The science of happiness

25 February 2021

In this compelling and well-researched BBC Sounds podcast series, Professor Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol and BBC’s Emma Britton put forward a strong case that happiness is, to a large extent, something you can learn rather than a by-product of fate.

There is no shortage of advice on how to be happy – from popular wisdom online to self-help books and inspirational TED talks. So you might be wondering what another voice could add to this overflowing sea of resources.

Drawing upon the latest research in psychology and cognitive science, The Happiness Half Hour strikes a skilful balance between presenting key findings and digging out reliable practical applications from the often muddy waters of social science. These are complemented by anecdotes from ‘happiness hackers’ Jason Clarkson and Lillie-Mae Stubbs, who over the ten weeks try out the various science-derived nuggets of wisdom in their own lives.

Now, we know that it’s not always straightforward, nor advisable to readily bring findings from controlled scientific environments ‘into the wild’. If you grab any psychology paper, you’re likely to come across the phrase, ‘more research is needed…’. So if you’re rummaging through papers for advice, you’ll probably struggle to find anything that could be easily applied to your daily life.  

But rest assured, the research presented in The Happiness Half Hour is distilled with the scientific rigour of a university course, not least because it is actually based on one. Being the first university course entirely devoted to the topic, the Science of Happiness has achieved great success, with students reporting decreased loneliness and improved wellbeing. Emma Britton helps to share all its perks with her journalistic zeal, and her warm interviewing style easily allows you to tirelessly delve into serious topics. 

The show starts by dispelling myths about happiness. ‘Happiness’ doesn’t refer to a purely hedonistic pursuit. The often expected feeling of elation comes to fade, even in response to life events that originally put us on cloud nine (check out the concept of ‘hedonic adaptation’ in episode three, one of my favourites!). As we keep listening, we realise that happiness is a function of a whole range of thoughts, emotions and actions. Even intentional negative thinking can make us happy. In episode ten, we are encouraged to think about the obstacles that may derail us from achieving our goals, to imagine the worst and come up with contingency plans. That’s not to say that interpreting uncontrollable life events in a positive light doesn’t do us wonders – unsurprisingly, positive psychology also has a say.

I enjoyed learning about how poor we are at predicting how much suffering or enjoyment we may get from an activity; why people are more interested in connecting with us than we’d expect; and why more of us than we’d think (as well as dogs!) come to believe that they have no choice in life but to suffer.

The Happiness Half Hour saves us from drowning in a deep sea of happiness resources. It gives an accessible and authentic look into the current research on ‘happiness’ – a comprehensive mix of easy-to-digest science and applications delivered clearly and succinctly. It’s a podcast to save and revisit, especially during those moments when we need to be reminded of the various ways in which our minds fool us, and how to resist the temptation to indulge in its flaws.

- Reviewed by Alina Ivan, Researcher, King’s College London

- The Happiness Half Hour is available on BBC Sounds