The Google Engineer Teaching Happiness in Three Steps
BY D. Allan;; 11/10/14

Deep inside the global tech behemoth Google sits an engineer with the unusual job description: to make people happier and also the world more peaceful.

A number of years ago, Chade-Meng Tan, one of several company’s first engineering employees in Mountain View, noticed lots of his colleagues were really stressed out and unhappy at the job, so he made a decision to do something about it. He persuaded his bosses to let him build a course that will teach employees mindfulness skills to boost emotional intelligence and promote wellbeing, and he transitioned to the HR department to run it. In a nod to his employer, he referred to it as Search Inside Yourself, an admittedly corny name that's also the title of his book concerning the course’s techniques.

At this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, I was curious as to Meng’s panel, called “Make Yourself the Happiest Person on Earth”. Not surprisingly, given the talk’s promise, every seat and spot of floor area in the hotel ballroom was filled. Meng promised he would definitely teach us the “scientifically proven” secret of happiness in three basic steps.

I was fascinated, but naturally sceptical. So in the weeks afterwards, I thought we would try Meng’s three-step advice for myself to see if it forced me to be happier. I also took a closer go through the science he claims support his techniques. Could there be anything into it? Let’s examine each of the measures in turn.

Step one: “Calm your mind”

To introduce his first words of advice, Meng led the SXSW audience by having a short collective breathing exercise to calm the fluffy particles inside “snow-globes” (his metaphor) inside our skulls. He advocates finding easy approaches to take pauses in the day and become mindful of your breath. “If that’s too difficult, then consider about nothing for little bit,” he joked.

His book adopts more detail, emphasizing what meditation is and ways to begin practicing it, citing research by Jon Kabat-Zinn on the University of Massachusetts Medical School that mindfulness-training reduces reported anxiety.

Meng is not the only one to advise that meditation and mindfulness will work for our mental health. For example, the monk Matthieu Ricard, who the press has dubbed “the world’s happiest man” has written a book on the topic himself.

But does it work? There is some evidence that mindfulness can help stave off negative thoughts. A recent overview of 209 studies discovered that the practice might help treat depression, panic and anxiety. (Some researchers even claim that the stress- reduction promised by meditation can help you slow the results of aging.)

It’s worth pointing out that working with depression and anxiety is just not necessarily the ditto as boosting happiness. Still, Meng’s first little bit of happiness advice appears to get growing scientific credence.

Step two: “Log moments of joy”

This means simply saying to yourself – because you sip a fantastic espresso, laugh your friend’s joke or buy that shirt you’ve wanted – “I am using a moment of joy!” When negative things happen to us during the day we tend to hold on to them, while the positive things are more fleeting and ephemeral. So, by consciously acknowledging the good things, says Meng, we increase our chances that whenever we reflect on our day, we conclude it absolutely was happy one.

The hypothesis that noting positive experiences counterbalances, or outweighs, negatives makes intuitive sense. We can all relate to the power of one particular, even short-lived incident tainting an entire day, but rarely does the reverse seem true. As Jonny Mercer sang, you must “accentuate the positive, take away the negative”.

Recent research has tried to explore this effect, including one by positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, which concluded we want a 3:1 positive- to-negative ratio of thoughts to free our minds in the tar-paper effect of negative thinking. However, this specific study has proven controversial, with some researchers questioning the mathematical claims made in the paper.

One 2006 study, however, found that people who wrote down their positive experiences in a diary reported greater feelings of life satisfaction, plus the effect lasted for approximately two weeks afterwards.

Step three: “Wish others to be happy”

According to Meng, altruistic thoughts benefit us because we derive a lot of joy from giving, more than from receiving.

Meng makes eloquent arguments for the (I think) self-evident need to infuse your life with more compassion, but only cites one study – on people performing acts for others – to back his are convinced that “kindness is a sustainable source of happiness”.

In his book Happiness: A Very Short Introduction, the philosopher Daniel Haybron supports Meng’s case by citing other researchers, particularly psychologist Michael Argyle who has suggested “only dancing generated higher ‘levels of joy’ than volunteer and charity work.” Fredrickson, too, has studied some great benefits of a form of meditation that involved thinking positive thoughts about others. She asked people to try the technique for a few minutes each day for several weeks, and many reported feeling more joyful and hopeful.

But we’re still definately not Meng’s logic leap that merely thinking well for others is enough. We’d be kidding ourselves when we think that wanting someone else to become happy is the same as actually doing something to create them happy, like giving them a great gift or, apparently, taking them dancing.

Science versus experience

In fact, greater I looked into Meng’s claims the less convinced I was that his claims are heavily sustained by existing research. Many in the findings during these studies are tentative, and need to be replicated. According to Haybron, you'll find actually other happiness factors backed by better quality studies – such as autonomy, meaningful and skilled work, relationships/love, money (however, not too much) and security (and not too much because you’ll be bored) and non-attachment to things we could lose.

And yet, in the same time the harder I practiced the three-step method, the greater it seemed to be working. I started meditating at the job. I programmed my cellular phone to send me hourly reminders to need happiness on others. And I remembered to see myself “I’m having a moment of joy!” when I was enjoying my daughters, running within the park, drinking a delicious beer as well as writing this column.

I necessary to reconcile this gap between my increased happiness as well as the apparent lack of full evidence to aid it. Is Meng on to something real or was he only a “merchant of cheap sunshine”, as Haybron describes some happiness experts.

I asked psychologist Tom Stafford, who writes the Neurohacks column for BBC Future in regards to the gap. “Squaring what works to suit your needs and just what the science says is tough because happiness is a complex object,” he said. “There is going to be local variations due to individual personality, so we've immediately got an excuse for expecting a gap between the science – which is likely to work with group averages – and then for any one person's experience.

“The interesting general question, in my opinion, is when do we trust our experience and when will we listen to science,” Stafford added. “Obviously the main things we don't need science for (‘Does dropping a rock in my foot hurt?’), and some things we do (‘Is smoking detrimental to my health?’). Happiness, I'd argue, is in between both of these cases.”

My investigation between experience and science regarding Meng’s three steps put me closer to the dropping-a-rock-on-my-foot camp – giving more stock within my experience as opposed to studies. As Stafford notes, it might just be that meditation, logging joy and wishing others’ well works well with me because of my own personality.

It’s possible that future studies will shed more light on these problems. The field of "positive psychology" is only a couple of decades old. “Part in the reason you can't find evidence,” Stafford noted, “is that folks haven't been looking so long as they have at, say, why people get depressed.”

There keeps growing and legitimate research on happiness, and Hayborn sees the niche as valid since the much larger and older body of training looking at its inverse: unhappiness. “Measuring happiness is not any more mysterious or fraught then measuring depression or anxiety,” he concludes. “And should be no more controversial.”

To many, Meng’s three steps might seem obvious or simplistic. Yet he compared his advice to showing us how to do just one push up or arm curl on the gym. You know it does you good, but you must do the exercise every single day to get results. I may be more experientially convinced than scientifically sated, but it’s enough to help keep me going to Google’s happiness gym and doing those push-ups.




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