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  • Nicole Sherwin

The Science Of Happiness

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

You could do the Yale course, or get to maximised happiness in much less time by reading this.

It's a science. Source: WIX

This segment is from the podcast episode, 'The Science of Happiness'. Listen belowor where you get your pods:

In 2018, Yale launched a course called The Science of Happiness. It quickly became the most popular course in their 317 year history, with one in four of their own students enrolled in the course. Demand grew so large that the course is now available on Coursera for free.

Of course, external factors are highly influential in our happiness levels. According to the World Happiness Report, unsurprisingly, the happiest countries in the world have stable economies and strong quality of life, whilst the least happy have experienced war and hardship.

The external influence on happiness is also why course enrolments have exploded since March. With 2020 a year more rough than a trip on the Spirit of Tasmania on a choppy day, people are reaching for any resources to resist the soul crushing force of this year. Currently, over two million people worldwide have taken this course alone.

Unfortunately, Hogwarts is not real. Source: GIPHY

Now, because we obviously can’t control everything, (or I’d be hella rich and famous by now), this course isn’t going to teach you how to magically control external influences on your happiness, like how to rebuild your economy and cease all famine and war, but the course teaches that happiness can be learnt, and that there are steps you can take to improve your happiness in everyday life.

Luckily for you, I’m going to share with you some super easy steps to increasing your happiness now. Me and a Yale professor are basically the same thing. Luckily for me, Tara Parker Pope for the New York Times summed up some steps to happiness in a tidy little package for us, so let’s go through the ‘Fuck you 2020, I’m still going to shine' checklist:


Namaste. Source: GIPHY

It all starts with your mind. Metaphysical practices from Buddhism and yoga have been telling us this for literally centuries, but now that western medicine is on board, it’s considered science.

Generally, we’re actually not wired to be super positive all the time. Disney is lying to us. Rapunzel was locked in a tower for 18 years. There’s no way she’d be playing with birds and singing show tunes. She’d have severe social anxiety, smoke three packs a day and be in intensive therapy.

Realistically, we are more likely to ruminate on negative experiences than positive ones. Like if you do one embarrassing thing when you’re drunk, you’ll be thinking about that moment at 3am for the next 12 years, but win $100 on a scratchie and you forget about it as soon as you’ve spent it on The Iconic’s 30% off sale.

Because we’ve evolved to think this way, we have to retrain our minds away from that negative default. I’ve learnt from watching SAS that I have approximately zero mental strength.

You might be someone who is relatively unaffected by things in which case you don't lean towards the negative dial, but you could just benefit from increasing your positive. In which case, these first few tips might not mean all that much to you, but if you’re prone to anxiety or depression, I think these are super valuable:

Don’t try to stop negative thoughts

“Fuck off, stop thinking about this,” does not help. They actually only make you think about them more. Think of negative thoughts of an STD. They do not go away on their own. You need to acknowledge them, so you can manage them.

Treat yourself like a friend

This is hard if you really don’t like yourself, or people generally, but the idea is you think of what advice you would give to a friend. You’d be way more rational with a friend than yourself.

Challenge your negative thoughts

Or for those in academia, this is known as Socratic Questioning. It’s where you challenge your irrational thoughts and if you’ve come across depression and anxiety you may know it well. So you first write down your negative thoughts like, “I’m a failure and I live with my parents at 35.” Then you challenge it. Is this a fact or a feeling? How might others view the situation more positively? How would I view it if it were someone else? For instance, actually, I have two house servants who do all my cooking and cleaning for me, I have more than enough money for a house deposit, so I’m really living everyone else’s dream.

Controlled Breathing

If you have anxiety or depression, I’m sure you live this method with a five star Google review. In its most basic form, count in for four, and out for four x10 times. Hold your stomach so you can ensure you’re breathing deep. It’s the natural dupe for valium.

This is basically the basis for Mindfulness and there are heaps of apps that can help you extend the practice. I really like Headspace, there’s also apps such as Calm and Smiling Mind.

Rewrite your story

I know, writing right? Well before we start, remember you’re not writing a Pulitzer Prize here. There’s no pressure. In the NYT, Parker Pope says that, “Some research suggests that writing in a personal journal for 15 minutes a day can lead to a boost in overall happiness and well-being, in part because it allows us to express our emotions, be mindful of our circumstances and resolve inner conflicts."

If you’ve ever written an angry email just so you can get the emotion out, but obviously could never send it because you’d get fired, you’d know that writing out your emotions can actually be cathartic.

But James Pennebaker, a Psychology Professor at the University of Texas, suggests taking journaling one step further, and rewriting your story. He says, “The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go.” Mmm, I’m suss on this, it feels like you're setting yourself up for disappointment if the alternate story is just a fantasy. A bit like when you wake up from a really good sex dream with Channing Tatum and you’re disappointed for at least the next 24 hours.

But basically, you write a brief story about your struggle, like, “I haven’t been to the gym in nearly six months and summer is coming.” Then you rewrite it from the viewpoint of a neutral or as if you were giving advice to a friend, “Everyone’s been struggling. Focus on finding an activity you like outdoors.”

Despite my trepidation, Parker Pope also suggests that numerous studies have shown that rewriting your story helps switch your negative mindset to a more positive one.

Get The Fuck Up

Work It. Source: GIPHY

Here’s one for everyone. It’s no brainer. Exercise releases endorphins and endorphins make you happy. I have the laziest exercise option for you. Which yes, is something you know I’ve Googled, but I actually came up with these all on my own! So, whenever you’re at the traffic lights, do exercise. Either pelvic floor or I like to hold my arms out and do circles, really working on those tuck shop lady wings. You can also do it with other small intervals, like ad breaks (although sometimes they’re a bit too long for me), or like, instead of a drinking game when you’re watching a show, you could do a stand up and sit down again, a.k.a squats. Nothing too hard like sit ups that will turn you off this fun game, though. Some unsolicited advice I bet you actually appreciate today.

Home Sweet Home

Where you live, your country, your area and your house itself can have a big impact on your happiness. I simply couldn’t fathom not living Bayside in Victoria. Proximity to our job has always been so important to us, but with wfh now, so many of us have the opportunity to actually be so much more flexible with this, (well maybe not if you want to live in Sydney or Melbourne as a millennial). In light of this, The Knight Foundation interviewed 43,000 people in 26 communities to find out what makes a happy community and this is what they found:

Openness: People are happiest when they live in a welcoming community. In which case, I’d avoid moving to Brahhhtin if you’re in Melbourne.

Beauty: Living in a scenic, green or picturesque space. Heaps of studies also suggest spending time outside is good for you. Get that Vitamin D, (but not too much) and wear sunscreen everyday.

Social Connections: This doesn’t mean you have to become friends with your neighbours, but where there are restaurants, community spaces, trails etc.

These suggestions feel a bit privileged for me, because not everyone really has the luxury of making these choices. The very word ‘refugee’ tells us that people in the least happier countries would literally die to not live in their countries. I just feel like that needs to be acknowledged.

But, the science is there and if you have the privilege then you apply what you can to your circumstance. And something we can all do to improve happiness in our living situation is... and get ready for your lady boner...organise. Just the word makes me happy. Decluttering is undoubtable a key to increased happiness. Try not to climax when I read out these decluttering tips:

  • Fold things neatly

  • Throw away things that don’t make you happy

  • Spend money on experiences, not things.

Wait no not the last one. I disagree. Spend money on whatever makes you happy. We have a whole blog post on it.

Parker-Pope references an idea from the book Happiness at Home. Satisfaction comes from completing tasks, so this book suggests a one minute rule, which in this instance, does not refer to how long you can leave food on the ground for and still eat it. It’s tasks you can do in less than a minute. So basically my exercise tips. Reply to that message for three days ago you ignored. Put your dish in the dishwasher. They’re probably things you do subconsciously anyway (sometimes) but recognising it means you can recognise the short term boost, plus you’ll end up with a cleaner place, which will also make you happy.


Parker-Pope references a living well index by research which found the strongest indicators of wellness were sleep and sex. Please see our episode, Let’s talk about sex baby for more information on sex.

You spend one third of your life in your bedroom, so you’d hope by now you’ve upgraded from a mattress on the floor with pilled sheets and a pile of dirty plates on the floor next to you. Parker-Pope suggests investing in quality bedding. Which, I don’t think you need any sort of degree to advise on that. You just need to be over 25. She also suggests getting blackout blinds. Apparently, the darker the room, the better you’ll sleep. Sorry no, I beg to differ. If I can’t see well enough to see that there’s not a serial killer standing at the end of my bed, I’m not sleeping well. She also says to remove the TV, quote, “Bedrooms are havens for sleep, sex and contemplating, not screen time.” I feel personally victimised.

Finally - make the bed. My boyfriend hates doing this, “Too many cushions.” And he uses this excuses that bacteria breeds more when you make it. Idk, just change your sheets! The reason we have cushions is because it looks good so it makes us happy! It’s a one minute task accomplished which will spike your happiness and I think we can all agree that the only thing better than getting into a freshly made bed at the end of the day is getting into a freshly made bed with freshly washed sheets.


Abort. Source: GIPHY

A few weeks ago, we did an episode on Green Flags. The traits that make you want to have people around. In that episode was what we have dubbed Tiffany - your friend who you explicitly tell not to sleep with is the guy who has been cheating on her and gave her three new strains of chlamydia, but then she calls you on Monday to tell you she did exactly that. The anti-green flag. These friends who are a drain on your mental resources are not surprisingly no good for your happiness.

Obviously it’s a different story when you have friends who are not happy, but genuinely need your support. The anti-green flags are those friends who actively assume that victim mentality, through their own self destruction and do nothing to break the trends in their life that are keeping them stagnant. Yale research discovered that peoples happiness depends on the people who they are connected to. The research also found:

  • A person's happiness extends to three degrees of separation — meaning that it can influence (and be influenced by) their friends, their friends’ friends, and the friends of people who are friends of their friends. That’s so cool. The other day my friend told me about a girl we worked with who got a promotion, like it’s literally one of the coolest most nationally influential jobs I could think of and I remember being so happy for her because nobody deserved that more.

  • People who are surrounded by many happy people are more likely to become happy in the future.

  • Each additional happy friend increases your chance of happiness by about nine percent.

  • Geography matters. Our happiness increases when we live close to happy friends and family members.

Animals Make Us Happy

When I told my boyfriend I was doing this topic, he said “Get a dog. End of.” Everyone knows dogs are THE BEST. Who else will run to the door when you get home and get so excited to see you?! Not even your mum. And as I’ve said 100 times before, if you’re not an animal person (find out if you are here), you are not to be trusted in life and should immediately commence counselling. But in case you weren’t convinced animals make us happier, The American Psychological Association did a study which showed people with pets are generally healthier and happier. That’s why women who live alone with 18 cats are the happiest of all.

You Can Be Happy Alone

Being married or in a long term relationship doesn’t actually mean you’ll be happy. If you’re already a happy person, you might be a little bump from being married. I can’t think of a much cheaper way to get a bump than spending $100k on a wedding. If you are lacking social connections, you’ll get a bigger rush of happiness from finding a connection, but if they’re a shit person, your lacking in platonic connections are going to be the reason why you hold on to them, because once they’re gone, you’re gone, and you’re going to suffer more than a well connected person if you lose them. How many friends do you have that will scrape the bottom of the red flag barrel just to have someone? (So, Tiffany). They can be a controlling, jealous, cheating, hideous human being but someone is better than nothing. Except it’s absolutely not. In her book What a Time to Be Alone, Chidera Eggerue says, “Being insecure and feeling lonely is the ultimate recipe for self destruction" and “Boredom and insecurity are the perfect combination for a lot of poor choices.”

Both Eggure and Parker-Pope suggest that rather than finding fulfilment through a significant other, the key is to have well rounded social connections, hobbies and feel comfortable being alone sometimes to maximise your overall happiness. But how? A girlfriend of mine actually recommended What a Time to Be Alone. And before you say it, I cannot stress how anti-self help this girlfriend usually is. She’s super strong willed and independent and would not be caught dead using an inspirational quote within 100m of her person, but she went through this really shitty break up, was questioning all her life choices and someone gave it to her. She came out on the other side invested in hobbies and decided she wouldn’t be friends with anyone who wasn’t motivated with their life, passionate about things in their life, like work, hobbies or self care and were there for her when she didn’t have the capacity to reciprocate. She was just like, see ya.

I know it’s really hard to make adult friends, but we did a whole episode on if you want some tips. So basically in relationships - hang around happy people and animals. No douchebags.

Work and Money

It's time to quit. Source: GIPHY

Oh finance chats, my favourite.

Money Doesn’t Buy Us Happiness.

Excuse me? Okay I’m going to use the Kardashians as a case study here. If you’ve watched it from the beginning (which I assume you have), you’ll recall that Kim struggled to pay her rent early on. Now they have more money than mining magnates, but we certainly haven’t watched them get happier every season.

Again privileged view, because truly poor people are happier with more money, but that’s the case when that money allows you to satisfy physiological needs like food and shelter. Once you have enough money to satisfy those, more money does not mean more happiness.

But shopping truly makes me happy, I know. But it’s a burst of happiness and we quickly settle back into our previous happiness levels. Obviously why we need to keep buying more and more, because there’s no sadder feeling than knowing you have no upcoming appointments with your Aus Post delivery man. This is called the hedonic treadmill. We get these material things, clothes, house, promotion and because the happiness is short lived, we move on to think about the next thing that will make us happy.

Find Purpose at Work

My purpose is not to work. But okay fine. It’s the dream to love what you do and be sufficiently compensated for it, but sometimes jobs are just golden handcuffs, we hate them, but going back to the start of the podcast where we’re turning negatives into positives, even those put a roof over our head and help us form new relationships. Not ideal to really hate your job though and you should probably quit if you hate it that much.

Christine Porath wrote a column called “Why You Hate Work” and covered these key points to finding purpose and happiness at work. I can basically guarantee that if you don’t like your job, you’ll be able to say none of these things happen in your work place:

Renewal: “Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being. The more hours people work beyond 40 — and the more continuously they work — the worse they feel, and the less engaged they become.” So the people who stop to talk about their weekends or Bachie are actually far more productive than those who never leave their desk to take lunch. Suck it.

Feeling Valued: This is something you really can’t influence yourself and I feel like it's so rare. The line ‘Everyone’s replaceable’ seems as common in a workplace as ‘Let’s take it offline,’ but feeling valued by an employee leads to happiness. You’re 1.3 times more likely to stay in a company and you’re 67% more engaged.

Focus: I think this means we need to move away from open and plan and everyone needs an office. I just want an office, but if you’re able to focus studies show you’re way more productive.

Purpose: Employees with purpose to their day reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work. If you’re not saving lives, you have to get really creative sometimes to find the purpose, but it really can just be that you like the money your job gives you.

Love yourself

Get around me. Source: GIPHY

Finally, you’ll never be happy if you don’t like yourself. It's a pretty complex issue if you're not comfortable with yourself, but Parker-Pope suggests you can start by being a kinder person:

Be Generous

There is no unselfish good deed. Remember that episode of Friends? Well there isn’t, because doing good, makes us happy. Actually just thinking about being generous triggers happiness reactions in our brains, according to Parker Pope.

Be Nice To Yourself

If you’re judgemental and hard on yourself, give yourself a break. I guess that’s why you should treat yourself like a friend, because you’d never be as hard on your friend as you are yourself. According to Parker Pope, studies found that people who have some self compassion tend to be happier and more optimistic.

That’s it fans. They key to happiness. Mindfulness, surrounding yourself with other happy people, love where you live and value from your job. Some of it, you’re probably already doing, but some of it may take a lifetime of habits, but happiness doesn’t just come to you - you have to work for it.

Thirsty for more? Listen to a new podcast episode every Tuesday.


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