they could, turning on all notifications. The other was told to check it just three times a day, with notifications off – both tracked their moods and distraction levels. After one week the second group did not feel less productive, but they did feel less distractions and overall stress. Dr Bono recommends keeping your inbox closed for periods of the day, or at least when you are doing your most important work.
There are six hundred emotion words in English and 62% of them are negative
The Dice Is Loaded… As Dr Bono points out, there are six hundred emotion words in the English language, and 62% of them are negative. And psychologists have found a set of basic emotions that humans share everywhere. ‘Four of them are negative: anger, distrust, fear and sadness. And only one is positive: happiness.’ What’s more, a study by Dr Randy Larsen found that negative experiences stayed with the students he studied for longer than positive ones. ‘Some negative emotions are associated with the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that travels through our entire bloodstream, keeping its effects in our system for extended periods,’ says Dr Bono.
…So Bounce Back Well If negative emotions can outlast positive ones then it becomes even more important to bounce back well from a bad day. You might think that screaming, shouting and otherwise venting helps you to do this faster? Not so, according to Dr Bono – a study by the University of Iowa’s Professor Brad Bushman shows we gradually return to a normal state after anger, but that venting actually slows this process. ‘Venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire – it only feeds the flame,’ says Prof Bushman.
So, Dr Bono recommends four steps: ‘Delay’ – in the experiment people who sat and did nothing for two minutes were significantly less angry by the end. Counting to 100 really does work. ‘Relax’ – emotions are linked to the body, so deep breathing can calm you down. ‘Distract yourself’ – shifting your attention to a workout or a movie can stop you stewing. ‘Do something incompatible with anger’ – a random act of kindness can stop your anger in its tracks.
Make Friends The effect on personal happiness of strong social support is fairly miraculous. As Dr Bono reveals: ‘When Ed Diener and Martin Seligman studied 222 college students at the University of Illinois, they found that the happiest 10% all had one thing in common: rich and satisfying social relationships.’ And a UC Berkeley study over nine years found that the quality of connections to others had more impact on mortality than any other factor, including smoking, alcohol consumption and exercise. ‘For our physical health, strong social support systems provide a buffer against illness and mortality. And when it comes to increasing our happiness, nothing offers greater return on investment,’ he says.
Share Experiences Having, sharing and even planning experiences has been shown to make you happier than acquiring more stuff. Dr Bono points out that in the US happiness levels have stayed the same but per capita income has nearly tripled in the last 60 years. He recommends bringing your attention to positive experiences, rather than negative ones. ‘When we put ourselves in the habit of calling to mind positive moments from the day – the great lunch we had with a friend, a funny joke we recently heard, or an upcoming trip we are excited about – it becomes easier over time to take a more positive mindset during other, more difficult moments of our day.
And if you are looking to make a good impression when meeting someone for the first time, then remember to share experiences – a University of Colorado study showed that people who shared life experiences enjoyed the conversation more and had a more favourable impression, than those who talked about getting a new laptop or phone. You can even get happiness from looking forward to an experience. ‘Multiple studies have found that anticipation itself is pleasurable, a source of “free happiness.”’
Take A Walk Exercise is well known as a mood booster. OK, so we don’t all have time for a workout every day, but did you know that even taking a 10-minute break to have a walk can make you happier? Dr Bono points to a University of Illinois study that showed a 10-minute walk during a class break resulted in a long-term increase in vitality and enthusiasm, and a drop in tension and fatigue: ‘Just a few minutes of physical activity may be all you need to quell your fears and increase your supply of energy to face the task at hand.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Dr Bono being interviewed on the search for happiness…
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.
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