March 20 is the UN International Day of Happiness. To commemorate the day, News Medical speaks to Professor Bruce Hood, Professor of Developmental Psychology and Society at the University of Bristol, about his The Science of Happiness course and beyond.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your professional background?
My name is Bruce Hood and I am Professor of Developmental Psychology and Society at the University of Bristol. My first degree was psychology when I didn’t even know what psychology was. I became fascinated and fell in love with it, so I decided to train as a psychologist.
During my graduate project I had done work with babies and was fascinated by the developing mind and how children grow into adults. I was lucky enough to get a job at Cambridge where I worked with a team and looked at visual development. Their approach was from a physiological point of view, which is the neuroscience aspect of my training. I studied the development of the eye movement system in very young babies.
What happens chemically in our brains when we talk about feeling ‘happiness’?
Happiness is not a single kind of mental state. It encompasses various things from bliss and ecstatic feelings to a sense of contentment. Most people are familiar with the idea that neurotransmitters are released. We’re talking about endogenous opioids, those neurotransmitters that trigger feelings.
Another neurotransmitter often discussed when you hear about happiness is dopamine, a common neurotransmitter that is distributed throughout the brain but takes on this role as the chemical for pleasure. Dopamine is part of the reward system. It’s certainly involved in those positive experiences, but the research suggests it has more to do with wanting than liking. You can distinguish between those two types of behavior.
You can want something and not necessarily like it. Addiction is a classic example, with addicts chasing or wanting something and not necessarily getting the high they expect. So wanting and liking in the brain are different systems.
It’s not the prevalence of a particular neurotransmitter or drug; rather, it’s how they work on the different systems that better explains how fun and happiness work. Take opioids, for example. There are centers deep in the brain where we know that different recreational drugs work, but you only have to move a millimeter in the brain and the effect of that drug is completely different.
How does happiness affect our health, both mentally and physically?
We all experience happiness as a fluctuating daily state of mind. Some things make us unhappy and some things make us happy. Interestingly, the research indicates that these mental states affect our physical well-being. We intuitively know that sometimes we don’t feel our best, which is often related to our mood.
But the really interesting work is the long-term effects of being unhappy. Work is now coming out showing that optimism affects our longevity. A study published in 2019 looked at 70,000 people over about 40 years. The most optimistic people lived longer, about 10 to 15%, or eight to ten years.
How do we change psychologically as we age, and how does this affect our happiness?
I think development is the key to happiness. The greatest predictor of adult happiness is childhood happiness. It’s really interesting because kids are generally happier than adults.
Fortunately, as a child, you are unaware of many of the world’s problems and are the center of attention in most caring families. Most children grow up in a very self-centered world where they are the center of attention. But with development you get a development of identity and a development of the self. So you have to become less self-centered in dealing with other people.
I call that a shift to being allocentric, meaning you can see other people’s perspectives. The problem is that when you start to be more careful about what other people think, it makes you very self-conscious. Children are increasingly concerned about their status and how they come across to others.
There is a shift from the young child being told they are great by their parents. As they enter puberty, they now compare themselves to their peers. When they leave adolescence, they enter the world of adulthood, where competition is really important.
Young children are fairly insulated from negativity and criticism. But as they become more independent, it exposes them to much more negative attitudes and thoughts.
There is a network in the brain called the default mode network. This is the brain circuitry that kicks into action when you’re not focusing on a task. When your mind wanders, the default mode network becomes overly active and is associated with negative rumination.
Can you tell me about your “The Science of Happiness” course?
Six years ago I decided that I had to do something about the well-being of the students, because they were more concerned with their grades than enjoying this phase of life. Coincidentally, Laurie Santos, a former student of mine whom I had taught at Harvard, had launched a course called Psychology in the Good Life at the time, and it was all about positive psychology. Laurie and I teamed up to put together a course. The one I did is slightly different from Laurie’s, but very much based on her approach.
Science of happiness and the good life
The course is very broad and is open to first-year students who can follow open components. As far as I know, my course is completely unique in that students earn points for our course, but there are no graded exams. I did that because it felt hypocritical to lecture students about the dangers of exam stress and then have them take an exam.
We have developed a course that is completely based on engagement, so it is not just lectures. They should pop up regularly. And they meet in small groups that we call happiness hubs, which are mentored by third-year students that we’ve trained to lead small groups. In these groups they do activities and things that we recommend during the lectures. We also have them keep weekly diaries and measure their happiness at the beginning and end of the course. For example, we have found that this course has a positive impact and benefits their own mental well-being.
What is the current state of student mental health?
I feel that we are not preparing students for college. The way we parent is very competitive. When they go to college, which is very different from school because it’s much more self-directed learning, it’s much more independent. I think the students have a hard time with that, the clash and the transition to university. They want to do well, but don’t realize that their efforts and perfectionism can be counterproductive.
It is much more important to train the next generations to deal with adversity and to develop resilience. The world is unpredictable, and while content learning is all very well, it should be done in a way that is conducive to well-being. I think that’s missing at the moment.
Were there surprising findings from the course that people could easily apply in everyday life to increase their happiness?
There is nothing I say that hasn’t been said before. But knowledge is not enough. You can watch as many TED Talks as you can or read as many self-help books as you can. It won’t make a difference unless you’re actively doing it. You must act. That is why our course is based on active involvement.
When we looked at the long-term benefits of our course, we found that most students returned to their basic values as a group. So the benefits they had disappeared, except for those students who stayed with the activities. About half of them continued to do the gratitude letters, meditations, and all these exercises.
It’s like exercise; if you don’t keep up with the program, you’ll go right back to your baseline. Like a muscle, you don’t suddenly get strong by picking up the heaviest weight. It takes time and it takes constant effort.
How do you think we can create a happier and kinder world together?
I think the kind of goals we set for ourselves are somewhat misplaced by commercial interests. We have to understand that to get a balanced society, it works on an individual and societal level. That means we need to change the way we care for each other.
What is the future for you and your work?
I want to try to get Bristol to take other courses, which I think will allow students to gain life skills that they can use in the world of work. For example, financial literacy, presentation skills, etc. I’m working on structures and strategies for the university to make room in the curriculum for what I think are generic skills that we can all work with.
Where can readers find more information?
About Professor Bruce Hood
Bruce has been Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society at the University of Bristol since 1999. He undertook his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Cambridge, followed by appointments at University College London, MIT and a faculty professor at Harvard. He conducts research into child development, the origin of superstitions, personal identity and ownership. For the past 5 years he has focused on how to become happier. Bruce is a Fellow of the American Psychological Society, the Royal Institution of Great Britain and the British Psychological Society. He gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures “Meet Your Brain” in 2011 broadcast on the BBC to over 4 million viewers. He also gave the Christmas lectures during trips to Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea. Bruce has written four popular science books that have been published in 16 countries: SuperSense, The Self Illusion, The Domesticated Brain, and Possessed. He has made numerous media appearances on radio and TV and was featured in the 2019 award-winning eco-movie, “Living in the Future’s Past” with Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges. Bruce has received numerous academic awards and honorary degrees for his services to popularizing science. He is currently working on his next popular science book on the science of happiness.