March 20th is the United Nations International Day of Happiness. To celebrate the day, News Medical speaks to Professor Bruce Hood, Professor of Developmental and Community Psychology at the University of Bristol, about his ‘Science of Happiness’ course and beyond.
Please, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your professional background?
My name is Bruce Hood, and I’m Professor of Developmental and Community Psychology at the University of Bristol. My first degree was in psychology when I didn’t even know what psychology was. I became infatuated with him and fell in love with him, so I decided to train as a psychologist.
As my college project, I had worked on children and was fascinated by the developing mind and how children grow into adults. I was fortunate to get a job in Cambridge working with a team looking at visual development. Their approach was from a physiological standpoint, which is the neuroscience aspect of my training. I have studied the development of the eye movement system in very young children.
What is going on chemically in our brains when we talk about feeling “happy”?
Happiness is not one type of mental state. It covers various things, from elation and feelings of euphoria to feeling good. Most people are familiar with the idea of neurotransmitters being released. We’re talking about endogenous opioids, which are the neurotransmitters that generate feelings.
Another neurotransmitter that is commonly discussed when you hear about happiness is dopamine, a very common neurotransmitter that circulates throughout the brain, but plays a role in the chemical pleasure. Dopamine is part of the reward system. It certainly participates in those positive experiences, but the research indicates that it has more to do with desire than like. 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 seek or want something without necessarily getting the high they expect. So desire and liking in the brain are two different systems.
It is not the prevalence of a specific neurotransmitter or drug; Rather, it’s how it works on the different systems, which 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 upon, but you just have to move a millimeter inside the brain, and the effect of that drug is very different.
How does happiness affect our mental and physical health?
We all experience happiness as a daily fluctuating 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 health. We knew that intuitively, we don’t feel at our best physically sometimes, which is often related to our moods.
But the really interesting work is the long-term effects of being unhappy. There is now work coming out to prove that optimism affects our longevity. A study published in 2019 looked at 70,000 people over nearly 40 years. The most optimistic lived longer, about 10 to 15%, which is between 8 and 10 years.
How do we change psychologically as we get older, and how does this affect our happiness?
I believe development is the key to happiness. The biggest predictor of adult happiness is childhood happiness. It’s really interesting because kids are generally happier than adults.
As a child, you are blissfully unaware of many of the problems in the world, and you are the center of attention in most foster families. Most children are raised in a very selfish world where they are the center of attention. But with evolution, you get an evolution of identity and an evolution of the self. So you have to become less self-centered to be able to relate to others.
I call this shift toward personalization, which means you can see other people’s perspectives. The problem is that when you start being more careful of what other people think of you, it makes you very self-conscious. Children become increasingly concerned about their status and how they appear to others.
There is a turn on the little kid who is told by their parents that they are awesome. As they move into adolescence, they now compare themselves to their peers. When they leave their teens, they enter the world of adulthood, where competition really matters.
Young children are somewhat insulated from negativity and criticism. But when they become more independent, it exposes them to many negative opinions and thoughts.
There is a network in the brain called the default mode network. This is the brain circuit that kicks in when you’re not focusing on a task. When your mind wanders, the default mode network becomes overactive and associated with negative rumination.
Can you tell me about your course, The Science of Happiness?
Six years ago, I decided I needed to do something about the students’ well-being because they were too busy with their grades to enjoy this period of life. Serendipitously, Lori Santos, a former student of mine whom I had taken at Harvard, put together a course called Psychology of the Good Life, and it was all about positive psychology. Laurie and I collaborated on a course. The thing I did is somewhat different from Lori’s but very much based on her approach.
The science of happiness and the good life
The course is very broad and open to first year students who can take open modules. As far as I know, my course is quite unique because students earn credit on our course, but there are no graded exams. I did this because it felt hypocritical to lecture students about the dangers of exam stress and then give them an exam.
We have developed a course that is entirely participatory, so it’s not just lectures. They have to attend regularly. And they meet in small groups that we call Happiness Centers, which are mentored by third-year students who we’ve trained to run small groups. In these groups, they do the activities and things that we recommend during the lectures. We also have them write weekly journals and measure their happiness at the beginning and end of the course. This is how we have proven that this course has a positive impact and benefits their mental health.
What is the current state of students’ mental health?
I feel we are not preparing students for university. The way we learn is very much in a competitive way. When they get to university, which is very different from school because it is more self-directed learning, it is more independent. I think the students struggle with that, the conflict, and the transition to university. They want to do well, but fail to realize that their efforts and perfectionism can backfire.
It is very important to train future generations on how to deal with adversity and develop resilience. The world is unpredictable, and although the educational content is very good, it must be done in a way that is conducive to well-being. I think this is missing at the moment.
Were there any surprising results from the course that are easy for people to implement in everyday life to help improve their happiness?
There is nothing I say that has not 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 actively participate in it. You have to act. This is why our course is based on active participation.
When we looked at the long-term benefits of our course, we found that most students, as a group, went back to their baseline metrics again. So the benefits they got slipped away, except for those students who stuck with the activities. About half of them continued to do the letters of gratitude and the meditations and all these exercises.
It’s like physical exercise. If you don’t keep up with the program, you’ll be back at baseline again. Like a muscle, you don’t suddenly become strong when you gain the heaviest weight. It takes time, and it takes constant effort.
How do you think we can create a happier, kinder world together?
I think the kinds of goals we set ourselves are somewhat misled by commercial interests. We have to understand that to have a balanced society, it works on both individual and societal levels. This means changing the way we take care of each other.
What’s next for you and your business?
I want to try to get Bristol to adopt other courses, which I believe will enable students to gain life skills that they can take into the world of work. For example, financial literacy, presenting skills, etc. I am working on structures and strategies to get the university to make room in the curriculum for what I believe are generic skills that we can all do.
Where can readers get more information?
About Professor Bruce Hood
Bruce has been Professor of Developmental Psychology in the Community at the University of Bristol since 1999. He obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Cambridge and then appointments at University College London, MIT and Professorship at Harvard University. It examines child development, the origins of superstition, self-identity and ownership. For the past five years, he has been focusing on how to become happier. Bruce is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the British Psychological Association. He delivered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures “Meet Your Brain” in 2011 which was broadcast on the BBC to over 4 million viewers. He has also given the Christmas Lectures on tours 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 Grain, and Possessed. He has appeared in numerous media appearances on radio and television and was featured in the 2019 award-winning environmental film, Living Past in the Future with Academy Award winner, Jeff Bridges. Bruce has received numerous academic awards and honorary degrees for his services to the popularization of science. He is currently working on his next popular science book on the science of happiness.