The Science of Happiness – a student’s perspective

A portrait photograph of Ellie
Ellie Wright, current student

Ellie Wright is a current University of Bristol student, taking an MSc conversion course in Experimental Psychology. She partook in the Science of Happiness pilot in 2018 and has found it informative and transformative.

Originally interested from the perspective of supporting her patients as a Health Care Assistant and future psychologist, Ellie was surprised that as she learned through practice in the happiness hubs, she also enjoyed some of the benefits these behaviours had on her own thinking.

‘My motivation for taking the Science of Happiness course was to learn the evidence base behind what does and does not make us happy. I enjoyed looking at how positive early interventions in clinical and nonclinical populations can promote happiness and perhaps even prevent the onset of mental health conditions. An equally important part of this was understanding what we don’t yet know. The content has informed a critical approach I can take forward and that will hopefully benefit what I can offer to future research and clinical practice.

The course covers Philosophy, Economics, Politics, Neuroscience, Psychology – it’s varied and fun. The course uses data from studies to challenge our thinking around what makes us happy. In the lectures, Professor Hood really enjoys myth busting. For example, he explained the evidence behind why we may perceive that we’re happier sitting on our own plugged into our earphones on the daily commute, but how data suggests we are happier connecting with someone else. We learned about critical thinking, such as how to ascertain if a study needs to be repeated to be more robust. I gained insight into gathering and assessing data, looking at the size of the study, the methods used and who funded it. This is exciting! It nudges us to discover research problems and think about what more we might find out in the future with different study designs. It’s been easy to apply the skills learned to other courses. They’re skills for life and they’re transferrable.

This course has reminded me how to make time for fun in my life and how to have fun learning.

We looked at why the Happiness Hacks are important. Take sleep, for example. There’s a study in Nature magazine1 that shows how people deprived of enough sleep for just a week change their body language because their tiredness makes them hypersensitive. In turn this body language makes other people less likely to trust them, a perception whose impact can facilitate social isolation and loneliness for people with poor sleep. But this finding needs to be repeated!

The Happiness Hacks are about noticing automatic behaviours and disrupting these by building healthy habits. Accountability and peer support are what make those good habits stick, which is what happens in the weekly support hubs and are a key part of the Science of Happiness course.

This course promotes a love of learning – or what Professor Hood might describe as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’. Not worrying about conventional exams, I feel, has a big role to play in this.’

Read more about the Science of Happiness. 

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1. Simon, E. & Walker, M. (2018). Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. Nature.

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