The Science of Happiness

Strategically placed among the recessed lighting in our living room ceiling, is an adjustable “fisheye” that rotates so we can highlight the stained glass in our front door. When people drive or walk down our street in the evening, they can’t help but look at it—to focus on it.

“That’s been one of my mantras—focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” — Steve Jobs

“That’s been one of my mantras—focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” — Steve Jobs

In our everyday lives, we have multiple opportunities to focus. We can shine our mind’s spotlight on the positive, or on the negative. Like the “fisheye” — it’s an adjustable choice.

Dr. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, scanned the brains of happy people and found they were unusually active in one area—the left prefrontal cortex. Now he and other researchers in the field are learning more about how we can take advantage of our brain’s “plasticity”—its ability to reshape itself—and rewire our own brains to be happier.

“We can always choose to perceive things differently. You can focus on what’s wrong in your life, or you can focus on what’s right.” — Marianne Williamson

“We can always choose to perceive things differently. You can focus on what’s wrong in your life, or you can focus on what’s right.” — Marianne Williamson

Last week I become part of a beta group that’s testing the science of happiness and positive psychology. I just completed part one of the first track. Each day I participate in brief, online “happiness skill builders” specifically designed to promote positive emotional qualities such as gratitude, kindness, mindfulness, and compassion.

Where do you place your focus?



60 thoughts on “The Science of Happiness

  1. Hi Laurie,
    I’m focusing on simplicity in packing right now! It makes it easier when I ask the question of the items I pack – is this going to bring me joy in my new life? If not, I don’t even think twice – I don’t pack it. We habitually travel around life with WAYYYY too much stuff. This is a fabulous opportunity for me! I embrace it!

  2. I LOVE the stained glass panels in your front door, Laurie! I try to place my focus on being positive. Every now and then I have a day where my energy is being pulled to the “darker side.” One of my favorites quotes….”Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Confucius

  3. There really IS so much to be happy about, if we just shift our attention a bit! Looking forward to hearing more about your group and the results when the time is right.

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  5. So glad you brought up focus! Something I definitely need to ‘focus’ on. Sometimes I dissipate my energies in simply putting too much on my list, if I would merely focus on one or two important tasks and bend all my will in that direction, I could do a much better job of getting something accomplished. That’s how I rate my days, on whether or not I did something truly worth doing and doing it well. Thanks again, will put on the refrigerator!

  6. Interesting – what questions did they ask you? Would be interesting to see what the “happiness exercises” are!

    • Heather – Each day there’s a different series of questions and happiness “exercises” and “tasks.” Because of today’s technology, many of the participants have digital cameras (or cameras in our phones) and we’re asked to photograph the result of a happiness task and/or exercise. It’s pretty cool!

  7. Dear Laurie,
    This is one of the most powerful tools to living a wholesome life! What we choose to focus and see. I wonder just how many relationships, marriages and life would improve if we only practised this! You’re doing such a really great job! Hugs, Sharon

  8. This is a different take on ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. I’ve always been the positive type, but I must admit, my spirits get really low in the depths of winder (I believe I have a touch of SAD) and sometimes I literally can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel (winter) and it’s a struggle to focus on the good things around me. I’m glad winter is nearly over. A spot light on the good things in life is a great idea. I’ll try and remember that next February (when I suffer the most). Thanks for the post. 🙂

    • Fatimasaysell – Are you aware of the benefits of Vitamin D for people who suffer from SAD. It’s oftentimes referred to as “Sunshine in a bottle.” If you’re not familiar with the benefits of Vitamin D, you may want to do a little research 🙂

      • Yes, Laurie. I have read about it. But what I really really miss is the best source of vitamin D of all: the sun! Thank you for the advice.

  9. Laurie,
    I have been studying this Science of Happiness for quite a while. It’s amazing and life changing when you learn and practice the techniques. Your post title really caught my attention because this is exactly what I teach. I’m also in the beta group that you refer to. I just haven’t been able to spend as much time there as I would like because I’ve been so busy with my courses. I am a Happiness Teacher and I teach the Science of Happiness course. If you or anyone seeing this is interested further you can check out the details here: It is truly an uplifting and positive journey and I’m so glad that so many are discovering it’s benefits. I love that we can make the world a happier place, one person at a time!

  10. Laurie I am beginning to think I might have been hard wired for happiness and looking on the bright side. It seems to be a reflex response to difficult experiences and situations. But maybe what is really is at work is I know I have a choice. I dislike being miserable. So it is easier to find, make and even imagine a choice for greater contentment in every moment. Recently I watched documentary where a woman had survived the concentration camps. She said at one point they had taken what seemed like everything from her. Her family had been killed including her sister who had been in the camp with her. She was starving, covered in lice and dirty. She feared losing hope or a reason to continue to live. Then she thought – I have nothing left, what could they possibly want from me? As she asked the question, the answer came to her. They wanted her soul. She vowed not to give it to them, not to die and to focus on the one thing she had left until she could notice others. And she did. This conscious awareness of choice is a powerful world view as you well know. Good luck with your focus studies.

    • Terrill – I love when you said, ” I dislike being miserable. So it is easier to find, make, and even imagine a choice for greater contentment in every moment.”

      Thank you for sharing the INSPIRING story from the documentary. Amazing!

  11. I think I was born to be an optimist and a positive spirit but lived in an environment where that was apparently a horrible way to be and to express myself. So I learned to hide and put away my feelings – stay in neutral and not be noticed.

    The little exercise I have been doing lately is following the post I saw which said:
    Be like a dog –
    Oh breakfast – my favorite thing!
    Yes a walk – my favorite thing!
    Play with the neighbor – my favorite thing!
    Nap time – my favorite thing!
    Dinner time – my favorite thing.!

    So I say:
    Get out of bed – my favorite thing!
    Walk the dog – my favorite thing!
    comment on blogs – my favorite thing!

    Well you get the idea. It erases the little resistance movement that creeps in….I find that I can not change anything or think of anything new until I can think of whatever as an opportunity.

    Change – My favorite thing!

  12. You are just the person to be participating in the focus studies. I love the positive way you view the world. My focus seems to *usually* go toward turning to the positive. To me, that’s been a big part of the spiritual journey. Looking at each potentially negative situation that develops and seeing where there might be a benefit. Not only does that result in relief, it also seems to make life much more enjoyable!

  13. Sounds like a fun project to be a part of, Laurie! I start every morning now by focusing on some of the many things I am grateful for in my life. It sets the stage for a positive day ahead.

    My mom used to tell us a story about the Optimist and the Pessimist receiving gifts at Christmas. The Pessimist was given all the latest gadgets and the finest toys that money could buy, but he complained about everything. The gadgets were the wrong brand, the toys were the wrong colors, and his friends probably got better gifts that made his stash look small and insignificant by comparison. Meanwhile, the Optimist was given a pile of horse sh*t and couldn’t contain his excitement! He grabbed a shovel and started digging through the pile, exclaiming “With all this sh*t, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!” 🙂

  14. Much great stuff in the positive psychology movement.
    For me, I work at moving beyond judgements like right and wrong at he stories we make up about meaning; at bringing acceptance of all that is, and of looking for positive possibilities in all situations, preferably ones that work for everyone; and that often gets misinterpreted by those around me.

    So yes – definitely, focus on the positive; and be aware that ponies do not tend to hide in pile of their own excrement – so be selective in where one focuses one’s energies.

  15. Wow that’s exciting! Looking forward to hearing more!
    I love the work of Richard Davidson.
    My focus is on feeling emotions, tuning in and listening to my heart every day. Being with whatever is in the moment.

  16. Laurie, I’d like to believe that my primary focus is on the welfare of my family and the students under my charge at school, but let’s just say my passions and my interests often divert my intentions and resolve, so that I am often in a kind of holding pattern. But I am taking this great post as a specific call for a more pointed focus and as such it’s a kind of wake-up call.

  17. That shift in focus is so important isn’t it…and makes all the difference but so often in the heat of the moment we neglect to think of it. So great post to wake up the re-focussing part of the brain cell thanks! 🙂

  18. Hi Laurie! Good question for everyone to think about! I’m trying to place my focus on my future plans for this coming year. I like to plan a little bit ahead, but not that far in life because what if what I planned doesn’t work out. Staying positive is also a big help 🙂

  19. Love your adjustable “fisheye” and the lovely stained glass windows on which it is focused. The project on the science of happiness sounds interesting, too. As Thoreau pointed out, it’s not where we look that matters, it’s what we see. We can always adjust our interpretation of the story we find ourselves living. My focus is usually on simplifying and being patient, compassionate and flexible.

  20. It’s so true that you can either focus on what is wrong or what is right. It reminds me of the old saying–You can either think of the glass as being half empty or half full.

    • ShesLosingIt — Each day we receive (online) “happiness skill builders.” They vary, but an example would be writing about something (large or small – simple or complex) we’re grateful for and then turning that in (in the form of a post) including a supporting photograph. Another example has been to help someone in need (i.e., shovel snow for an elderly person) and then write about the experience. Another one has been to research various charitable organizations and explain which one you would want to support (financially or otherwise) and why. One day we were assigned to “go on a 30-minute walk, take a camera, and report back.”

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  22. Ah, focus. I change my focus each day, depending on the day. But I also have a “large-scale” focus where each component must reinforce that focus of the day. I use two tests – I call them “will this really matter” tests. Meaning, when I’m laying on my deathbed, is what I’m thinking of or doing going to come up = even in a general sense? Or, sometimes it’s as simple as a blank piece of paper in a neutral location (a café or somewhere I can sit and drink iced tea and not be bothered): I take the paper, write down the question at the top of the page, drawn a solid line right down the middle of the page, and on the left sided column write “Pro” and the right side I write “Con.” I then force myself (even if it isn’t what I want to hear but what I know for sure), to write down as many items on each column as possible. It works. An oldie but goodie. Had to “fire” a few friends that way. Or quit a job. Or look for a better focus in life. 🙂 But the cold, hard facts usually give me the answer I need.

    • AirportsMadeSimple – We must have been separated at birth…I’m a “line down the middle of the page with pro on one side and con on the other” kinda gal! I’m bleeding-edge honest when I do this. And you’re right – I’ve extracted people, places, things, events, and opportunities from my life using this method 🙂

  23. Laurie, the happiness project sounds awesome. Is it based on the book? I think i’ll have to go find that book today – love those playful ‘find a picture within a picture’ things. 🙂

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