The Science of Happiness

What makes someone happy? A famous study, conducted almost forty years ago, found that Lottery winners tend not to be happier than everyone else. This is because once the initial buzz of winning fades, people revert back towards their normal happiness levels. So if hitting the jackpot doesn’t put a long lasting smile on your face, what does?

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Teacher morale and happiness levels is never far from the news, with over 50% stating they have thought about quitting in the next two years. So what makes someone happy? Research suggests that there are three main factors that govern how happy someone is: a) their genes; b) their current circumstances; and c) how they spend their time. Though the first two may be out of our control, but the third area, how you choose to spend your time, may be the key to feeling happier. So what does the research say on how to improve how happy we feel?


the science and psychology of happiness infographic

Don’t make being happy your goal

An interesting study recently found that the more people strived to be happy, the less happy they were. This is because instead of enjoying whatever it is they are doing, they are worrying about if they could be happier whilst doing it (and feeling disappointed when they don’t reach this mythical and unobtainable happiness level). Being happy appears to be linked therefore to embracing the present and not obsessing about the future.


Connect with other people 

Spending time with other people and forming meaningful relationships makes people happier. This seems to be especially true for students, who in a study reported feeling at their happiest when they were interacting with their friends (whilst being isolated corresponded to feeling at their saddest).  Research shows that the teenage brain is more sensitive to social rejection than compared to adult brain. Be sure to nurture relationships and connect with the people around you and encourage those that you work with to do the same. 


Prioritise time over money 

Evidence suggests that people who prioritize time over money report being happier. That is not to say that money makes no impact. A famous study by Princeton University found that once people are paid $75,000 a year (about £60,000 in this post Brexit era), they don’t report any increases in happiness. This is obviously considerably more than the average teacher salary.

However, the amount you need to earn to feel happy is probably not as clear cut as that study suggests. Derren Brown, in his recent book, ‘Happy’ states “that magic number seems to vary greatly according to what study you read and depends on the cost of living wherever the study was carried out...while it remains clear that having less then you need is a source of unhappiness, having more than you need does not make you happier". This is because that often an increase in pay comes with an increase in working hours, which can leave people unhappier then before their promotion.


Do something kind for someone else

A fascinating study took a novel approach at making people happier. Instead of focusing on doing things that they thought would make them happier, participants were instructed to perform five kind acts per week for six weeks. This act of doing something kind for someone else increases happiness by: a) providing some novelty; b) reminding people that they were an good influence on the world; c) eliciting positive feedback (i.e. gratefulness and appreciation); and d) promoting positive relationships (see point 2 above).


Prioritise experiences over material things 

The problem with prioritising material things is that things change quickly. Yesterday’s desirable becomes today’s essential which in turn becomes tomorrow’s relic. What was once seen as a bonus can quickly morph into a necessity. By prioritising experiences, you create life long memories and develop more as a person. This is a fascinating area of research, and we could never do it justice in one short article. To read more about why experiences trump material things, check out this research on Value-seeking, Differential Story Utility and Experiential purchases and prosocial spending.


Exercise a little bit 

This is one of the most consistent findings in research on wellbeing. Those who exercise regularly report being more satisfied with their life and are happier. One possible reason is that exercise provides both physical and psychological benefits, therefore protecting you against disease, illness, stress and isolation, which overall, increases your mental health


Embrace bad moods 

Embracing your bad moods may help minimise the impact they have on you. A recent article on the British Psychological Study website reported on a study that found that negative feelings can be used in a positive way, “for example, recognising that anger can sometimes be empowering and that sadness can be poignant and can bring us closer to one another”.

More research is needed on this, and the research certainly isn’t indicating that we want to encourage people to be in a bad mood, just that we shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time and learn from these feelings where possible.


Spend some time outside

A recent report found that children spend less time outside each day than prisoners. The value of nature can’t be underestimated. Those who spend more time outside and feel more connected to nature report experiencing more positive moods (such as joy, interest and alertness) and life satisfaction.  In the winter months, it is easy to stay inside all day, so try and make a conscious effort to steal some time outside where possible. You will feel better for it.


Final Thoughts

The research area of happiness is one that has been historically overlooked. Typically, psychology has researched areas on what has been going wrong. The last few years has seen a big growth in our knowledge of what makes people feel happier. These include not chasing happiness, spending time with people we love, exercising and prioritising experiences and time over material possessions (an important thought with Christmas only a few weeks away).


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