This time we caught up with Michael Plant, who is completing a PhD in Happiness at the University of Oxford and is also the founder of a happiness app- Hippo.
Sam: To you, what is happiness?
Michael: I think happiness is the same thing for everyone- a positive conscious state, the actual feeling of feeling good. And we should distinguish that from what sort of things make us happy, such as being loved. So think of happiness as the cake and the things that make us happy being the ingredients.
We hear a lot in the news about how we've got more than ever, are healthier than ever, more educated than ever, and yet we're arguably more unhappy than ever. Why aren't we as happy as we should be?
This is a good question and one I’m surprised that more people don’t take as a serious problem. From the research I’ve looked into it appears one of the key reasons is something referred to as "failures of affective forecasting". Essentially this means that we’re not very good at imagining how we’d feel in the future. So we assume that that if we became wealthier we’d be enjoying our lives much more, e.g. living on the yacht or driving the brand new car. But we fail to remember how quickly we’ll get used to those things – how long can you sit on a gold throne before it becomes cold and painful? We often strive for things that we’ll get used to and won’t affect our day-to-day experience of life.
What makes you your happiest?
I might sound a bit of square but I’m happiest when I’m working on problems that I find interesting! In my studies I’m currently trying to work out ways to increase world happiness and when thinking about that, there’s nothing I think could be more important or satisfying to do.
What's your reset button after a bad day/setback?
For me I’ve found that going for a long run and then doing some mindfulness is super effective. It’s a great way of getting me out of a bad mood and completely re-energises me.
Who is your happy hero and why?
I’m a big fan of Richard Layard, who is an economist at LSE and one of the founders of Action for Happiness. What I admire about him is that he’s in the depths of British politics, which still thinks ‘happiness’ is a dirty word and he’s done a great job of trying to raise well-being on the governmental policy agenda. He’s led what’s initially been a somewhat lonely crusade that is now really starting to pay off.
In the UK, the average onset age for depression is 14. What advice on happiness and well-being would you give your 14-year-old self?
At that age I think I sucked up a lot of expectations from family, friends and society. And eventually this weight of expectation of how successful I should be finally came crashing down after university, which resulted in me feeling like a failure and becoming depressed. Only when I thought this through I realised I’d been judging myself by standards I’d picked up and made my own, which was grossly unfair on myself and had a huge negative impact. So to my 14-year old self I’d encourage him be more self-critical of what people are telling him to do or what he should be doing with his life.
Do you think the digital age and social media has a negative impact on our happiness? If so, what can be done to tackle this?
I’ve been looking into this area a bit recently and what seems to be the story is that if you use social media passively, such as using it to compare yourself to others then yes, it can indeed have a negative impact on your happiness. But if you choose to use social media actively, in terms of it being a tool for connection and to share positive experiences in life with one another, then it can actually have a positive impact.
One thing I think people can do is to decide whether they really want to use it as much as they feel they need to. I think many people don’t actually like to use social media that much but fear that if they don’t then they will miss out and become isolated. What I encourage people in this boat to do is to actually try having a break from social media and then see how much you actually miss it and whether avoiding it makes you feel better.
Is there something you do repeatedly that can get in the way of your own happiness?
I, like a lot of other people, probably have a tendency to engage in negative self-talk. There are times I find myself talking about me in a way I would never dream of talking to someone else. For example if something goes wrong, my initial reaction is sometimes to blame myself for being stupid and I know I would never ever call someone that for making the same mistake or error. Luckily I’m in the process of catching myself do this and know that a lot of the negative things our brains tell us about ourselves are things we don’t have to listen to or take seriously.
What's the best happy hack you know of and use?
One thing I do everyday that is probably the most common happy hack is gratitude journaling. It’s a very easy and reliable way to increase your mood.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn't- or vice versa?
This is going back a while but when I was 17/18 I won a really big sports competition for my school. It was a huge deal and everyone else in the school got really excited by the achievement and I didn’t. And the reason for this is because I had always expected my team to win. So when we won it wasn’t a great moment it was just a relief that we hadn’t lost. It only took me another 8 years or so after studying happiness that I actually gave up competitive sport to pursue other things that actually do make me happy.
If you could implement one change to the education system to boost student happiness what would it be?
I think well-being should become a key performance indicator for schools, one that’s part of Ofsted reporting. Having particular happiness goals and targets for schools to strive towards could be hugely beneficial to the life satisfaction and success of their students.