#MindfulFinals: How The Science of Happiness Changed My Life

Whenever I walk into an exam, I practice my breathing. It’s a little bit of an unnatural exercise. But, even six months after I first learned about it, I still use the technique to help myself calm down.

Try it: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 and exhale for 8, no more than 4 times.

If you are looking for specifics, the deep breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, as opposed to short breaths, which stimulate my fight or flight response.

But, to be honest, I’m not always thinking about neurotransmitters when I’m stressed out. As a slightly-skeptical biochemist, however, I was definitely thinking about them when we were first taught the technique in my Science of Happiness Class last semester.

As a second semester junior in the thick of my biochemistry degree, I registered for the course a year ago thinking it would be fun, something I wouldn’t have to think too hard about while I was calculating dilutions and learning the TCA Cycle. Although I was right about the fun part, the course ended up being one of, if not the most impactful course I’ve taken, both on my future career and myself as an individual.

One of the best aspects of the class is its emphasis on action. Not only do we have experts from their respective fields coming in to talk to us every week, we are immediately given ways to act on this science and incorporate it into our daily lives. It was never presented as, oh, if you’re sad, you should just think happy thoughts and it will be better! Instead, we discussed the negativity bias and its impact on our thought patterns, and were given scientifically backed strategies to help break out of it. That is the kind of learning, in my opinion, that makes the most impact in one’s life.

The course is also designed to help address the problem of lack of engagement, something I’ve personally experienced in more traditional classroom set ups. In the Science of Happiness, we were never racing to cover material for a test. Instead, we were given assignment that helped us integrate theory into our lives, and were allowed time and discuss it with our peers.

We also had a final project that allowed us to take our insights into the community. My group was particularly interested in the impact of acts of kindness on happiness, so we designed a way to see if the positive effects of in-person acts could be simulated by doing acts of gratitude online. The process of formulating our own question kept us interested, and this interest was reflected in the community, when we asked people to participate. In the end, we had people from New York to Tennessee taking part in our online acts of kindness.

My experience with SOH was a positive one, and fortunately, COBE made it possible for me to continue pursuing my interests. I attended the Spit for Science Bootcamp over the summer, where I was taught to manipulate the Spit for Science dataset the same way many of our presenters did. Armed with the confidence and tools COBE has given me, I am now in the process of conducting my own research project, once again based on my own interests, this time in depression among minority groups.

The most important thing I’ve gotten out of my experience with the Science of Happiness and COBE is that research isn’t something removed from real life, but rather, it’s constantly inspired from it. My group were interested in acts of kindness, were often on our phones, and found a way to connect the two. My research project now is based on conversations I’ve had with my friends and patterns I’ve seen in my life. I can say with confidence that my experiences have made me more curious and more active in shaping the world around me, both as a student and as a person.

So, if you’re on the fence about registering for the Science of Happiness or trying your hand at undergraduate research, I say take a deep 4-7-8 breath and take the plunge!