A pleasant walk through computing

These are notes I took in 2018, and they're my most popular posted article. I need to caution you that since then the course has likely changed, as well as some of the material. Science is always on the move, new data supersedes old. So, please don't use this as a substitute for either attending or taking your own notes. If they help your studies of well-being, I'm grateful. If you're using them merely to help pass the course . . . I think you're missing the point. --clf

The Yale Course, "Science of Well-Being," Key Learnings and Practices

The Yale Course can be taken for free through Coursera. I encourage you to take advantage of it!


You can read my full notes here:

Science of Well-Being Notes



It's useful to measure your happiness level before and after working on rewirements. The two measures used in the course are:

  • The PERMA Profiler
  • The Authentic Happiness Inventory

You can take both surveys via the Yale course. Or, you can find them on this page: Penn State Questionnaire Center | Authentic Happiness

You can also learn your relative character strengths at this site: VIA Character Strengths Survey. The survey is free, but be careful as they encourage paying for extras.

Misconceptions About Happiness

Things We Think Will Make Us Happy (But Don't)

  • Good job
  • Lots of money
  • Awesome stuff
  • True love
  • The perfect body
  • The perfect grades

Why We Have Misconceptions

Why don't these things make us happy? The two standard answers (especially from students) are:

  1. Happiness is just set genetically, so can't really be changed.
  2. Stuff happens and messes things up. (Life circumstances make changes in happiness temporary)

These two answers are wrong. According to the data, the genes/circumstances vs our influence breaks down this way:

  • 50% Genetic Setpoint
  • 10% Life Happens
  • 40% Thoughts and Actions

Why Our Expectations Are So Bad

Annoying Features of the Mind

  1. Our mind's strongest intuitions are often totally wrong
  2. Our minds don't think in terms of absolutes, our minds judge relative to reference points
    Reference Point A salient (but often irrelevant) standard against which all subsequent information is compared)
    Social Comparison The act of evaluating one's own salary/status/possessions/abilities/etc relative to those of other people
  3. Our minds are built to get used to stuff
    Hedonic Adaptation The process of becoming accustomed to a positive or negative stimulus such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time
  4. We don't realize that our minds are built to get used to stuff
    Impact Bias The tendency to overestimate the emotional impact of a future event both in terms of intensity and its duration
    Focalism The tendency to think just about one event and forget about the other things that happen
    Immune Neglect Unawareness of our "psychological immune system", our tendency to adapt to and cope with negative events

What Stuff Really Increases Happiness

Better Wanting Part 1

Wanting the Right Parts of What We Already Want

Things we said that don’t make us happy, can make us happy - with a different approach

  1. What factors should we want in a job? Signature Strengths and Increasing Flow.

    Character Strength A desire, a disposition to act, or a feeling that involves the exercise of judgment that leads to a recognizable human excellence or instance of human flourishing.

    Take this free survey to learn your character strengths. Be careful: you're ecouraged to spend money, but you don't have to. https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey

    Signature Strengths Those character strengths that are most essential to who we are
    "Use one of your top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week." Seligman et al. (2005)

    The sweet spot for using signature strengths is 4 of the top 7, which corresponds to a person thinking of a job as a "calling." The graph in the course also showed a big jump in positive work experience from 3 strengths to 4, then it somewhat levels off.

    Increasing Flow The mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment (aka "the zone")

    • Challenging but attainable goals
    • Strong focused concentration
    • The activity is intrinsically rewarding
    • Feelings of serenity
    • Loss of self-consciousness
    • Timelessness / lose track of time passing
    • Lack of awareness of physical needs
    • Complete focus on the activity itself

    How to achieve flow?

    • Looking at challenge and skill, having above 50% in both leads to flow.
  2. Good Grades, What to Really Focus On?

    • What goes wrong?
      Extrinsic Motivation Engaging ina behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishments
    • What goes right?
      Intrinsic Motivation Engaging in a behavior because you enjoy the activity itself
    • Extrinsic motivation can undermine instrinsic motivation. Grades are an extrinsic motivator that tends to remove the love of learning.
    • A focus on grades can reduce or prevent a growth mindset.

    Growth Mindset The belief that intelligence can be trained and that most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

    Fixed Mindset The belief that basic qualities like intelligence and talent are fixed traits

    • A growth mindset can be learned. Hard work is good. Effort leads to success.

Better Wanting Part 2

Wanting Better Stuff That We Don't Want Yet (be we should want)

  1. Kindness (we should be seeking opportunities to be kind). Just thinking about being kind increases happiness. Doing it is even better.

  2. Social Connection

    • Less vulnerable to premature death, more likely to survive fatal illnessess, less likely to fall prey to stressful events
    • More friends, strong family, more romance = very happy
    • Amount of time spent with people predicts happiness
    • The science supports that social connections with strangers increases happiness for both the instigator and the recipient--which is the opposite of what they predict.
    • Shared experience increases enjoyment.

Better Wanting Part 3

  1. Time Affluence Feeling like you have enough time to do the things you actually want to do.
  2. Mind Control
    • Mind-Wandering A shift in the contents of thought away from an ongoing task and/or from events in the external envronment to self-generated thoughts and feelings.
    • People mind-wander 46.9% of the time.
    • People mind-wander 30% of the time in almost all activities (except sex)
    • Mind-wandering has a negative impact on happiness
    • Default Mental Network A network of interacting brain regions known to activate "by default" when a person is not involved in a task. The DMN is really fast, comes on within a fraction of a second after a task. The DMN thinks outside the here and now (past, future, others). These regions light up when not thinking about the here and now.
    • Meditation A practice of turning your attention away from distracting thoughts toward a single point of reference (e.g. the breath, bodily sensations, compassion, a specific thought, etc.)
    • Meditation builds and strengthens brain matter. Gray matter increases.
    • Meditation increases social closeness
  3. Healthy Practices
    • Exercise
    • Quality sleep 7+ hours/day

Strategies to Reset Our Expections

Counteracting The Annoying Features of the Mind

Focus not on getting things we think make us happy, but on healthy practices

  1. Rethink "Awesome Stuff" (mitigate hedonic adaptation)
    • Don't invest in stuff in the first place. It doesn't continue to make us happy, and it sticks around.
    • Instead, invest in experiences.
  2. Thwart Hedonic Adaptation
    • Savoring The act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it
      • Help savoring Talk to another person about it, look for others to share it with, think about how lucky you are, think about sharing later with others, show physical expressions of energy, laugh or giggle, think about how proud you were, be absorbed in the present
      • Hurt savoring focus on the future when it will be over, remind yourself it will be over soon, tell yourself it wasn't as good as hoped, remind yourself nothing lasts forever, think about how it will never be this good again, think about ways it could be better, tell yourself you don't deserve it.
      • More controversial way: take photos. Beneficial way is to use camera as new way to see things, harmful way is to only focus on the picture, not the experience.
      • Habit of replaying happy memories. "Three days/week, for eight minutes, relive a happy experience as if rewinding a videotape and playing it back" Sustained positive emotions four weeks later!
    • Negative Visualation Thinking about the reverse that could have happened
      • Couples wrote for 15 minutes about how they might never have met their partner, controls wrote about how they met. The former had a higher boost in happiness.
    • Make This Day Your Last What if specific situations in your life were going to end soon in a real way.
      • Such as "think about graduating." Imagining it "soon" and all the good things you "had" increased happiness. Imagining it "far" decreased happiness.
      • Think about losing something that makes you happy, good things pop up.
    • Gratitude The quality of being thankful and a tendeny to show appreciation for what one has
      • Writing down five things is very powerful
      • Sharing is even more powerful. Seligman's "one letter of gratitude delivered in person" yielded six months of effect.
      • The act of expressing gratitude from a superior increases work.
  3. Reset Your Reference Points
    • Concretely Re-Experience Reexperience what your previous reference point was.
    • Concretely Observe Find a reference point that's not as good as yours. Really see what the other half is like.
    • Avoid Social Comparisons The worst kinds of reference points are other people.
      • Stop Technique: if you recognize these comparisons, just say "Stop".
      • Experience gratitudes.
      • Be conscious of the kinds of social comparisons coming in.
      • Get rid of social media
    • Interrupt Your Consumption Pause and come back to the positive experience, which resets the reference point
      • Correlary: for bad things, do it all at once to hedonically adapt as quickly as possible.
    • Increase Your Variety So, reset reference point and interrupt comparison. Don't eat the chocolate ice cream cone each day. Or, space out when you have the enjoyable thing.

Putting Strategies Into Practice

GI Joe Fallacy

The 80s cartoon "GI Joe" always ended with "and knowing is half the battle." This is false. Merely knowing something is not enough to put it into practice, and there are some things where knowing makes no difference. For example, knowing how some optical illusions work doesn't prevent them from working (you can't teach your eyes to function differently).

However, you can learn techniques habits to improve well-being.


"Rewirements" are exercises and habits that are shown to increase well-being.

  • Signature Strengths - using your top character strengths in new ways
  • Savoring - taking time to savor the things you enjoy
  • Gratitude - (List and/or Letter) - expressing gratitude for the people and things in your life
  • Kindness - increasing your acts of kindness
  • Social Connection - making connections with strangers and acquaintances along with scheduling time for the people in your life
  • Exercise - increasing your physical activity to at least 30 minutes a few times a week
  • Sleep - making sure you sleep at least 7 hours a night several times a week
  • Meditation - meditating for 5-10 minutes if you are a beginner or increasing your time in meditation if you already meditate regularly

Strategies for Better Habits

Part 1 - Situation Support

  • Proximity, convenience, and visibility matter.


  1. Fix bad environments (get rid of temptations)
  2. Promote healthy environments (increase desires)
    • Use triggers to cue healthier habits

Part 2 - Goal Setting

Need to think about goals in specific ways in order to achieve them.

  1. Goal Specificity The degree of quantitative precision with which a goal is specified. (Who what where when measurable)

  2. Goal Visualization

    • Think and feel--indulge--in detail about the goal ("positive thinking")
    • Think--dwell--in detail about the barriers to the goal

    Mental Contrasting A visualization technique involving first thinking of a positive future outcome followed by thinking of obstacles

  3. Goal Planning
    Implementation Intention A self-regulatory strategy in the form of an "if-then plan" that can lead to better goal attainment. So, "If I see the cookies, I'm going to grab the banana." Repeatedly imagining the plan improves the brain's automatic response.

Think about

  1. Your WISH (detailed goal with metrics)
  2. The best OUTCOME (all the positive stuff and feelings)
  3. Potential OBSTACLES
  4. Your If-Then PLAN

Do this every day, several times a day. Takes five minutes in a quiet (uninterrupted), calm environment.

Comment for me? Send an email. I might even update the post!