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 course The Science of Happiness and Beyond.
Can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your professional experience?
My name is Bruce Hood and I am a professor of developmental psychology and society at the University of Bristol. My first graduation was in psychology when I didn’t even know what psychology was. I was fascinated and fell in love with it, so I decided to train as a psychologist.
As my graduation project, I worked with babies and was fascinated with the development of the mind and how children become adults. I was lucky enough to land a position in Cambridge working with a team looking at visual development. Their approach was from a physiological point of view, which is the neuroscientific aspect of my training. I studied the development of the eye movement system in very young babies.
What is going on chemically in our brains when we talk about feeling “happiness”?
Happiness is not a single type of state of mind. It encompasses everything from happiness and feelings of ecstasy to a sense of contentment. Most people are familiar with the idea of neurotransmitters being released. We are talking about endogenous opioids, which are those neurotransmitters that generate feelings.
Another commonly discussed neurotransmitter whenever you hear about happiness is dopamine, a very common neurotransmitter scattered throughout the brain, but it has taken on this role as the pleasure chemical. Dopamine is part of the reward system. It’s certainly involved in these positive experiences, but research suggests it has more to do with wanting than liking. You can distinguish between these two types of behavior.
You can want something and not necessarily like it. Addiction is a classic example, where addicts chase or crave something and don’t necessarily get the high they expect. So wanting and liking in the brain are different systems.
It is not the prevalence of a particular neurotransmitter or drug; rather, it’s how they operate in different systems that best explains how pleasure and happiness work. Take opioids, for example. There are centers deep in the brain that we know many recreational drugs act on, but you only need to move a millimeter inside the brain, and the effect of that drug is completely different.
How does happiness affect our health, both mental and physical?
We all experience happiness as a daily fluctuating state of mind. Some things make us unhappy and others make us happy. Interestingly, research indicates that these mental states affect our physical well-being. We intuitively know that sometimes we don’t feel at our best physically, which is often linked to our mood.
But the really interesting work is the long-term effects of being unhappy. Now there is work demonstrating that optimism affects our longevity. A study published in 2019 looked at 70,000 people over approximately 40 years. The most optimistic lived longer, about 10 to 15%, that is, eight to 10 years.
How do we change psychologically as we grow and how does this affect our happiness?
I think development is the key to happiness. The biggest predictor of adult happiness is childhood happiness. It’s very interesting because, in general, children are happier than adults.
As a child, you are blissfully ignorant of many of the world’s problems and are the center of attention in most of the families that care for you. Most children are raised in a very self-centered world where they are the focus of attention. But with development you get identity development and self development. So you have to become less self-centered in order to relate to other people.
I call this the shift to being allocentric, which means you can see other people’s perspectives. The problem is that when you start to be more cautious of what other people are thinking, it makes you very self-conscious. Children become increasingly anxious about their status and how they appear to others.
There is a change from the young child who has been told by his parents that he is great. As they move into adolescence, they are now comparing themselves to their peers. As they leave adolescence, they enter the world of adulthood, where competition is very important.
Young children are quite insulated from negativity and criticism. But as they become more independent, it exposes them to a lot more negative views and thoughts.
There is a network in the brain called the default mode network. This is the brain circuitry that kicks in when you’re not focusing on a task. When your mind wanders, the default mode network becomes overactive and is associated with negative rumination.
Could you tell me about your course “The Science of Happiness”?
Six years ago, I decided that I needed to do something for the students’ well-being because they were more concerned about their grades than enjoying this period of their lives. Coincidentally, a former student of mine that I taught at Harvard, Laurie Santos, had taught a course at the time called Psychology in the Good Life, and it was all about positive psychology. Laurie and I collaborated to put together a course. What I’ve done is a little different than Laurie’s, but very much based on her approach.
Science of Happiness and the Good Life
The course is very broad and open to first-year students who can attend open units. As far as I know, my course is totally unique in that students earn credit on our course, but there are no graded exams. I did this because it seemed hypocritical to lecture students about the dangers of test stress and then give them a test.
We developed a course entirely based on engagement, so it’s not just lectures. They have to show up regularly. And they come together in small groups that we call happiness hubs, which are mentored by third graders that we train to manage small groups. In these groups, they do activities and things that we recommend during the lectures. We also got them to do weekly diaries and measure their happiness at the beginning and end of the course. This is how we establish that this course has a positive impact and benefits your own mental well-being.
What is the current state of student mental health?
I feel that we are not preparing students for university. The way we educate is very competitive. When they reach university, which is very different from school because it is much more self-directed learning, it is much more independent. I think students are struggling with that, the struggle and the transition to university. They want to do well, but fail to realize that their efforts and perfectionism can backfire.
It is much more important to train the next generations on how to deal with adversity and build resilience. The world is unpredictable, and while learning the content is all well and good, it must be done in a way that leads to well-being. I think that’s missing right now.
Were there any surprising findings from the course that are easy for people to implement in everyday life to help improve their happiness?
There’s nothing I’m saying that hasn’t been said before. But knowledge is not enough. You can watch as many TED Talks or read as many self-help books as you can. It won’t make a difference unless you actively engage in it. You have to act. That’s why our course is based on active engagement.
When we looked at the long-term benefits of our course, we found that, as a group, most students returned to their baseline measures again. So the benefits they had diminished, except for those students who continued with the activities. About half of them continued to do the gratitude letters, meditations and all these exercises.
It’s like physical exercise; if you don’t keep up with the program, you’ll go back to your baseline again. Like a muscle, you won’t suddenly get strong by picking up the heaviest weight. It takes time and requires continuous effort.
How do you believe we can create a happier and kinder world together?
I think the kinds of goals we’ve set are somewhat misguided by commercial interest. We have to understand that to get a balanced society, it works on individual and social levels. That means changing the way we care for each other.
What’s next for you and your work?
I want to try to get Bristol to adopt other courses that I believe will equip students with life skills they can take into the world of work. For example, financial literacy, presentation skills, etc. I’m working on structures and strategies to get the university to make room in the curriculum for what I think are generic skills that we could all do 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 did his Ph.D. in neuroscience at Cambridge followed by appointments at University College London, MIT and a faculty professor at Harvard. He researches child development, origins of superstition, self-identity and ownership. For the past 5 years he has been focusing on how to make himself happier. Bruce is a member of the American Psychological Society, the Royal Institution of Great Britain and the British Psychological Society. He gave the Royal Institution ‘Meet Your Brain’ Christmas Lectures in 2011, broadcast on the BBC to over 4 million viewers. He has also given Christmas lectures on tours in Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea. Bruce has written four popular science books 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 award-winning 2019 eco-friendly film “Living in the Future’s Past” with Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges. Bruce has received numerous academic awards and honorary degrees for his services in popularizing science. He is currently working on his next popular science book on the science of happiness.