This month we are shining our spotlight on Action for Happiness, a UK based charity. The patron of Action for Happiness is the Dalai Lama and their members take action to increase wellbeing in their homes, workplaces, schools and local communities. In September 2015, the Dalai Lama helped launch the 8-week Exploring What Matters course at a big event in London. This course has now been rolled out in communities across the UK and beyond. It’s still very early days, but Action for Happiness is delighted with how things are going so far and would like to express gratitude to everyone who’s been involved, especially all the volunteer course leaders.

Their vision is a happier world, with fewer people suffering with mental health problems and more people feeling good, functioning well and helping others. Action for Happiness is a special organisation that lives, breathes and sleeps everything positive psychology. Having supported the charity as a research manager, I (Keith Cowley) have first-hand experience of this.

So far, Exploring What Matters has drawn some impressive numbers:

Volunteer course leaders

  • 3,400people have signed up to show interest in leading a course
  • 560volunteers have gone on to complete the full Leader Registration process

Courses & participants

  • Over 150 courseshave been submitted (each is run by two co-leaders) – 110 are complete, 30 are in progress/booking and the remainder are being set up
  • Over2,300 participants have taken the course so far (average of 15 per course)

Impact of the course

  • 93%of participants would recommend the course to others
  • 91%say the course has had a positive impact on their life (vs 9% Neutral, <1% Negative)
  • Participants experience significant increases inLife Satisfaction (+21%), Mental Wellbeing (+14%), Compassion (+9%) and Social Trust (+17%), based on comparing standardised survey measures taken before and after the course

 

But perhaps most important of all are the human stories and personal feedback we receive all the time. Here are a few examples:

“The course has been life changing for me I cannot express how thankful I am that I attended thank you”

~ Judy, participant

“Thank you for the course. I felt very disconnected and shut down from people before but I have a sense now that connecting with others is of equal benefit to me and to them. I have greater sense of equality between all people, and feel more open to people in general, and more inclined to relax and trust others. I’m delighted that I did the course and plan to continue meeting with the group in the future”

~ Tina, course participant

 

Next up is an article by one of our SIPPA members.

Matt Coleman, Tulane University, Researcher at Learning and Brain Development Lab.

As a senior majoring in Neuroscience with minors in Psychology and Philosophy, Matt is deeply passionate in learning about the human brain. Joining Dr. Markant’s lab in the fall of 2015 has given him the opportunity to explore his field of interest outside of a structured course curriculum. Outside of school, he enjoys free-writing, following his hometown Chicago sports teams, and reading non-fiction. He also serves on the executive board of his fraternity and is a part of the inaugural class of the Tulane Scholars Program. Though he has only lived in New Orleans for a couple years, he absolutely loves the indescribably unique culture of the city. After studying in Copenhagen, Denmark this past spring semester, Matt is now working towards his Honors thesis throughout his final year at Tulane. Upon graduating, he plans on moving on to graduate school with the goal of starting up his own research lab as a Neuroscience professor.

 

What do you expect?: Using Denmark to examine well-being and balance.

Denmark is consistently ranked as the happiest country in the world. As a result, there has been a surge of international attention towards Denmark in recent years. Even Oprah made the trip out to Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, to see what all the fuss was about.

Of course it’s unfair to attribute any single factor as the reason for Denmark’s successes. Nevertheless, we can extract some important lessons that apply to all people by critically analyzing the country’s unique sociocultural norms.

Earlier this year I spent four months living and studying in the heart of Copenhagen. Contrary to what you may be imagining, people don’t walk the streets perpetually holding a smile. Danes may be happy, but it comes in the form of contentedness. In fact, the happiness rankings are generally based off surveys asking about life satisfaction rather than happiness itself. If Danes don’t seem any happier than the rest of us, then what gives?

Hygge (pronounced: hoo-guh) is a Danish way of life. The word doesn’t have a clear translation, but it roughly means “coziness.” In its rawest form, hygge is about small social circles and comfortable, stress-free environments. Blankets, coffee, candles, and close friends are some of the staples of hygge. This concept has gained a lot of international praise lately, which is abundantly clear after a quick Google search.

Additionally, the government of Denmark has unique policies that likely contribute to its citizens’ well-being, including abnormally high tax rates. Danes have trust in their system, so they are more than willing to sacrifice personal income for common goods and services. They tend to enjoy fewer weekly work hours than most countries, five weeks of paid vacation, extended maternity and paternity leave, and more.

The aforementioned cultural and political differences certainly make up for a large chunk of Denmark’s happiness rankings. But these external factors overlook another huge reason for topping the charts: low expectations.

Danish citizens generally don’t subscribe to values of idealism or high achievement, which are commonly associated characteristics of the proverbial “American Dream.” If you never expect to make a seven-figure salary, become an Olympic athlete, or be a straight-A student, you won’t feel the same disappointment if you fail.

Psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists study this concept through a mechanism known as prediction error. Simply put, prediction error is the difference between an outcome and the expectation of that outcome. When an outcome exceeds expectations, this is called a positive prediction error. In real life, this may take the form of a “pleasant surprise,” like getting an unanticipated raise at work. Conversely, a negative prediction error is when an outcome fails to meet expectations, a “let-down” of sorts. Think of your friend that repeatedly praises a movie that turns out to be good, but not great. By setting your expectations too high, the outcome (the movie, in this case) is less pleasurable than it otherwise would be.

Prediction error shows how expectations significantly impact our emotional, physiological, cognitive, and behavioral responses to our day-to-day experiences (* Schultz, 2016). On the neuroanatomical level, our brain’s primary reward system actually uses prediction error to determine what is, or is not, rewarding to us. This explains why getting an “A” in organic chemistry will likely feel much more rewarding to a student with a 2.0 GPA than a student with a 4.0 GPA.

So, why not keep our expectations as low as possible? On one hand, it will be easier to find new joys in daily life. But this neglects the personal control we often have over many outcomes over time. For instance, even LeBron James would not have become a basketball superstar without high expectations. He certainly didn’t mope on the couch all day, keeping his expectations low while hoping his dreams would somehow come true. High expectations can be extremely motivating in the right contexts.

In most any circumstance, great achievement is predicated upon high aspirations and a belief of succeeding. This is the framework for societal progress, whether moral, political, or scientific.

In Danish society, the relative lack of emphasis on high achievement seems to serve beneficially. Danes do not simply loaf around, lack ambition, and fail at their goals. They just generally don’t value constant hard work and achievement to the same extent as many other developed societies.

Many Danes have found their own preferred balance between subjective well-being (SWB) and psychological well-being (PWB). SWB generally represents life satisfaction in the context of maximizing pleasure. PWB, meanwhile,  is more multi-faceted, instead emphasizing traits like meaning, purpose, growth, and autonomy.

Placing too much value on SWB may come at the cost of ambitious, goal-driven actions that may give people an enormous sense of purpose. This would seem to be a consequence of consistently low expectations.

Opposingly, devoting all of our cognitive resources towards achieving goals may cause us to neglect our present emotions. This only steepens the effect of the hedonic treadmill, which is the tendency to rapidly adapt to life circumstances, thus hindering happiness. Having high expectations may help increase PWB and even greatly benefit society, yet it can also lead to disappointment and detract from savoring enjoyable experiences. Recent research on affective forecasting adds that people are widely inaccurate in predicting their future happiness, so accomplishing a goal may never feel as rewarding as assumed.

Given the vast differences between cultures and individual people within those cultures, there isn’t a definitive, optimal balance between short-term happiness and long-term pursuits of fulfillment. These ideas have been widely discussed in the self-help industry, often not properly admitting this variability. Danish society is by no means perfect, yet it raises important points about balance.

It’s crucial to inspire the next generation to pursue their greatest passions. Especially given today’s mental health epidemic, it is at least equally important to promote a society that values mindful well-being.

Even without a perfect solution, effortfully managing our expectations can be a small step towards optimizing emotional well-being and healthy decision-making. A pragmatic approach to thinking about future outcomes seems necessary to enhance both immediate and long-term happiness.

* Schultz, W. (2016). Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 18(1), 23–32. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2015.26