Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Most Life-Changing Lecture in 2019: "The Science of Well-Being" - Part 1

Taught by Professor Laurie Santos, "The Science of Well-Being" is a course explaining what makes you happy, based on robust scientific research. The course is available for free on Coursera with almost 2000 ratings and 4.9 stars. It's easily the best life-changing idea I've been exposed to in 2019.

1. We're Wrong about What Makes Us Happy.
What makes us happy? Easy question. We thought we knew. Money, a good job, awesome/expensive stuff, a good body, good grades, etc. After all, we spend the majority of our waking hours in pursuit of them. We study hard, to get a good, high paying job. We work hard at our jobs to get promoted, to get a raise, so we could make more money and buy good stuffs: a fancy car, a bigger house, an expensive purse. So many others are thinking and doing the same. How could we be wrong?

Using empirical scientific research findings, Professor Santos debunks the myth: none of these things listed above make us happy. She used evidence to rebuff them one by one. The only caveat here is you meet your basic needs as a human being - a roof over your head, fed three meals a day, clothes to keep your warm, etc.

Take money as an example. Study shows that once you pass $75,000 annual income threshold, any more money will not make you happier. This research was a few years old, and more recently some argues the number should be updated to $83,000 after adjusting for inflation and cost of living nowadays. 

The actual number is beside the point. The point is more money don't buy happiness. We always say that millionaires have their worries and might not be as happy as we think they are. Now there's evidence for that. 

Reflecting on this myself, I have to agree with it. Nine years ago when I came to the U.S. for my Master's degree at Villanova, I was making $12,000 a year on a Graduate Assistant stipend. Nine years later, my regular salary has significantly surpassed that. But am I much more happy than when I was at Villanova? Not really. Don't get me wrong - the first few years in American was hard. But most of the hardship aren't really financially related. 

Professor Santos went in details about why each one of the items won't make us happy - a good job, good stuffs, good grades. I encourage you to watch those videos if you want an in-depth understanding.

Okay. Now it's established we were just wrong about what makes us happy. The question now is, why? Why are we wrong? 

2. Why Are We Wrong about What Makes Us Happy?
Week 3 of this lecture "Why Our Expectations are so Bad" tell us exactly that. Professor Santos calls them the "annoying features of the mind".

Two of them make a lot of sense to me:
  • Our mind doesn't think of absolute so we constantly compare ourselves to others.
  • Our brain gets used to stuff quickly. 
First off, lots of debate going on around social media and its impact. I've been following Cal Newport who wrote a book called "Digital Minimalism" which I highly recommend. He talks about how we stay focused in a world with lots of social media distractions.

Here I have another story of mine that quite impact my thoughts on social media. Back in 2013, my first year out of school and start working. It's easily the worst year of my life. Things went wrong on every front - some within my control, most weren't. For example, I visited Chicago and got mugged on the subway, 11 in the morning. Terrifying experience.


At that time, I still shared somewhat regular updates on Facebook. I'm never one to whine in public so I didn't share many updates like the one above. Most posts are just about my weekend mini explorations. One day in 2013, I got a Facebook message. It's from an acquaintance from my undergrad in China. She was studying in Italy and was having a hard time adjusting to the life there herself. In her message, she said "I've been following your Facebook posts and am sure you must have a great life in the U.S. How do you manage to be so put-together?" (roughly translated from Chinese to English by me). This really struck a nerve. I wasn't "having a great life". Quite contrary, I was living the toughest year. But I can totally see how she came to that conclusion by just reading my Facebook posts. Unconsciously I "misled" her and probably added to her unhappiness to a degree.

Shortly after that, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. I still have the account, which I logged in once in a while and see what friends are up to. I no longer post as often as I used to.

What is enlightening from the course is finally an explanation to why we compare to the "unreality" on social media. It's because we can't think in absolute. Professor Santos used vision illusion to explain this one. The famous "which circle is bigger" test. Just like it's hard for eyes to see absolute, our brains can't think absolute either.

Another important lesson I learned is "hedonic adaptation" or hedonic treadmill - it's the simple fact that our brains get used to stuff pretty quickly. This works both ways: we return to a stabilized level of happiness after experiencing either major positive or negative events in life. For example, I'll be very happy the moment I drive a new car out of the lot, and I'll be cherishing my new car weeks or months after it. But that happiness won't be sustained. My mind will be used to "having" this car. Because I'll always have this car. My level of happiness will be adjusted and stabilized. I won't wake up a year from when I bought the car and be super excited about the car anymore.

This is the key reason why good stuffs won't give us lasting happiness. Professor Santos suggests it's almost always better to spend money on experiences than things, simply because experience won't last forever. 

More to come in Part 2, where I shared the good habits I learned from the lecture, and what are the things that actually make us happy!

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