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Harvard Professor Answers Happiness Questions From Twitter

Harvard professor and "How to Build a Life" columnist Arthur C. Brooks answers the internet's burning questions about "happiness." Does anyone else feel depression after completing a goal? Can social media cause depression? Do we get happier as we age? What is the true meaning of happiness? Arthur answers all these questions and much more. For more on Arthur Brooks, you can find a copy of his New York Times Best Selling book, From Strength to Strength at your favorite book retailers nationwide and on Follow Arthur on social media for daily happiness content Instagram - @arthurcbrooks Twitter - @arthurbrooks LinkedIn - @arthur-c-brooks TikTok - @arthurcbrooks YouTube - @arthurcbrooksofficial Receive email updates from Arthur Brooks Sign up at Director: Justin Wolfson Director of Photography: Jim Petit Editor: Louville Moore Expert: Arthur C. Brooks Line Producer: Joseph Buscemi Associate Producer: Brandon White Production Manager: Eric Martinez Production Coordinator: Fernando Davila Talent Booker: Mica Medoff Camera Operator: Dan Jacobs Audio: Tim Haggerty Production Assistant: Conner Pennington Post Production Supervisor: Alexa Deutsch Post Production Coordinator: Ian Bryant Supervising Editor: Doug Larsen Assistant Editor: Andy Morell

Released on 03/14/2023


I'm Arthur Brooks, a professor at Harvard University

and the happiness columnist at The Atlantic.

I'm here today to answer your questions on Twitter.

This is Happiness Support.

[upbeat music]

First up, @simpysamantha, who just, Found out

that the key to happiness is a good sleep schedule.

Who knew?

Well, the secret to happiness is not lots of sleep

or even a good sleep schedule.

One of the funny things about diet, nutrition,

exercise, sleep, they don't actually bring happiness,

but they do lower unhappiness, which can be your problem.

Now it sounds like I'm splitting hairs, right?

Most people think that unhappiness

is the opposite of happiness.

It's not.

They're actually processed

in different hemispheres of the brain.

Happiness on one side, unhappiness on the other.

The right side is negative basic emotions,

and the way that we know this

is because the left side of the face,

which is controlled by the right side of the brain,

is more active when we're feeling negative emotions.

So, simpysamantha, my guess is that, you know,

you've got some unhappiness in your life,

and look, we all do.

Some of us have higher negative feeling levels than others.

If you've got that and you want some relief,

that's what's gonna bring it.

So it won't make you happier,

it's not the secret of happiness,

but it sure is good for having less unhappiness.

Have a good night's sleep.

Queenoffire85, Does anyone ever experience depression

or uncertainty after achieving a goal?

Oh, yes. Yes, they do.

This is the real riddle of happiness.

This is the satisfaction dilemma in a nutshell.

Yeah, if I get that watch, I'm gonna love it forever.

I get that car, I get that house, I get that relationship,

I get that job, that money, that, fill in the blank,

it's gonna be so great, and it is for a minute.

Now there's neurophysiology behind this, too.

There's a neuromodulator in the brain called dopamine,

and you want it, you work for it, you're gonna get it.

Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine, you got it, [grunts].

Oh. Oh, I guess I need to start again.

Here's just a little, tiny way

to think about how to solve that problem.

You, I, everybody, Mother Nature teaches us

that to get satisfaction and keep it you need to have more.

That's the wrong model.

Your real satisfaction is all the things you have

divided by all the things that you want.

Now you can try to increase your satisfaction permanently

by having more, or you can work on the denominator

of haves divided by wants.

You can work on wanting less.

That turns out to be the right formula.

Shaikitoff, or shaikitoff.

Shaikitoff. I got it!

Shaikitoff asks, How do I practice gratitude

when all I feel is sadness, frustration, and confusion?

Back to your question, how do I feel gratitude?

You decide to be grateful is the bottom line.

The brain kind of is in three parts.

It's not exactly this way, but just for reference,

there's the ancient part that has all your motor functions

and breathing and brain stem and spinal column.

Then you got the middle part, your your limbic system

that takes signals from the outside world

and takes a kind of machine language

and turns it into feelings that happen to you.

And then from there it delivers those signals

into the neocortex of the brain,

the wrinkly part on the outside of your brain,

the most evolved and amazingly human of which

is the prefrontal cortex,

a bumper of brain tissue right behind your forehead,

and it gets these emotions, and you decide what they mean

and what you're supposed to do.

Now, a lot of people go through life

in just kind of a limbic state being delivered emotions.

And if you're sort of a limbic person

feeling like you're managed by these things,

kind of hoping for the best,

then your limbic system is in charge.

But that's not your only option.

You can be in charge yourself,

but what you have to do is to experience your emotions

in the prefrontal cortex of your brain.

And it's a very simple process, if you put your mind to it.

It's called metacognition.

Metacognition means being aware of your emotions

and your thinking.

This is what humans are uniquely available to do.

My dog, Chucho, he's not metacognitive, he can't be.

He feels it. He does it.

He sees the cookie. He eats the cookie.

But I can actually deliver that information

to my prefrontal cortex and make an executive decision

about what I'm going to do, not withstanding my feelings.

Here's what I ask my students to do at Harvard.

I ask them to make a gratitude list on Sunday nights.

They make a list of the five things

they're most grateful for,

then every night during the rest of the week

take five minutes and look at your gratitude list.

Sundays, update your list.

In 10 weeks, you're gonna be between 15 and 25% happier

because you decided to be grateful.

You managed your emotions so they didn't manage you,

and if you do that, it's a game changer.

Being in charge, you're never gonna be the same.

Hase1136, Pretty Rabbit, As I lay here,

I wonder what is the true meaning of happiness?

Happiness is actually a combination

of three identifiable things that we all need

and we all want in both balance and abundance.

These are the macronutrients of happiness.

Your Thanksgiving dinner is protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

Well, your happiness is enjoyment,

satisfaction, and purpose.

Enjoyment is not just pleasure,

it's pleasure with consciousness.

It's using your prefrontal cortex.

Satisfaction is the joy that you get from a job well done.

It's your reward for striving, for working,

for even suffering.

Purpose, what's that?

Well, that's really a question

of finding coherence in your life,

finding goals in your life,

finding significance in your life.

If you have those three things, you have happiness.

GeeorgeStyles asks,

Is happiness connected to having a purpose?

Purpose is literally one of the macronutrients of happiness,

but it's a weird one.

It's actually hard to figure out even what it is.

If you're feeling like life doesn't have enough purpose,

that life doesn't have enough meaning,

answer the following two questions:

why am I alive, and for what would I be willing to die?

If you don't have an answer to one

or both of those questions,

you're gonna have an existential crisis.

And you need to go in search with your life

of an answer to those two questions.

I'm not gonna tell you what those answers are.

They're different for different people.

So yes, does purpose lead to happiness? Oh, yeah.

How do you find your purpose? Answer those two questions.

Find the answer to those two questions.

That's your assignment.

Syedafati, Can social media cause depression?

Yes, so it seems.

Here's the basic bottom line.

Social media is like the junk food of social life.

High calories, low nutrition.

You're starving for this neuropeptide called oxytocin.

It bonds people together.

You get almost none of it

when you don't have touch and eye contact,

but you crave more and more social contact

when you've been on social media for so long,

so you binge it.

It's basically like binging french fries

and then wondering why you feel crummy

and you're gaining weight,

but you're not getting your nutrition.

Here's the deal.

If you're gonna use social media,

make sure it only ever compliments

your in-person relationships and you use it very sparingly.

I'm talking about a total of 30 minutes a day

across all platforms

and never, ever, ever, ever substituting

for an in-person friendship.

If it substitutes for any friendship

or goes outside of those bounds,

it's gonna lower your happiness.

Poojasgoyal, gotta get the middle initial, I know,

How does age affect happiness?

And she encloses a graph,

and what it does is it looks at different ages

the average happiness level in a particular country

at a particular time, and it looks the same every place.

What do you think is gonna happen

if, let's just say, you're in your late 20s?

Are you gonna be happier or unhappier in 10 years?

Now most people watching me are optimists.

Most people think they're gonna be happier at 38

than they were at 28,

and the reason is because these have these goals

and they think that they're gonna meet their goals.

Most people think they're gonna get happier

as they get older, and it's gonna reach a max point,

and then it's gonna head back down again.

The truth is exactly the opposite.

Most people, on average, they get a slight diminution

of their happiness from their early 20s

until their late 40s or early 50s,

but it's like eight to seven on a 1 to 10 scale.

This is not a huge problem.

Noticeable but not horrible.

Then in your early 50s it turns around

and you start back up again,

and almost everybody actually gets increasing happiness

from their early 50s until about 70, except two groups:

people who have unremediated mental illness

and people who have untreated substance use disorders.

So if this is you, get treated for anxiety and depression

and mood disorders and get treated for addiction.

All right, next question comes from @LaughingAllTheWay,

How do we adjust our expectations as we age?

That's a good one.

One of the things that actually gets better

and better and better as you age

is your expectations about the future

because you understand how things work.

There's this tyranny that people don't understand

until they're usually a little after 50 years old.

They think that if they get that thing that they want,

they're gonna get it and they're gonna enjoy it

and it's never gonna go away, and then it does.

They also think that if something bad happens to them

that they're gonna stay in a bad mood

or sad or angry or afraid forever.

Here's what you learn after 50:

nothing lasts and it doesn't matter.

There's a thing that all biologists talk about,

which is homeostasis,

the tendency of every biological process

to go back to its equilibrium.

Well, it works emotionally as well.

Your anger, your sadness, your disgust, your fear, your joy,

your interest, those things don't last for good and for bad.

Your heart is broken? It won't last.

When you figure that out, this is power,

and if you harness that, every year's better than the last.

Or it can be.

Next up, this one's from Father Poster,

and I'm just gonna take a wild guess

that this is actually not a priest.

How do I transcend from my mortal anguish?

Sounds to me like Father Poster is a little afraid of dying,

but we're all afraid of our own version of dying.

There's a meditation that the Theravada Buddhists do.

If you go to a monastery, a Buddhist monastery,

in the southern tier of Asia, especially East Asia,

Thailand or Vietnam or Myanmar,

you'll find pictures of corpses in various states of decay

and that the monks have to ponder

and they have to say, That is me and that is me.

What are they doing?

They're doing what's called the maranasati death meditation.

Walk yourself through that. Why?

Because you're gonna accustom yourself

to that sort of surreal experience of your own death

as you see it.

How do I transcend my mortal anguish?

By leaning into my mortal anguish.

You beat fear by experiencing the fear

and making it ordinary, and it will no longer be a ghost

and it will no longer be a problem.

@thYrd_eYe_prYin, I've been working on being present.

To be present means to be here now.

That's the words that Ram Dass used to talk about.

We have a special kind of language

that we put on that now, it's called being mindful.

Mindfulness is hard because we're time travelers.

You're thinking about the past.

You're thinking about the future.

The average person, by the way,

spends 30 to 50% of their time thinking about the future.

That's unbelievable.

You're not here now.

Think about how much you do that, by the way.

You go on vacation, you're like,

Oh, I'm gonna make some memories, so I'm gonna take

a picture, picture, picture, picture, picture.

You're thinking about now as if it were the past

in the future when you're looking back on the present.

That's unbelievable time travel.

We do it all the time.

Here's the problem.

You missed your life. You missed it.

You know, the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk

Thich Nhat Hahn, y'all have to read

The Miracle of Mindfulness 'cause it starts off

with him describing what it's like to wash the dishes.

I'm washing the dishes,

and I'm conscious of washing the dishes

because if I don't think about washing the dishes

I will not be present in the act of washing the dishes.

That means working on being a mindful person.

Maybe it's with meditation, maybe it's with prayer,

maybe it's with therapy,

and sitting with your hands folded on your lap

looking out the window of the train saying,

I am sitting on the train right now

because I don't wanna miss my life.

Finally, Shammeri_AAA

wants to know the definition of wisdom.

Psychometricians, those who study

different forms of intelligence, find that we have a thing

called fluid intelligence early on.

In our 20s and 30s, the ability to focus, to innovate,

to solve problems, to think quickly.

People tend to peak in knowledge professions,

at their ability to solve problems, to innovate,

to focus, working memory in their late 30s.

But there's another curve behind it

called crystallized intelligence,

which increases through your 40s and 50s and 60s

and stays high in your 70s and 80s.

It's the wisdom curve.

The essence of wisdom is teaching, is mentoring.

It's leading teams. It's recognizing patterns.

It's understanding what things really mean

and using that information in service of other people.

And it gets better, and if you choose to cultivate it,

it can make your life as happy as it could possibly be

as you get older.

That's not only the consolation of age,

that's the promise of wisdom.

Well, it looks like that's all we've got for today.

Those are your questions.

I hope you've learned a lot from this time.

I hope you've enjoyed it.

I hope you're a little bit happier.

But here's the key thing,

if you really wanna lock it in, here's the secret.

You gotta think about it

and you gotta adopt new habits in your life,

and most of all, here's the most important part,

you gotta share it.

Go share it, then you'll never lose it.

Thanks for taking some time with me today.

[cheerful music]

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