Happiness can be learnt but takes practice, new study reveals

A new study shows that well-being boosts are short-lived unless evidence-informed habits are practiced over the long term

A new study shows that you can learn to be happy but practice is crucial for lasting benefits. The findings highlight that doing a course— be that at the gym, a meditation retreat or on an evidence-based happiness course— is just the start as consistency is the key.

According to the researchers from the University of Bristol, the first-of-its-kind study shows that well-being boosts are short-lived unless evidence-informed habits such as gratitude, exercise, meditation or journaling are practised over the long term.

“It’s like going to the gym—we can’t expect to do one class and be fit forever. Just as with physical health, we have to continuously work on our mental health, otherwise the improvements are temporary,” senior author Bruce Hood said in the university’s statement.

In a previous study, researchers —who designed the University of Bristol’s ‘Science of Happiness’ course launched in 2018—had discovered that teaching students the latest scientific studies on happiness created a marked improvement in their wellbeing.

The course has no exams or coursework and teaches students what the latest peer-reviewed studies in psychology and neuroscience say really makes them happy.

Some interesting takeaways from the Science of Happiness course include talking to strangers makes people happier, despite many avoiding such encounters, optimism increases life expectancy, kindness and happiness are correlated, and nature walks can deactivate part of the brain linked to negative ruminations, which are associated with depression.

The researchers found that students who took the course reported a 10 to 15% improvement in wellbeing, the statement elaborated. However, only students who continued implementing the learnings from the course showed improved well-being when they were surveyed again two years later.

According to Hood, the course significantly involves positive psychology interventions that shift people’s attention away from themselves, by helping others or practicing gratitude. The findings were published in the journal Higher Education.

“This is the opposite of the current ‘self-care’ doctrine, but countless studies have shown that getting out of our own heads helps gets us away from negative ruminations which can be the basis of so many mental health problems,” Hood added in the statement.

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